The rookie guns that can push Cowboys to the next level

    Boasting some of the game’s brightest talents, a fearsome forward pack and experienced halves, the Cowboys are one team who know who they are – and what they need to do to go a couple of steps better next year.Peter Badel goes through everything you need to know about the Cowboys in our exclusive club-by-club deep dive series ahead of the 2023 season.2022 Rich 100 reps: 6Jason Taumalolo (15, $900k), Valentine Holmes (18, $875k), Jordan McLean (36, $750k), Chad Townsend (44, $710k), Luciano Leilua (74, $600k), Coen Hess (84, $550k)FREE AGENCY WRAPStability is the key for the Cowboys, who have only added a sprinkling of new faces following their fairytale charge to the preliminary final last season. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But fresh blood is never a bad thing and the signing of James Tamou, who returns to Townsville for a career swansong at age 33 after six years away, will add some premiership knowhow to the Cowboys pack. Jack Gosiewski (Dragons) adds depth to the back row with Heilum Luki (ACL injury) and Luciano Leilua (off-field issues) set to miss the start of the season. The Cowboys have lost two key squad members in Origin firebrand Tom Gilbert and speed machine Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow to the Dolphins. Gilbert, in particular, will be a huge loss. The Cowboys have a whopping 15 players off-contract next season, including rising superstar Jeremiah Nanai, who will command huge offers from rival clubs.RATING: CCOACH STATUSTodd Payten was originally off-contract next season but is in the advanced stages of brokering a three-year extension, sweet reward for North Queensland’s outstanding revival in 2022. The Cowboys’ shock charge to the top four last season saw Payten hailed as one of the rising stars of the NRL coaching ranks. After a difficult first season replacing Paul Green in 2021, Payten kept faith in his methods and he was vindicated as Cowboys players responded to the harder mental edge he drove in defence. Cowboys hierarchy believe Payten can deliver the club’s second premiership. There is no coach safer in 2023 than Payten.SAFETY RATING: ACOWBOYS 2023 SQUAD AND BEST 17LIKELY DEBUTANTRiley Price and Taniela Sadrugu. The Cowboys blooded a host of young guns last season and there is more to roll off the production line in Price and Sadrugu. The former is the son of Queensland Origin and Bulldogs legend Steve Price and like his old man, the 21-year-old Riley has impressed with his work ethic and ability to play prop or second row. Sadrugu is a powerfully-built centre or winger who joined the Cowboys last year after defecting from Fijian rugby union. He turned out for Fiji at the World Cup and after scoring seven tries from 15 games for feeder-club Townsville in the Queensland Cup this year, the 24-year-old is keen to make his mark in the NRL.Who takes the next step: Tom Dearden has only scratched the surface of his talent. The 21-year-old endured two turbulent years at the Broncos but his move to North Queensland has helped Dearden rebuild his game and confidence. In 2022, Payten’s faith in Dearden was vindicated as the Broncos discard flourished as Chad Townsend’s halves partner and was rewarded with his Queensland Origin debut. Dearden brained the Blues to inspire the Maroons’ win in the Suncorp decider and will be a key man in the Cowboys’ premiership assault.THREE BURNING ISSUES1. ARE THEY THE REAL DEAL?The Cowboys shocked the league in 2022 but they will fool nobody next season and there will be enormous expectation on Payten’s troops to fire again. Given that they made the preliminary final this year, anything less than a grand-final appearance in 2023 will be seen as a form of regression.2. CAN CAPTAIN CHAD SURVIVE?Former Sharks halfback Chad Townsend was one of the buys of the 2022 season but he will be 32 when the new premiership kicks off. Veterans in their 30s can lose their mojo in the blink of an eye in the NRL and the Cowboys will be hoping Townsend continues to sidestep Father Time. The co-captain enters the second season of a three-year deal and is renowned for his professionalism, so Townsend will be hungry to add to the premiership ring he won at Cronulla in 2016.3. WILL THE COWBOYS KEEP ‘JUMPING JEREMIAH’?The classy Nanai is arguably the best teenage forward prospect in the code, but he is off-contract next season and that rings alarm bells for the Cowboys. After 17 tries in a remarkable first full season, Nanai can name his price and NRL rivals are already dangling the carrot with offers upwards of $800,000 a season. Securing the Queensland Origin sensation to a long-term deal can help set up a premiership dynasty for the Cowboys.CRYSTAL BALLYou get the feeling this Cowboys team is only just getting started. They have a great fusion of youth and experience and in Payten, the Cowboys have a coach capable of taking North Queensland to the promised land. They should be aiming for the top four in 2023 and if they stay fit, a grand-final appearance is not beyond them.Where will the Cowboys finish in 2023?FINISH FOR THE PAST FIVE YEARS2022: 3rd (eliminated in third week of finals)2021: 15th2020: 14th2019: 13th2018: 15th2023 ODDSPremiership: $11Minor premiership: $13To make grand final: $5.50Top four: $2.40Top eight: $1.35Most losses: $81NRL deep dives

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