Cowboys prepare for life without Tamou

It seems as long as Johnathan Thurston remains at North Queensland, the NRL premiership window will always be open for the Cowboys.


But the 2015 premiers may struggle to launch another title tilt this season with the departure of the other JT – Test prop James Tamou.

Ahead of his 16th NRL season, Cowboys talisman Thurston is starting to wind down his glittering career.

The three-time Golden Boot winner has confirmed he won’t play representative football in 2018, opting to dedicate what looms as his final year to his beloved NRL club.

Not that the four-time Dally M Medallist is showing any signs of slowing down.

At 33, Thurston still topped the 2016 regular season in try assists (25), trailed only Cooper Cronk in kicks in play (277) and finished third overall in competition points (201).

In fact on paper North Queensland look pretty good across the board.

They boast all but three of their 2015 grand final 17 featuring nine Test and Origin players, including arguably the game’s best forward – Matt Scott.

However, Tamou’s Penrith defection has changed everything.

Cowboys coach Paul Green admits there is a question mark over the make-up of his entire starting pack after Tamou’s departure.

Ex-Test prop Ben Hannant’s retirement has provided further food for thought.

Veteran Scott Bolton may be given the unenviable task of filling Tamou’s boots alongside Scott in the front row.

And 20-year-old Coen Hess – already earmarked for Queensland after just three starts – is expected to pressure the likes of Ethan Lowe for a starting second row berth.

Forward depth will no doubt be tested following Tamou’s departure.

Especially during the tough Origin period.

But any pack featuring reigning Dally M Medallist Jason Taumalolo will be feared.

It doesn’t make the task of settling on a pack any easier for Green.

“I am not set on the starting pack at this stage,” Green said.

“It just depends on what balance I want and how we want to play.

“We want to see young guys putting their hands up saying ‘I want to be an NRL player’.”

Newcastle-bound Kalyn Ponga appears to have already done just that in the Cowboys backline.

But it remains to be seen whether it will be enough for the NRL prodigy to crack the Cowboys’ best 17 this year before he joins the Knights on a rich deal.

Plenty of questions plagued Green after the Cowboys’ title defence was abruptly ended by eventual champions Cronulla in a 2016 preliminary final 32-20 thumping.

No doubt top of the pile was: “Why did North Queensland save their worst performance for last?”

But just as nagging was another: “What to do with Ponga?”

The big stepping 18-year-old turned heads late in 2016, playing the Cowboys’ last two finals games – the first two matches of Ponga’s NRL career.

He showed remarkable poise despite his age as an injury replacement on the wing in both sudden death finals.

But his preference is fullback – a position he will play at Newcastle from 2018 after signing a shock four-year lucrative Knights deal in the pre-season.


Premierships: 1 – 2015

Finishes over the past three seasons: 2016 – 4th; 2015 – premiers; 2014 – 5th

Coach: Paul Green

Co-captains: Johnathan Thurston, Matt Scott

Gains: Ben Hampton (Melbourne)

Losses: Brandon Smith (Melbourne), James Tamou (Penrith), Jahrome Hughes (Melbourne), Rory Kostjasyn (Newcastle), Tautau Moga (Brisbane), Ben Hannant (retirement)

Strengths: Four-time Dally M Medallist Johnathan Thurston.

Weaknesses: James Tamou’s Penrith defection will test the pack’s depth especially during State of Origin, placing onus on likes of Sam Hoare, Patrick Kaufusi, Coen Hess and Ben Spina to step up.

Best team: Lachlan Coote, Kyle Feldt, Justin O’Neill, Kane Linnett, Antonio Winterstein, Michael Morgan, Johnathan Thurston, Matt Scott, Jake Granville, Scott Bolton, Gavin Cooper, Ethan Lowe, Jason Taumalolo. Interchange: Ben Hampton, Coen Hess, Sam Hoare, John Asiata.

Predicted finish: 4th

Betting: $8