By Adam Hayward
The North Queensland Cowboys were the surprise packets of the 2022 NRL season, finishing third on the ladder after 25 rounds and ending a five-year finals drought since their 2017 grand final appearance.
They had finished in the bottom four for the past four seasons, including a forgettable second-last finish in 2021.
Fans and pundits heavily criticised the clubs roster management and recruitment strategy, and they didn’t give the Cowboys any hope of success in 2022 – with most predicting they would win the dreaded wooden spoon for finishing in last place.
Head coach Todd Payten was under immense pressure himself heading into this past season, with reports his relationship with captain Jason Taumalolo was irreparable and he’d lost other senior players in the team.
But he and his coaching staff knew what was required to fix the Cowboys shortcomings from the previous season, and he put the squad through one of the most brutal, no-nonsense preseasons imaginable, which the players themselves credit for the club’s turnaround in form.Embed from Getty Images
Payten knew he had to instil mental and physical toughness into his squad.
His highly commended preseason training program included tackling every day, getting his players out of bed at 4am to run up Townsville’s Castle Hill without any warning, and forcing the players to do things on the training paddock they weren’t mentally and physically prepared for.
In Payten’s words, he wanted to make his players “comfortable with being uncomfortable,” which had transferred onto the field with the Cowboys being mentally and physically capable to withstand anything the opposition threw at them.
There’s an old adage in rugby league – defence wins premierships.
Payten knew this, and that’s why the foundation of every Cowboys performance this past season was built on defence.
They finished the 2021 season with the worst defensive record in the competition; conceding an average of 31-points per game.
In 2022, they finished the season with the second-best defence; conceding an average of 15-points per game, which was the primary factor in the Cowboys rising from 15th in 2021 to third in 2022.
With a roster stacked with no-names and underrated talent, Payten not only had to fast track the development of his young, inexperienced players to NRL standard, he turned them into State of Origin and Test players in the space of just six months.
The club’s marquee men, Jason Taumalolo and Valentine Holmes were automatic selections for their representative teams regardless of how the Cowboys were performing.
But the likes of Jeremiah Nanai, Reuben Cotter, Murray Taulagi, Tom Gilbert and Tom Dearden all made unexpected State of Origin debuts. Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow, Reece Robson and a rejuvenated Chad Townsend and Jordan McLean were also part of the Origin squads.
Heilum Luki would likely have been a part of the Queensland squad as well if he didn’t suffer a season-ending knee injury.
What Payten and his assistants Dean Young and Steve Georgallis have been able to achieve with the playing group cannot be understated.
The team travelled to Sydney to face the second-placed Sharks in a classic qualifying final, which they won with a 45-metre field goal from Holmes in the 93rd minute of ‘Golden Point’ extra time to earn a home preliminary final at QCB Stadium in Townsville.Embed from Getty Images
Unfortunately they suffered a controversial 20-24 loss to the Eels which brought an end to their season, but it capped off an incredible turnaround from cellar dwellers to premiership contenders which no one saw coming, including their own fanbase who struggled to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Their questionable recruitment turned into astute signings. Their marquee players had rediscovered their best form.
The club is proactively re-signing key youngsters to keep their current squad together for years to come as they look to achieve long term, sustained success.
The Cowboys have become the blueprint for struggling teams on how to rise from the bottom of the ladder, and they are now on an upward trajectory towards winning a premiership.
Feature Image: Queensland Country Bank Stadium, Townsville (Adam Hayward)