‘It’s still a one-man band’: Henry’s assessment of Cowboys
AT the end of a miserable season, there's only one question ringing in the ears of Cowboys fans.
Everything was set-up for a big season. A stinging grand final loss, the return of their biggest star and his impending retirement, astute recruiting and another year of experience to tie it all up in a bow.
It seemed a no-brainer. With Johnathan Thurston back on deck next to Michael Morgan, the Cowboys would be practically unstoppable in 2018.
You've heard it all before.
But what if 2017 wasn't a great season for the Cowboys? What if we all got carried away by Morgan's rapid rise in form and that sensational run from eighth place to the decider?
What if the Cowboys were mentally and physically exhausted before they even laced up a boot this year?
Ask former coach Neil Henry to explain it and he doesn't mince his words. They were tired.
"You've got to put it in the context of everything that happened last year. They had a bit of an up and down year but they fell into the finals because the Dragons got beaten in that last round otherwise they wouldn't have made the top eight.
"They only won just over half of their games so they fell in there and then when went on a great run without JT and rode it all the way to the grand final.
"People look at them and think  was a successful year but the underlying bit of that is yes they got momentum at the back end of the year but they had struggled throughout the season.
"They came in with all the expectation that they had recruited a couple of players and were going to take the next step and be one of, if not the team to beat. That relies on a lot of things happening."
Those things don't include missing Matt Scott for chunks of the year, and their biggest name recruit and front row partner Jordan McLean for the whole season.
Coen Hess had a breakout season in 2017 but more was asked of him this year, and Jason Taumalolo was still dominant, but less effective than he has been in years past. Teams had figured out how to stop him making 10 metres with every run.
Morgan was then struck down with a torn biceps injury, out for the season.
"Losing Michael Morgan, there has been no real foil for JT," Henry says.
"Lachlan Coote was very good at the back but he's been in and out of form and off-contract with all sorts of things happening.
"Losing Jordan McLean, who was their big front row signing hurt them too, they lacked depth in the front row. Without that go-forward JT has struggled a bit."
The bulk of criticism has been laid at the feet of Thurston in his final season in the NRL. But without a pack to roam behind, his hands are tied.
Still, somehow he's managed to dazzle us with a bit of magic. He led the competition with try assists (22) and line-break assists (24), showing he's still the best attacking weapon in the NRL.
"It's still been a one-man band, his stats are still fantastic," Henry says.
"I think he's been maligned unfairly this year, he's been a shining light for that team."
First time the Cowboys have missed the finals since 2010. Their 8 wins was their fewest in a season since 2010 as well.
They won just four of their first 18 before recovering to win four of their final six matches and avoid the spoon.
Jason Taumalolo ran for the second most metres of any player and the most of any forward in 2018 (4073).
Johnathan Thurston, Kyle Feldt and Jake Granville played every match for the Cowboys this season, it is the first time Thurston has played every regular season match in a season since joining the Cowboys.
Gavin Cooper became the first forward in the history of the competition to score nine tries in nine consecutive games in Round 25.
PLAYER OF THE YEAR
The season got off to a rocky start for the retiring legend, but the numbers prove he hasn't been far from his best in 2018. He led the competition for try assists and line-break assists and played his heart out until the final whistle.
MOMENT THAT MATTERED
Round 22, Cowboys 34 d Broncos 30
Rugby league at its finest. In another classic matchup between these two incredible rivals, the Cowboys reminded us of their serious credentials with their last gasp win over the Broncos in Townsville. The inch-perfect kick from Thurston for Coen Hess to score in the final two minutes is among the best of the season.
WHAT WENT RIGHT
When it mattered, the club stood up. Thurston was able to get the farewell from Townsville he deserves with an emphatic 44-6 win over the Eels in Round 24. It wasn't the premiership they had hoped for, but in front of a sellout crowd, the Cowboys gave us a glimpse of the form we expected in 2018.
WHAT WENT WRONG
The Cowboys had two losing streaks of five games and only scored four wins in the first 18 rounds. As the competition neared its end, their form picked up to win four of their last six, but it's been far from a positive season. It's their lowest finish since 2010 and they're in for a serious rebuild with a slew of players departing the club, including Thurston, Lachlan Coote, Shaun Fensom, Kane Linnett and Antonio Winterstein.