Cowboys rebuild must start now
JOHNATHAN Thurston's farewell tour has diverted attention from the serious cracks at the North Queensland Cowboys.
Thurston, rightfully so, is receiving one of the most revered send-offs in NRL history as a truly remarkable career approaches its finale.
Thurston will play his final home game for the Cowboys at 1300 SMILES Stadium on Friday night.
His 17-season career will be celebrated by the club and more than 20,000 Cowboys fans in Townsville, among the most loyal supporters in the NRL.
But what cannot be forgotten is the clash against Parramatta will also double as a playoff for the wooden spoon.
For the Cowboys to be in this predicament has stunned nearly everyone that knows anything about the NRL.
This is a club that, after some poor seasons early in its existence, has developed into a powerhouse of the NRL.
The Cowboys have made the finals for the past seven seasons.
Since coach Paul Green took over in 2014 they have played in two grand finals, famously winning the club's first premiership in 2015.
North Queensland was the fairytale story of 2017 as a bits-and-pieces team missing co-captains Thurston and Matt Scott went on a remarkable charge to the final game of the season where they lost to the dominant Melbourne Storm.
The Cowboys were premiership favourites before a ball had been kicked this year.
Thurston and Scott were back from injury. Michael Morgan was the best player in last year's finals series. Jason Taumalolo is the best forward in the game. Jordan McLean was a crucial signing.
There were few more impressive playing rosters in the league.
But the cracks appeared early. The Cowboys faced what would turn out to be five top-eight teams to start the season and lost four of those games.
Last year's hunters had become the hunted, but few expected the season to pan out as it has.
After 22 games, the Cowboys and Eels boast just six wins each, with Parramatta's points difference (-104 to -114) holding them above.
The Eels deserve to face scrutiny too, however they have been far from the consistent performers North Queensland have been in recent years.
The theories for North Queensland's struggles emanating from Townsville have been varied.
Some at the club believe they stayed too loyal to long-term servants who, while providing great service, should have been moved on a year early rather than a year late.
There is a feeling last year's remarkable run through the finals, and following World Cup, sapped the squad of energy and mental strength heading into a gruelling pre-season in the tropics.
Injuries have played a part. Thurston and Scott were slow to come back from serious operations and Morgan has missed most of the year with stomach, groin and bicep problems.
There has been prop Scott Bolton's police issue and Green's struggles to settle on a full-time fullback.
But these are issues the Cowboys have overcome in the past to continue to be premiership contenders.
At season's end, Cowboys hierarchy will review their own performances and decision-making.
The club's heavy hitters are safe. There is little pressure on Green, football boss Peter Parr, CEO Greg Tonner or chairman Laurence Lancini given their track record of success.
But the worst thing the Cowboys could possibly do is write off 2018 as "just one of those years".
The Cowboys must persist with Morgan as Thurston's successor in the No.7 jersey next year no matter his form.
They must find a front-row sparring partner for McLean as Scott is battling a neck injury and on his way out.
They must secure either Sharks star Valentine Holmes or Melbourne's Origin gun Cameron Munster to play fullback long-term.
And they must rejuvenate their roster when they farewell the rest of the club's long-term stalwarts next year.
The players have tried every week which is a telling sign that something has gone wrong elsewhere.
Green has never questioned his players' effort which means the root of the problem lies deeper than a simple attitude adjustment.
"We've had a little bit of everything," Green said recently when asked what it was like presiding over this season from hell.
"Sometimes when you have tough seasons it's because of one or two things but we've had a little bit of everything.
"That's footy. It's a tough environment to work in. It's been pretty tough.
"We stuck together well as a club which I'm proud of and we'll keep fighting."
That fight, and Thurston's sensational career, will end in 11 days and the Cowboys will begin a new battle - the quest to find out what went wrong in 2018 and how to fix it.