There are few greater sledges you can give an NRL team than calling them pretenders but the Cowboys will not be contenders until they can prove otherwise. 

Todd Payten knows they have done little to show they can be title threats in 2024 despite sitting in the top four with a 4-2 record heading into Sunday’s Shark Park showdown with ladder leaders Cronulla. 

He conceded as much on Friday when he described his team as operating at around 70% of their full capability despite their lofty ladder position. 

They kicked off the season with a bang by thumping the Dolphins and were unconvincing in large parts when they got the better of the Knights, Dragons and Titans, who have all been more cold than hot this season. 

And when the Cowboys came up against their only opponent considered a genuine title contender in Brisbane, they were thumped 38-12 and last week they were flat in all departments in losing 27-20 to a Parramatta side missing its star halfback and coming off an embarrassing rout in Canberra. 

“We’re all aware that we’re only functioning at about 70% at the moment so that I guess is a little exciting for me – we set 4-2 but nowhere near our best

“We’ve got a lot of improvement and a chance to test it out at a ground that traditionally we haven’t got a great record at.”

The Cowboys can look like world beaters when their pack gets momentum and Scott Drinkwater bobs up on either side as a third playmaker. 

But they also seem to go missing for extended periods in matches. The attack becomes too conservative and their forwards don’t throw a lot of variations at opposition teams. 

The diminishing return of Jason Taumalolo as their spearhead is a major concern given he is gobbling up seven figures in their salary cap like popcorn. 

He has dipped below 100 running metres per game (91) this season for the first time since 2013 when just four seasons ago he was averaging over 200. 

A constant string of injuries to his heir apparent, Heilum Luki, has hampered the Cowboys’ potency – he has made just two appearances in 2024 due to an ankle injury after playing just 14 and 13 games in his past two seasons, mainly due to an ACL tear.

North Queensland’s Scott Drinkwater runs the ball. (Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

He is set to return in a fortnight and could force his way into the Queensland team alongside Jeremiah Nanai and Reuben Cotter with the Maroons missing a few key forwards due to injuries.

Heading into this season, the Cowboys shaped as one of the hardest teams to predict given they went from 15th to third and back to 11th in their first three campaigns under Payten. 

The emergence of Drinkwater as an elite fullback is critical to their prospects given that halves duo Chad Townsend and Tom Dearden are steady operators rather than flashy. 

Drinkwater trails only Dragons skipper Ben Hunt (10) for try assists with six in as many matches, picking and choosing his moments when to play expansive footy.

His Achilles heel in recent years has been a rocks and diamonds tendency in attack but the 26-year-old NSW Origin bench candidate is shooting the Cowboys in the foot much less frequently by pushing a pass that was never on.

And while Townsend and Dearden don’t often stand out for individual brilliance in attack, they wear plenty of bruises so their teammates outside them can shine. 

They are both in the top 10 for engaging the defensive line in the NRL which is a large reason why centre Valentine Holmes is equal fourth overall for line break assists and Murray Taulagi is ranked the same for line breaks.

Payten said his team does not lack confidence and that is shown by the fact they rank first in points scored at 29.5 (nearly four in front of their next rival). 

For anyone who still thinks set completions are key to success on the scoreboard, the Cowboys rank last in the league at 75% but still manage to dominate possession – only Canberra (54%) is better than their 52% return for time with the ball in hand. 

“They’re willing to back themselves in any situation which can be a bit of a curse at times but I can’t fault our attitude, desire and confidence amongst what we’ve got within the team,” Payten said.

The Cowboys have been blessed with a relatively soft schedule to start the season and even though they have the Sharks and premiers Penrith over the next fortnight, they then face another tame stretch of the Dolphins, Titans, Rabbitohs and Tigers. 

But the flip side is the second half of their season is a nightmare with nine of their final 12 matches against teams who look like featuring in the top eight this year.

Which should shape as the perfect opportunity to prove they’re contenders and not pretenders after all.





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