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Hess' journey from living on the edge to man in the middle

Six years after arriving on the scene as a wide running back-rower hell bent on terrorising opposition centres, Coen Hess finds himself patrolling the middle of the park for the Cowboys and he couldn't be happier.

Now 25 and with 118 NRL games to his name, Hess is coming off a superb 2021 season which saw him shift from the edge to the middle and take home the Paul Bowman Medal as North Queensland's player of the year.

With the Cowboys moving on from the COVID dramas that have struck all clubs in recent weeks and building momentum towards their opening trial game against Souths on February 19, Hess revealed on Thursday that he is more than comfortable in the new role coach Todd Payten handed him six rounds into last season.

"My back-row days are done - I'm spending all my time in the middle and it's pretty exciting for me," Hess said.

"It's a more simplified role in the front row. I like to play fast and that suits my style.

"There's a lot less burden on your body not having to play the full 80 minutes. I can break it up into smaller chunks and that suits me fine.

"I didn’t have the opportunity to train in the front row last pre-season so I’m really comfortable there now.

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"I'm older and more experienced and always trying to evolve my game."

And speaking of experience, Hess speaks in glowing terms of the impact star recruits Chad Townsend and Peta Hiku have had on the club.

After a wild ride in 2021 saw him play the first 11 rounds at the Sharks and then five games with the Warriors late in the season, Townsend will call Townsville home for the next three years, while Hiku is signed for the next two seasons.

"Chad provides a lot of structure. His talk out there and his influence on Tommy [Dearden] and Scotty [Drinkwater] has been immense and it makes everyone’s job a lot easier when they are talking the house down and calling shapes," Hess said.

"That's just the type of player Chad is. He's a premiership winner. He has told us the style he wants to play and it sums up Toddy's shape as well.

"The edge back-rowers work off the back of that and everyone knows their roll and it looks good.

"We're a lot clearer in our planning this year due to the experienced players we’ve had come to the club."

Having finished 15th, 14th and 14th in the past three seasons, the Cowboys will be hoping Townsend's steady hand and the continued development of classy youngsters Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow, Jeremiah Nanai and Heilum Luki can return them to the finals for the first time since 2017.

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Tabuai-Fidow's blinding speed and ability to turn half-chances into tries has made a cult figure among Cowboys fans while Nanai made a huge impression in his four games in 2021.

Nanai, who turns 19 in February, debuted off the bench in round 22 against Wests Tigers and by the final round against Manly was playing the full 80 minutes and powering through 38 tackles and 10 hit-ups for 113 metres.

"I know they play different positions but Jeremiah reminds me of when Kalyn Ponga came through, just how mature he is. The sky's the limit for him," said Mitchell Dunn, who will ply his trade alongside Hess in the middle after moving from the edge.

"Jeremiah got a taste last year and now he's had a full pre-season training in the back row and he's been awesome.

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"These young blokes are great athletes and good on the edge and that allows to me have my mindset on playing in the middle where I can touch the footy more.

"I'll probaby try and bulk up a bit over the next couple of weeks. You're able to carry more weight as a front-rower and you don't need to be as quick as you do out wide.

"I don't mind getting in there and throwing the ball around, that's what works well for us at the moment."

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Queensland Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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