Two years after being overlooked coming out of the Under 20s system, Corey Jensen has earned his maiden NRL contract with the Cowboys and one former NRL veteran has no doubt that he is now physically ready for the demands of the Telstra Premiership.
Jensen is one of a host of young front-rowers hoping to fill the void in North Queensland’s front row created by the departures of both James Tamou and Ben Hannant in the off-season and returns to the Cowboys set-up after two years with the Townsville Blackhawks in the Intrust Super Cup.
Admitting that it was a “kick in the guts” not to be offered a contract by North Queensland straight out of 20s after he was vice-captain in his third and final season in the NYC in 2014, Jensen's performances for the Blackhawks up front last season saw him selected in the Queensland Residents team and named the club's Player's Player and Forward of the Year.
The 23-year-old says that the experience of playing against seasoned NRL players in the Intrust Super Cup has given him the confidence he needed ahead of his first season in an NRL squad and belief that he now belongs at that level.
“Physically I wasn't ready for that,” Jensen said of the prospect of going straight from the 20s to the NRL squad.
“The 20s competition is a fast competition, but it's nothing like playing against men.
“The last two years that I've had with the Blackhawks, that week in, week out competition against quality opposition – because there are a lot of NRL players that play in that competition – to be able to play against men and mix it with the best there put me in good stead for this pre-season.
“I understand it's going to be a big hurdle to overcome because there are still plenty of quality of front-rowers there.
“We've got Matt Scott, one of the best front-rowers in the comp, Scotty Bolton has been doing an awesome job coming off the bench and I don't know what Greeny’s [Cowboys coach Paul Green] plans are there and then you've got young Sam Hoare who has come back from an ACL and is looking good and Patty Kaufusi who had a few games last year and is no doubt going to be better for that run.
“So there's still a challenge there, but I can see a light too and if I keep working hard and performing in the (Intrust Super) Cup you never know what can happen and hopefully I get that opportunity.”
Indeed, it was only through opportunity that Jensen was able to excel in the Intrust Super Cup last season and prove to Cowboys coach Paul Green that he deserved an NRL contract.
A season-ending injury to Daniel Beasley and retirement of Neville Costigan left the Blackhawks light on for front-rowers and Jensen impressed two-time premiership winner and Blackhawks team-mate Glenn Hall with how he responded to the challenge.
“Given the forward pack that we had he probably would have made a bench spot his own, but with misfortune to a few of our front-rowers the opportunity arose for him and he took it with both hands,” Hall told NRL.com.
“The opportunity he got last year, he really understood what his role was and how his body worked and didn’t really go outside of what worked for him.
“He didn't look for new tricks to add to his repertoire, he played to his skill level and he has a high skill level with a good workrate and he's very strong so he was powering through last year. It looked like he really understood his role.”
Hall, who played 192 NRL games including 98 for the Cowboys across five seasons, is now the elite pathways manager at the Cowboys and says he has seen enough from Jensen in the past 12 months to indicate he is ready for the NRL.
“Maybe the mindset of a lot of the kids now is that if you don't get offered a contract straight out of 20s you're probably finished up and I think with Jenno's ability and astuteness in football he understood there was still a pathway if he was willing to work at it," Hall said.
“That's why I'm really happy for him because he went away from the Cowboys to the Blackhawks, really buckled down and deserves and earnt the spot that he got this year.
“If given the opportunity I don't think he would look out of place in the NRL side.
“I think there's a possibility [that he will play] during that Origin period when we lose some players. 'Jenno' has definitely got the ability to do a job in those couple of games.
“He's powerful, he's got a big engine and he's got a high workrate and the structures that he learnt as a 20-year-old here haven't changed too much so grasping the Cowboys way will be pretty easy for him.”
A front-rower through the juniors who represented Queensland Under 16s and Under 18s, Jensen played predominantly in the back row during his 54 games in the NYC and flourished on his return to the middle last year.
He has put on an extra three kilograms through additional sessions at a Townsville crossfit gym run by Blackhawks strength and conditioning coach Daniel Strickland and is hoping to turn out in 2017 at around 105 kilograms.
“I knew physically from 20s that I probably wasn't up to scratch,” said Jensen, who has completed his university degree in sports science and last year worked as a teacher's aide at Aitkenvale State School.
“I knew I had to put on a bit of weight and a bit of size to mix it with the men so a lot of the work in the off-season was centred around that.
“Playing front row you need that size and strength as well as durability so I really worked on just getting a bit bigger and a bit stronger going into Q Cup and now NRL.”