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Plenty to shout about as Cowboys restore respect in 2022

In typically succinct and forthright fashion, Cowboys coach Todd Payten summed up his team’s remarkable revival when he said “we put some respect back into the jersey and the club”.

Even though the end came nine days earlier than the players and their loyal fans had hoped, respect most certainly has been returned to Townsville, along with admiration and even a touch of envy for what North Queensland achieved in 2022.

This was a club on its knees after four consecutive seasons of mediocrity in which they finished 13th, 14th, 14th and 15th, won just 29 games and lost 63, and became little more than an afterthought when predictions for premiers and top eight were trotted out at the start of the year.

“We weren’t supposed to make the finals, we weren’t supposed to make it out of the bottom four of the whole comp, and we were 25 minutes short of a Grand Final,” Payten said after the 24-20 loss to the Eels ended their season.

“We have got a good foundation. If we don’t fall in love with ourselves moving forward, and we continue to work hard and want to get better, we will be back here again.”

With the straight-shooting Payten at the helm, there is zero chance of his team ‘falling I love with themselves’ and a very real chance they’ll be there when the whips are cracking again in 2023.

Nanai again takes flight

The pieces are all in place, with a posse of exciting youngsters developing rapidly under the guidance of Chad Townsend, Jason Taumalolo, Valentine Holmes and Jordan McLean, all of whom enjoyed outstanding seasons.

The calming voice and tactical nous of the three premiership winners steered the likes of Jeremiah Nanai, Reuben Cotter and Murray Taulagi through the ups and downs of a gruelling season and into the State of Origin arena.

After playing just four games in 2021, Nanai served notice with four tries in the first three matches that he was going to be a weapon for Payten, both in the air and on the ground.

The 19-year-old finished the season with 17 tries on the right edge, while 21-year-old Heilum Luki patrolled the left edge in style until his season was cut short by an ACL injury in Round 14.

Cotter had tallied 21 games across three seasons coming off the bench or at hooker but a master stroke by Payten saw the tearaway shifted to the middle in Round 5, making an immediate impact with 150 metres from 13 runs in a 25-24 loss to the Warriors.

Such was Cotter’s progression that two months later he was tearing holes in the NSW defence in a stunning debut for the Maroons in Sydney.

Apart from his fearless forays into the teeth of the opposition defence, Cotter churned out 40 tackles of his own per match, embodying the work ethic and commitment that made the Cowboys the NRL’s second best defensive unit behind Penrith.

Townsend: I'm unbelievably proud of the guys

Right from the opening round it was clear that the hard yards and hard truths Payten subjected his troops to over summer had had the desired effect.

They may have lost to the Bulldogs in a dour first-up struggle but the fact they gave up just four points showed North Queensland wouldn’t be opened up as easily as they had been in 2021, when they leaked 748 points at 31 per game.

Against the Raiders in Round 2 they gave up just the single try to Corey Harawira-Naera and in Round 3 the Broncos could muster only two four-pointers as the tone was set for a season which finished with the Cowboys lopping a whopping 387 points off their ‘against’ column.

After opening with three wins and three losses to sit seventh on the ladder, the Cowboys won nine of their next 10, their only defeat coming at the hands of the Panthers in Round 12.

Forget magic, that's outrageous!

Arriving at their Round 17 bye in third position, the Cowboys had already restored pride in the jersey and given their loyal fan base reason to walk tall again, so the run home became all about jostling for a home final in week one, which they surrendered in a Round 24 loss to the Rabbitohs.

Far from overawed by having to travel to enemy territory at Shark Park, the Cowboys emerged victorious 32-30 courtesy of a monster Holmes field goal in golden point, earning themselves a week off and a Preliminary Final in Townsville.

In front of a heaving home crowd, the Cowboys produced moments of exhilarating attack to lead 20-12 with 25 minutes to play but a late Eels surge was enough to carry them into a first decider in 13 years.

After engineering such a remarkable transformation in the space of a year, and with only Dolphins-bound Tom Gilbert headed for the exit, Payten can look ahead to 2023 safe in the knowledge that his young guns have what it takes to cut it on the big stage and his senior leaders retain the will and desire for more glory.

When he came on board in late 2020, Payten put forward this mission statement: “Developing the players within the club to be good footballers and good men along with playing a style of football our members and supporters can be proud of will be my main focus.”

After a bumpy ride in 2021, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who can argue Payten didn't deliver on that promise in spades in 2022.

Acknowledgement of Country

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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