NRL Round 1 predicted teams: North Queensland Cowboys – Pressure on Payten to prove 2022 success wasn’t a fluke
As part of a series profiling the expected Round 1 sides for all 17 NRL clubs in 2024, the pressure is on Todd Payten and the Cowboys to prove they are legitimate title contenders.
The Cowboys face a make or break season to prove their 2022 preliminary final run was no fluke.
Their roster has largely stayed the same so is it capable of another top-four finish or was last year’s 11th-placed 12-12 record a true representation of the club’s playing stocks.
Halfback Chad Townsend is in the final instalment of his three-year deal which exceeded expectations first up but reverted to the mean last season.
His playmaking partner Tom Dearden has been rewarded with a long-term extension after the ex-Bronco kick-started his career in the tropics. He needs to start becoming more dominant for the Cowboys to justify his lucrative contract and ensure the team rises back up the ladder.
North Queensland’s line-up is fairly settled heading into Round 1 but Payten won’t be afraid to drop a high-profile player or two if he believes a younger option is a better way to go.
Jake Clifford has returned to his original club after stints at Newcastle and the Super League, potentially with a view to the former junior representative star taking over from Townsend as the chief on-field organiser.
Warriors outside back Viliami Vailea has also arrived in the off-season to compete for a centre berth.
Their recruitment options are tight due to big names like Jason Taumalolo, Valentine Holmes, Reuben Cotter, Luciano Leilua, Scott Drinkwater, Dearden, Townsend and Jeremiah Nanai soaking up plenty of the salary cap.
Peta Hiku is the only regular member of last year’s line-up who has departed, heading to the Super League to play out his career with Hull KR.
Veteran prop James Tamou retired after an injury-plagued swansong, young forward Riley Price has switched to the Panthers while Mitch Dunn, Ben Hampton, Brendan Elliot and Gehamat Shinasaki have moved on.
Key spots to unlock
It’s looks a pretty straightforward line-up for North Queensland with Hiku’s centre berth the main spot yet to be locked in.
Semi Valemei is the likely frontrunner with Vailea also in the mix along with Zac Laybutt and Tom Chester but he may not be right for the start of the season after tearing his ACL last May.
Young forward Kulikefu Finefeuiaki is set to get more game time with prospective suitors like St George Illawarra trying to pry him away.
Heilum Luki should get the nod ahead of Leilua for a starting second row spot while Cotter seems to now be cemented into the No.13 jersey with Taumalolo at prop.
Round 1 predicted team
1 Scott Drinkwater
2 Murray Taulagi
3 Semi Valemei
4 Valentine Holmes
5 Kyle Feldt
6 Tom Dearden
7 Chad Townsend
8 Jordan McLean
9 Reece Robson
10 Jason Taumalolo
11 Jeremiah Nanai
12 Heilum Luki
13 Reuben Cotter
14 Griffin Neame
15 Coen Hess
16 Luciano Leilua
17 Kulikefu Finefeuiaki
Other squad members: Jake Clifford, Jack Gosiewski, Jake Granville, Viliami Vailea, Tom Chester, Thomas Duffy, Sam McIntyre, Robert Derby, Jamayne Taunoa-Brown, D’Jazirhae Pua’avase, Zac Laybutt.