This is the sixth article in a series naming each club’s best team of loyal stalwarts. Not necessarily just those one-club players but those who turned out for the club over a long period and helped build its success and culture.
North Queensland fans haven’t stopped speculating about the identity of their next coach in the week and a half since the Cowboys and premiership-winning coach Paul Green made the shock decision to part company.
I felt that the writing for Greeny’s departure had been on the wall for some time.
The game plans were stale and old. Drums were consistently beating noise about rows between coach, senior players and members of the playing group, though Green poured cold water on these rumours after his departure. Recruitment and retainment decisions, albeit not entirely Paul Green’s fault, had left fans seething. Reluctance to debut young players and questionable selection decisions became normal prior to this season.
The numbers don’t make for pretty reading either, with the Cowboys finishing fourth, eighth, 13th and 14th since their heroic maiden premiership victory despite a grand final appearance that defied all odds since 2017.
This can be put down to many different things. Johnathan Thurston’s retirement, injuries, rumoured infighting, an inability to field a stable spine and build combinations among many things can all be pointed to as precipitating the Cowboys’ fall from grace, particularly in the last three seasons.
None of this is to say that Paul Green cannot coach. I subscribe to the widely spoken theory that this is similar to Michael Maguire. Sometimes things get stale and it is best to say thank you, shake hands and go separate ways for all involved.
Like most preseasons, 2020 delivered lots of promise: a new stadium and two big-money signings in Esan Marsters and Valentine Holmes as well as a Perth Nines win. The players even appeared as if the proverbial monkey was off their back as they effortlessly cruised through the Perth Nines to win.
However, this proved another false dawn. The first game to write the Cowboys’ new story at the Queensland Country Bank Stadium was a disappointment, losing 28-21 to the Brisbane Broncos.
While selections and new talent have come through the side in 2020, results were not favourable. When asked on 100% Footy which coach he felt was under the most pressure, Phil Gould said, “I think the Cowboys are under more pressure than anyone. I said it Game 1 at the start of the year when they lost to Brisbane there was something I really didn’t like I thought they looked stale and old, it wasn’t fresh enough for me”.
Furthering his punch to the guts of many Cowboys fans, he added: “It’s going to get very ugly up there”.
The noise regarding Paul Green’s future never went away, but it was anticipated he would not leave until at least the end of the season.
However, to the surprise of many, on the Monday after an improved performance against the Penrith Panthers it was announced that Paul Green’s tenure at the Cowboys was over.
Naturally, when a coach leaves, the question is: where to from here?
Many names have entered the fray. Kevin Walters, Jason Ryles, Anthony Griffin, Kristian Woolf, Wayne Bennett, Todd Payten, interim coach Josh Hannay and even Shaun Wane, who was reportedly in talks about an assistant coaching role at the Cowboys, are among the names in the mix.
But while a lot of discussion has centred around who the next coach should be, this is what they need if they are to go forwards as a club.
While this may sound like a biased view, the North Queensland Cowboys job is a golden vacancy of that sort that doesn’t come up often.
Usually clubs that sack their coaches are struggling and have lots of work to be done. The Cowboys job is different. There’s a new stadium, a new centre of excellence soon to be completed, a finals-worthy roster mixed with representative stars and young talent, a strong fan-base and a one-team town in rugby league heartland.
There is a lot to like about the Cowboys job, and it is crucial the club does not sell itself short.
There are three non-negotiables.
This is a job for a former senior coach from club land, ideally recently.
The Cowboys find themselves in a position to be in their premiership window if they put their performances together. This is a key ingredient, and it has been missing for the past three seasons. The next coach needs to have been in a position of responsibility to put a team’s performance together. They need to understand what the day-to-day aspects of being in the hot seat are by having been there before.
This opens the door for Hook Griffin, Shaun Wane, perhaps Kristian Woolf, Todd Payten and Josh Hannay if we’re willing to count the fact that each of them is getting a taste for senior coaching now and has been in the difficult interim position before.
A coach who is both a man-manager and a culture-builder is non-negotiable.
The Cowboys reputation has been built on being a team that will grind all game long – the underdogs, the battlers of the North, the team who will try and try.
The next coach must be a man-manager who can connect with every individual in the group and bring them all together to bring back that image.
The team’s unity has been questioned in recent times. The next coach must address this and bring it back together. Help the team trust each other again. Help the players want to wear the jersey.
A great coach can strike the balance between being the laughing, joking friend the players can trust with their lives while also being able to tell a player his performance has been sub-par and offer them a to improve.
Building a solid, concrete culture with values that are to be respected, believed in and followed is essential.
There is young talent to be nurtured, such as Tom Gilbert, Daejarn Asi, Scott Drinkwater, Reece Robson, Peter Hola and Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow. The right guidance and use of these guys to their strengths while developing their weaknesses will be rewarded. The future that can be built and the history that can be written with these players at your disposal will bring excitement to any coach.
One man who will benefit most from a man-manager is captain Michael Morgan. Everyone talks about the player he was in 2017, but many are quick to forget two things when talking about how he has struggled since.
The first is that his transition into captaincy has not been smooth. I’d argue that there has been a lot of pressure placed upon him since taking on the role and that there was even a row between him and Paul Green in Newcastle about this. This is not to say Green did not trust Morgan as captain, but it is imperative the next coach does given Michael Morgan has appeared to lack confidence since taking on the role.
The next coach must know how to take the weight off Morgan’s shoulders somehow and trust him to be the captain by finding a way to accommodate his leadership style and make it work.
The second is that Michael Morgan’s football has been majorly disrupted since 2017. His 2018 season was cut in half due to injury, which has also hampered his confidence, and 2019 was an incredibly difficult year, particularly in the halves with constant changes. If the next coach can help Morgan become confident again, it will do wonders for the Cowboys.
Coaches revered for man-management are Shaun Wane and Kristian Woolf. I have previously written about Shaun Wane, his man-management and ability to create a firm culture. So too, Kristian Woolf, whose management in the Tongan team has received the highest praise.
Anthony Griffin is another who can set a platform, as shown by strong performances at Penrith, while Josh Hannay appears to have a strong rapport with players, as would Todd Payten, who previously spent a number of years as Paul Green’s assistant.
The third crucial thing is defence.
The age-old saying is defence wins premierships. The Cowboys defence has been met with criticism in recent years. A key to defence is attitude – being able to go, “All right, let’s go, boys. Let’s defend”.
On their own goal line or facing a scrum in their own territory the attitude and trust in one another in defence has been questionable. If a coach can fix this and change the Cowboys defence, a big part of the battle to improve the side will be won.
Defence, man-management, quality, experience, culture and, preferably, experience are what’s needed.
From a passionate Cowboys fan I say to the Cowboys board: please don’t sell yourself short.