The Cowboys came into 2017 as one of the premiership favourites with a squad full of experience and quality across the paddock.
When they lost Matt Scott for the season inside the first month, then fellow co-captain Johnathan Thurston for the season during Origin, many would have forgiven the Cowboys for missing the finals.
However, they became the fairy tale story of 2017 in many respects, forging a stunning path to the grand final from eighth spot. While they were blown out in the decider by a rampant Melbourne Storm, they gained plenty of admirers.
Lost grand final 34-6 v Storm (Regular Season eighth, 13 Wins, 11 Losses, 467 Points For, 443 Points Against)
Season Ranking 9/10
I don’t think I have ever seen a team overcome as much adversity as the Cowboys did this season to make a grand final.
It was amazing enough that they did it without Thurston and Scott, however they also suffered numerous other injuries to key players at various points throughout the season.
What became clear about this club though is they have a really strong culture and good depth, as there is no way any other side in the competition could have achieved what they did with the obstacles put in their way.
Their finals’ performances against the Sharks, Eels and Roosters were remarkable really for their quality and their toughness, given all these games were on the road against a heavily favoured opponent.
The Cowboys became more a gritty side than a flashy side in 2017, conceding less than 19 points per game, and winning a number of physical and low scoring contests.
Coach rating (Paul Green) – 9/10
I’m not sure how Paul Green could have done much more, to be honest, with this side in 2017.
His CV is getting stronger and stronger. Having reached two of the last three grand finals, racking up three straight preliminary finals with a Club that have never experienced anywhere like this period of sustained excellence.
What I liked about Green is he wasn’t prepared to make excuses, as so many coaches seem to do in the NRL, whether it be through refereeing decisions or injuries. Green installed a belief and confidence in his team despite having to deal with a huge injury toll and the Origin period.
What also impressed me was the way he got the best out of a player like Michael Morgan as a key playmaker, and forged a game style that the Cowboys could still be strong and effective even without Thurston.
Best win – preliminary final North Queensland Cowboys 20 Sydney Roosters 16 @ Allianz Stadium
It’s hard to go past their huge upset of the Roosters to get them into the grand final. They really attacked the Roosters early in this game, with their line speed and intensity, and in defence they forced their stunned hosts into a number of errors. The Roosters actually hit the front early in the second half, and looked to have all the momentum.
However, just like the two previous weeks, the Cowboys held their nerve and finished over the top of their opponents, winning all the clutch moments. Their completion rates were fantastic again in this game, as well as their ability to build pressure by forcing repeat sets while maintaining their discipline.
Worst loss Round 9 North Queensland Cowboys 6 Parramatta Eels 26 @ 1300 Smiles Stadium
Looking through the 27 games played by the Cowboys this season, this was probably the only game that they were never really in the contest.
Despite missing Thurston, the Cowboys went into this game as slight favourites, but their attack really stuttered in this game failing to capitalise on a number of opportunities against a plucky Eels’ outfit.
Best player: Michael Morgan
Morgan was close to the best player in the NRL in the back half of the season, as the Cowboys made their unlikely charge towards a grand final position.
Morgan showcased he was not just a talented five-eighth, but could be a dominant controlling halfback, really owning this side and putting in a number of man of the match performances, particularly in the finals.
His short kicking game was extremely effective, earning a number of repeat sets, and his running game remained extremely dangerous. When Thurston retires at the end of 2018, the Cowboys have their next general in Morgan.
Most disappointing player: None
Perhaps the ‘most disappointed player’ in 2017 would be Matt Scott managed just two games in 2017. Scott actually made himself available for the grand final, so it would have come as a hammer blow for him when Paul Green decided to stick with the same 17 that had got the Cowboys that far.
At 32, Scott is in the twilight of his career, and can ill afford another injury riddled year if he is get back to near his barnstorming best. To be fair to all the Cowboys I couldn’t think of a most disappointing player this year.
The natural reaction is to think the Cowboys would have to be premiership favourites next season, given they made the grand final this year without Johnathan Thurston and Matt Scott.
However, we also need to remember that if the Dragons had done their job and beaten the lowly Bulldogs in Round 26, the Cowboys would have missed the finals altogether, so it can be a fine line in rugby league.
Having said that, they retain a very strong, experienced roster next season, and anything short of a Top four finish would be a surprise.