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A season to remember for the Cowboys

Much of the Queensland rugby league limelight in recent seasons has landed on the Broncos, and what is wrong with them. That conversation will continue in earnest after the great cliff tumble of 2022. Perhaps it's fitting though - especially in light of the Broncos failing to make the finals and the Titans' season never really beginning - to instead be talking about the Cowboys.

The same Cowboys who earned a tough-to-shake classification of 'little brother' in their early existence, but have won and contested grand finals more recently than the Broncos, and outperformed them for the majority of the past eight years. This season they once again branded themselves as genuine premiership heavyweights. To steal descriptors often reserved for an in-form Broncos team; the Cowboys galloped into another grand final qualifier; arresting a four-year finals drought in stampeding fashion.

How prominently did the North Queensland Cowboys feature in your preseason forecasts? Go on, be honest. It's safe to assume Todd Payten's squad weren't in a lot of hypothetical Top 4s before 2022 kicked off, having finished a lowly 15th - behind the Broncos - in 2021. Before this year the Cowboys' last postseason appearance was an eighth-placed preliminary final run in 2017. Since then they've played out an annual cellar battle with the Broncos and Titans; three Queensland teams with no realistic prospects of fighting out for anything else.

Time for a quick run through of the Cowboys home and away efforts in the 2022 season, otherwise described as an essay in rising belief:

North Queensland were possibly scratched off a few optimistic 2022 semifinal tip sheets after a 6-4 loss to the Bulldogs in round one. Payten's roster, littered with unknowns, rookies, washed up journeymen and the odd misfiring superstar, earned their first bits of optimism with big subsequent wins over the Raiders and Broncos, before signs of life extinguished in a 28-4 round four hammering from the Roosters. A follow-up loss to the Warriors didn't help matters.

A narrow win over the Raiders followed, which may be looked back on as the classic sporting cliche, known as the 'line in the sand.' It was a gritty round six affair in the nation's capital, and the Cowboys got the chocolates on the back of a coming-of-age display from Jeremiah Nannai and the reliability of Valentine Holmes' goal kicking.

Big wins over the Titans, Eels, Knights, Tigers and Storm ensued. By this point, Chad Townsend was entering discussions around 'most influential recruit of 2022,' and Tom Dearden was delivering on the promise everyone had heard about when he made his NRL debut for the Broncos in round eight of 2019. This five match winning streak had started to positively impact previously dire premiership perceptions, before a 22-nil round 12 defeat in Penrith saw many pundits go back to nodding in 'I told you so' fashion. Further south the Broncos were on a hot streak of their own. Everyone wanted to talk about Reyno, Capes, Carrigan, Cobbo, and of course the 'Kev-olution.' And so the Cowboys returned to going about their business.

Thumpings of the Titans and Dragons, and a narrow escape at Brookvale followed the Penrith defeat. The Broncos traveled north for a round 16 clash on July 2, a Saturday night blockbuster that had everyone licking their footy loving lips. Murray Taulagi scored a double, four other Cowboys crossed, Holmes booted eight goals. 40-26 Cowboys, thanks for coming. A 10-8 halftime margin was blown open in the second half, and still the headlines seemed to focus on the Broncos letting it slip, rather than the Cowboys again proving dominant.

Thankfully, Billy Slater and Maroons Origin selectors hadn't missed the Cowboys springboard up the NRL ladder. Ranks were accordingly purged in pursuit of the interstate shield, and the Cowboys involved duly delivered; none more so than debutant Dearden in the epic decider on July 13. Todd Payten did well to escape the Origin period with a loss to the Sharks and a one-point escape against the Tigers. And so the Cowboys charged on; midseason momentum mostly intact.

Losses to the Roosters and Sharks proved significant blips in the final third of the regular season. They were surrounded by big wins over the Warriors and a second string Penrith side, but the overall question of Cowboy finals prospects remained highly uncertain.

'In Val we trust.'

Enter the finals, and a qualifying matchup with the Sharks. The big moment skills of the one time New York Jet hopeful have been showcased on a regular basis after Payten's decision to throw him permanently into the centres. Valentine Holmes is closer to the ball, and his 84 tackle breaks, club topping linebreak assist tally and 146 average running metres can be taken as a given. His true value comes in the clutch; always has, regardless of where he plays. His defining moment came against his old club on his old home ground, when Holmes slotted a Hollywood worthy field goal from 45 out in the 83rd minute. 'Cometh the moment, etc.' This clutch effort sent the Sharks season into a tailspin and snapped a four-year preliminary final drought for the Cowboys.

But he didn't do it alone.

Say what you like about rugby league being a team game. No arguments there whatsoever, but it's worth saying any good team is made a lot better when a collection of individuals within it are firing. That's been the case for the Cowboys this year. A crop of youngsters soaring through the season, ably led by some seasoned hands. Where the Broncos hit a wall and simply stopped, their northern rivals bashed through it and asked for more. A huge credit to Todd Payten and his staff for bringing them together, and conditioning them for a genuine tilt. All the more impressive when considering the impact of former long term mentor Paul Green's death; although many of the squad didn't play first grade under Green, his legacy and the tragic circumstances of his passing loomed large. Seventeen wins for a third placed finish indicates it was handled well. It's difficult to pry apart the key cogs of contribution, but let's have a crack anyway.

Jeremiah Nannai: 22 games, 17 tries, 16 offloads. To clarify, we're talking about a backrower. All energy, instinct and heart; there's a bit of Steve Menzies and a bit of Gordon Tallis about this kid. He was signed as a 15 year old, is now an Origin player, and needs to be signed well beyond his current 2023 extension. An outstanding season, and deserving of his world cup berth with the Kangaroos.

Tom Dearden: Not even the horror and brutal pain of a nauseating rupture in the nether regions could halt this 21-year-old candidate for outhouse to penthouse story of the year. The Broncos didn't offer him a deal in 2021, despite previously comparing him to Darren Lockyer. Oops. A fantastic year from the young half. 22 appearances, 15 try assists, 9 tries, and all the composure of a veteran Lockyer when thrust into an Origin decider as a debutant.

Tom Gilbert: This bloke is mostly grit and just the right amount of sparkle. These qualities were evident when he lit up the Queensland Cup as an 18-year-old rookie of the year in 2019, and when he graduated to the NRL in 2020. A broken leg cut his 2021 in half, but Gilbert made up for it this year. His 109 metres per game gave the Brisbane Norths junior almost 2500 running metres, almost a kilometre of them post contact. Throw in 24 tackle breaks and 709 tackles at more than 93% effectiveness; and you've got a bankable hardman with a taste for victory in the middle. Sprinkle that with a solid debut in an Origin series decider, and you might start to wonder - is it more than a coincidence Gilbert is the same height and just a few kilos shy of premiership winning Cowboy and Maroons stalwart Matt Scott?

Scott Drinkwater: The Cowboys finishing the regular season with 1698 average running metres per game and a +242 point differential was testament to this guy. Drinkwater's opportunistic approach to the ruck and ever present awareness on the edges reaped 81 tackle breaks, 16 try assists and 11 tries in 2022. An excellent third prong to the Dearden/Townsend trident.

Reuben Cotter: If they brewed up a rugby league player in a lab, Cotter would be the result. His resilience is the stuff of premiership dreams, as is his 120+ metres per game, and more than 97% tackle effectiveness. The freshly minted 'pride of Mackay' tabled an Origin debut and 17 appearances for the Cowboys; washing away the omens of his early career ACL nightmares (three missed seasons worth). Noone wanted to miss the qualifying epic against the Sharks; especially this guy, who played all 83 minutes. Signed to the end of 2025 - he's the beating heart of the Cowboys future

Murray Taulagi: The 23 year old didn't necessarily set the Origin arena alight in his game two debut, nor did he disgrace himself. By comparison, the NRL was a candy store for the Auckland-born edge-dwelling assassin. Seventy-five tackle breaks, 140 metres a game, 16 tries across 24 appearances. Even the most ardent Cowboys fan would agree Murray needs some polish defensively, but given his deeds with ball in hand, more than made up for any defensive failings.

Chad Townsend: The former Shark and one time career crossroader takes the gold medal here. He didn't start getting the headlines befitting his form until close to halfway through the season, and even then his impact was not as readily celebrated as Adam Reynolds at the Broncos. Taking nothing away from the mostly magnificent season of Reynolds, but Townsend was, and remains, a shining light for the Cowboys. Twenty-five games (including two successful duals against Reynolds), 400 kicking metres in each one of them. Sixteen forced dropouts, 20 try assists, 14 linebreak assists. Stop the fight. The 31-year-old veteran will be thanking the stars in the North Queensland sky each night that he made the move from his beloved Sharks.

The Cowboys' golden 2022 came to an unfortunate end at the hands of the Parramatta Eels, who benefited from a pass which the NRL later admitted was forward. The Broncos, having extended a historic finals drought in catastrophic fashion, and the Titans sitting well outside the conversation, could do little but sit back and admire the Cowboys' season. Things will get a bit more crowded in Queensland next season, and the limelight debate will start afresh. For now though, the pride of the North are rightfully basking.