The North Queensland Cowboys are in dire need of a fresh start and a new coaching staff who will bring fresh ideas to a club whom many believe had become too predictable and stale since their grand final appearance in 2017.
New head coach Todd Payten and new assistants Dean Young and Steve Georgallis, all of whom were interim head coaches last season at their previous clubs, are in charge of reigniting a very talented and capable roster, but a roster that had lost its way both individually and collectively in recent seasons under former coach Paul Green.
The challenge for Payten and his coaching staff, is getting the best out of the Cowboys players who have played well below their potential – missing the finals for the past three seasons. The biggest concern is the development of the club’s young players, which has seemingly plateaued in recent seasons.
Most notably Coen Hess, who burst onto the scene in 2016, earning a Queensland Origin jumper and playing a starring role in the Cowboys reaching the 2017 grand final. Other young stars such as Jake Clifford, Mitch Dunn, Corey Jensen and Shane Wright all have the potential to succeed at NRL level, but we have yet to see that potential truly realised on the paddock.
We are still yet to see the best of Ben Hampton, Esan Marsters and Valentine Holmes; although Holmes had a limited preseason and struggled with injuries.
Captain Michael Morgan – who has also had his fair share of injury setbacks – has been a shadow of the player he was from 2014 – 2017. The form of fellow senior players Jake Granville and Justin O’Neill has also gone backwards in recent seasons and 2018 star recruit Jordan McLean has been unable to replicate the form he showed during his time with the Melbourne Storm which earned him an Australian test jersey – much to the perplexity of Cowboys fans.
The Cowboys on-field tactics and structures had not evolved since their successful run from 2014 – 2017 under Green. Payten will look to bring innovation and a new philosophy to all aspects of the way the Cowboys play.
Under the new rules, the game is much faster and the teams who played with less structure and a more eyes-up, ad-lib style were the teams who succeeded last season. Payten has already stated that he wants a faster and more aggressive playing style.Embed from Getty Images
Payten also has big positional decisions to make including where to play two of his big money marquee players. There have been calls for Holmes to be permanently shifted back to the wing, but Payten has suggested he will train at fullback this preseason.
The other is whether Morgan should play five-eighth or halfback. Payten believes five-eighth is Morgan’s best position, but he also acknowledged that Morgan is the best game-managing halfback on the roster.
Then there is the race to see who will partner Morgan in the halves. Newcastle-bound Jake Clifford is one option, who consistently struggled with his fifth tackle options and game-management last season. The other is Scott Drinkwater, who racked up 19 try assists from his 16 games but struggled defensively and finished 2020 with the second most handling errors in the competition.
The new coaching staff is excited about the stack of raw talent in some of the young prospects on the roster such as Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow who is arguably the fastest player in the competition.
Former Warrior Lachlan Burr is currently the only new addition to the Cowboys roster for 2021 and Payten believes he will take the pressure off fellow Cowboys forwards Jason Taumalolo, Josh McGuire and McLean.
Taumalolo and McGuire have been the most consistent performers in the Cowboys line-up for the past two seasons. They continuously get the side over the advantage line with the work they do in the middle-third, but their teammates have been unable to take advantage of the space and field position they create.
Francis Molo has been another shining light in the forwards; a strong ball runner, defends with raw aggression and brings plenty of energy from the bench.
There may be some external expectation on Payten after the terrific job he did with the Warriors last season. Taking over the top job last June after then-head coach Stephen Kearney was shown the door, Payten had significant hurdles to overcome as his players were struggling with the sacrifice of being away long term from their families in New Zealand due to the COVID-19 bubble. He then had a handful of his best players deciding to leave the bubble to head home mid-way through the season.
Many believed the Warriors would continue to struggle and free fall towards the bottom of the ladder, but it was precisely the opposite that happened. Payten was able to bring his players together and they went out and played for him. They bought in to his message. It highlights his man-management skills and his coaching abilities, as his Warriors just fell short of a miraculous finals berth – finishing in 10th position.
The Warriors were so impressed with Payten, they offered him the permanent head coach position, but in a testament to his character, he put his family’s needs ahead of his own head coaching ambitions to move back to Australia, not knowing whether he would secure one of the head coaching positions available at an Australian based club.
He put forward his expression of interest in the vacant North Queensland job and it was impossible for the Cowboys board to overlook the incredible job Payten did with the Warriors. Payten is also familiar with the club as he was an assistant coach from 2015 when they won the premiership, to 2017 when they qualified for the grand final.
If Payten can replicate what he did with the Warriors last season, one could argue he now has a superior roster with the Cowboys, so a return to the finals should be the goal.