Two major issues the North Queensland Cowboys need to solve

There is something wrong with the Cowboys at the moment.

At 2-5 through seven rounds for 15th on the ladder, North Queensland are falling grossly short of pre-season expectations. With the list they have in the middle, many tipped them to make the Top 8 and return to finals football.

That's looking more unlikely by the round.

Scoring just 14.7 points per game alongside the fact that only the Bulldogs have conceded more points the other way, they'll need a lot more than a healthy Jason Taumalolo to dig them out of this hole.

They are 14th in running metres at 1,492 metres per game and dead last in metres per carry at 8.4 metres. While Taumalolo's 180 metres per game will carry the Cowboys up the field and provide them with more opportunities attacking the line, North Queensland's attack inside the 20-metre line produces next to nothing.

Stats Insider data show the Cowboys average a poultry 0.47 points per tackle inside the opposition 20-metre line. They are 15th in the NRL for efficiency inside the opposition 20-metre line and well below the NRL average of 0.7 points.

For perspective, the Roosters lead the way with 1.05 points with the Dragons next on the list with 0.95 points.

Playing without Taumalolo is a problem for the Cowboys, but his return isn't the solution. If anything, the barn-storming Tongan could further expose their inefficiencies during good ball sets.

To fix the problem and become a relevant side in 2019, the Cowboys need to clean up two major issues.

Form Of Key Players

The Cowboys list is hardly brimming with superstar talent outside of Michael Morgan and Jason Taumalolo.

However, Jordan McLean has been strong to start the season to set a career-high in yardage at 143.9 running metres per game.  He provides them with a consistent performer in the middle. Likewise, Josh McGuire has had a serious impact on the side since Taumalolo went down in Round 2. He's also setting a new career high at 174.4 metres per game.

The Cowboys need more, though.

From Jake Granville and Coen Hess, in particular.

Granville was once in the State of Origin frame and considered a genuine option behind Cameron Smith. Those days are long gone. As the Origin conversation heats up for 2019, Granville isn't part of it. In fact, discussions surrounding the 30-year old are geared towards his place in this Cowboys side and whether or not career-fringe first-grader Kurt Baptiste is a better option.

Granville's running game isn't turning defenders around and forcing markers to pay attention, his service has been sub-standard, and his game-management is non-existent this season. As a real threat for defences close to the line, Granville scored ten tries in 2015. He's only scored seven in the three seasons and seven rounds since then.

He's a shadow of the player he once was, and his decline goes a long way to summing up a lot of the deep-seated issues the Cowboys have faced in recent years.

At 22-years old, Hess is at the opposite end of his career. However, the back-rower is suffering from the same downturn in production.

Bursting onto the scene in 2017 to average 108.7 running metres per game and scoring 13 tries throughout the season, Hess played as one of the most destructive forwards in the game. Nearly unstoppable near the line, Hess added plenty to the attack and was a crucial part to North Queensland's fairytale run to the Grand Final.

Since then, he's played a leading role in their demise and subsequent 30% win-rate as a team.

Relegated to the bench in four of the seven games so far in 2019, Hess is running for just 75.9 metres with a single meat pie to his name. In a team that relies so heavily on their back rowers in attack, Hess' ineffectiveness is a significant reason behind their measly 0.47 points per tackle inside the opposition 20-metre line.

It's not the most significant reason, though.

Outside Back Turnover

The Cowboys have had some rotten luck leading to what has felt like a weekly turnover in outside back stocks.

It started early with Ben Barba getting himself sacked after arriving as the clubs marquee signing for 2019. He trained there all off-season only to be dumped a month before Round 1. It's not debilitating, but hardly ideal.

Then there is Kyle Feldt. A groin injury has kept the Cowboys winger from taking the field at all this season with a return date still not locked in. Meanwhile, fellow winger Nene Macdonald just joined him in the casualty ward. His ankle injury threatens to be season-ending.

With Te Maire Martin now sat in the stands upon news of a bleed on his brain, the Cowboys have been forced to run out their fifth outside back combination of the season just eight games in.

Perhaps the most telling stat, not one Cowboys outside backs sit inside the Top 50 in the NRL for average running metres. Every other club in the competition has at least one player in there, if not more.

None of Jordan Kahu, Justin O'Neill, Tom Opacic, Enari Tuala or Ben Hampton (the back five for Round 8) are prolific ball-runners or game breakers. There's no player in the Cowboys backline outside of Morgan that you can throw the ball to and ask to create something.

That's half of the problem again.

At times, it seems as though the gameplan is to throw the ball to Morgan and wait.

He's getting his hands on the ball 47.1 times per game compared to 34.5 in 2018. The eight try assists he's found in seven games equals the number he recorded throughout the 11 games he managed last season. Of the 15 line break assists the Cowboys have as a team, Morgan can lay claim to five of them himself.

He's doing as much as he can. It's further out on the edges that is the problem.

The cohesion just isn't there for the Cowboys, and it's evident almost every time they shift the ball. It's clunky and ineffective. If it does get all the way out to the winger, the shift is laboured and easy to defend.

Part of that is due to how the Cowboys set their attack. It's been the same for years, and with such a focus on line runners on the edge, it all turns to custard if the timing isn't right. For example, when an edge player runs a hard line too early, an already lacklustre backline becomes a simple man-on-man defensive exercise for the opposition.

The turnover in players and the inability to form combination is proving difficult.

O'Neill, Feldt, Kane Linnett and Antonio Winterstein hardly put fear into opposing defences as individuals. But in 2015 and 2017 when the Cowboys won and lost Grand Final's, the four of them played almost every game of the season. 

As a cohesive unit, they produced points.

A sacking, injuries and poor form haven't allowed the Cowboys to build combinations in 2019.

The Cowboys are running out of time to turn their season around. If they're to lose at home against the Titans this week, you can almost put a line through them as Top 8 contenders.

For a side ranked 15th in efficiency inside the 20-metre line currently displaying minimal signs of improvement, the Cowboys don't have enough points in them to win the 10 of 16 games they'll need to if they're to even flirt with the Top 8 at the end of Round 25.

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Jason Oliver

As far as Jason is concerned, there is no better time of year than March through June. An overlap of the NBA and NRL seasons offer up daily opportunities to find an edge and fund the ever-increasing number of sports streaming services he subscribes to. If there's an underdog worth taking in either code, he'll be on it.

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