The same as the two seasons following the 2017 grand final, 2020 was a season to forget for the North Queensland Cowboys.
There was a 14th-place finish, five wins, 15 losses, a negative 152-point difference, many injuries and talk of unrest.
Many false dawns in a few seasons presented themselves for the Cowboys and their fans.
In 2018, it was the seemingly destined fairy tale of a grand final win to conclude the fairy tale of Johnathan Thurston’s career, one that probably paid for many nice cars, handbags, watches and suits for the bookies with many tipping the Cowboys to win a second premiership.
In 2019, it was the pain of the disappointing year that was supposed to galvanise the group and bring the Cowboys back into top-eight calculations.
And in 2020, it was the return of skipper Michael Morgan, a new stadium, the much anticipated signing of Valentine Holmes and the Nines victory in Perth that was expected to bring some excitement to the club.
However, none were meant to be. It became a consistent story of the same narrative.
There was a stale playbook that Paul Green refused to change, a high injury count, highly paid players perhaps not meeting the expectations that their pay check sets and a seeming acceptance of mediocrity and a mindset of ‘near enough is good enough’ through the club.
Change was evidently a requirement, and the Cowboys have got it in 2021.
Fitting the Cowboys’ identity as a tough, battler, working-class club, the club’s previous mentors Paul Green and Neil Henry have been of the hard, micro-managing and old-fashioned style.
It was reported that it was Green’s black-and-white, confrontational and authoritative style of leadership that had worn thin on the playing group. And the need for change was recognised.
Paul Green (Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)
The Cowboys’ board and Johnathan Thurston gave each of the final four coaching candidates – Josh Hannay, John Cartwright, Todd Payten and Shaun Wane – a task. They were to analyse the first half of the Cowboys’ 42-16 loss to the Sydney Roosters after being down 12-6 and then address the board as they would address the players at halftime.
Instead of telling players what was required, true to his calm and level-headed nature, Todd Payten asked questions of the group as to what they felt they needed to do to win, which turned into a collective discussion. This was said to have won Todd Payten the role.
The Cowboys need unity in the club. They need to play for each other again. This was no doubt a value of Todd Payten’s that was strengthened in his time as interim coach of the New Zealand Warriors, which was a success in unconventional circumstances, and his approach to the interview question symbolises this.
Todd Payten is also familiar with the club and has a rapport with many of the club’s core players, having spent time as the under-20s coach in 2015 before becoming an assistant coach from 2016 to 2018.
Calm, adaptable and stoic by nature, Payten has been praised for both his directness in communication as well the investment he puts into his players. This has him regarded as a mentor. This is a skill that would’ve gone from strength to strength in his time at the Warriors.
Todd Payten. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)
With Green, his assistant coaches David Tangata-Toa and Josh Hannay followed. Both have since taken up roles with the Canterbury Bulldogs and Cronulla Sharks respectively.
The role of the assistant coaches has evolved greatly. It was once to put the cones out and get the water ready. Now, it is hands on and acting as a teacher, specialised between attack, defence and development. It also involves devising new plays and strategies in attack or defence, whichever the coach specialises in, consulting the senior coach for their opinion, reviewing opposing teams to look for trends across all clubs and tendencies of individual clubs and how to counter each of them to win games.
Assistant coaches also need to be man managers for different personalities to form relationships and bonds.
Both appointments make for a steady balance.
Dean Young comes to the Cowboys with 209 games of experience, a premiership, an Origin and a Kangaroos cap as a player. This is accompanied with experience coaching the Illawarra Steelers’ SG Ball side, St George Illawarra Dragons’ under-20s and the Dragons in an interim capacity at the end of the 2020 season.
Dean Young’s time as interim coach raised eyebrows with comments made in press conferences such as “same shit, different day” and “we wouldn’t have beaten Dapto today”.
While Dean Young can be relied upon to bring the no-nonsense, say-it-how-it-is, perhaps brash approach to the club, his man management and character has been spoken highly of by many in rugby league.
Dean Young in his playing days at the Dragons. (Mark Nolan/Getty Images)
Steve Georgallis arrives at the club with a wide range of experience in coaching. Georgallis has experience at the Panthers, Tigers, Sea Eagles and Bulldogs where he was the assistant coach in 2020 following the controversial exit of Dean Pay. He achieved success in 2018 by coaching the Bulldogs’ NSW Cup team to a grand final victory over the Ipswich Jets. Having been part of both successful and unsuccessful sides, the insight and knowledge of Georgallis will likely be useful for a younger coaching staff.
Georgallis appears to be calm in nature and is regarded as a father-figure style of coach, who is more likely to give his opinion when asked as opposed to presenting it voluntarily.
The Cowboys’ NRL coaching staff is finalised by Ben Rauter, who played nine games for the Cowboys in 1999 and 2000. Originally from Canberra, Rauter was educated at Erindale College alongside Todd Payten.
An assistant coach at the Northern Pride in 2013 and 2014 under Jason Demetriou, and coaching locally in Cairns, Rauter is familiar with the North Queensland region. Rauter also worked as a police officer in Cairns. Rauter’s role will be focused on the players that aren’t playing in the NRL. His background as a cop may be indicative of a care for welfare, which is important in a role such as the one that he has been given.
Michael Dobbin resigned from the club as the strength and conditioning coach. Dobbin was previously at the Fremantle Dockers in the AFL and was at the club during their first ever grand final appearance in their 2013 loss to Hawthorn. They were at the peak of their powers. With the Dockers being based in Perth, requiring fortnightly air travel, Dobbin was hired due to his experience with a club that was constantly on the road. This is similar to the Cowboys, whose round trips to games sometimes consist of four flights.
James Moran is the new strength and conditioning coach. Moran was previously the strength and conditioning coach with the Townsville Blackhawks and the New Zealand Warriors, making for a sound appointment with his rugby league background. This role will be important with the injuries the Cowboys have had over the years.
(Photo by Albert Perez/Getty Images)
The change within the North Queensland Cowboys has also extended from the playing staff to recruitment and the club board.
Recruitment officer Clint Zammit had left for the Newcastle Knights to be replaced by Melbourne Storm assistant recruitment officer and academy coach Dane Campbell.
In March 2020, long-serving chairman of the club and Townsville property tycoon Laurence Lancini announced that he would step down from his role and he was succeeded by another prominent Townsville businessman, Lewis Ramsay.
Ramsay, the former GM of the Townsville Bulletin, can be thanked for many improvements in fan engagement that the club has made.
His media background likely allows him to understand the value of things such as PR. Since his appointment, the Cowboys have been more open, inviting and transparent, exemplified by announcing succession plans as well as detailed and more frequent press conferences.
Fan engagement has also increased, with a one-minute video of a cross-fit training session the players endured, and assistant coach Dean Young microphoned up in a training session. While these seem small, as a Cowboys fan, the latter in particular was significant.
Understanding clubs aren’t obligated to provide content that allows fans to have a look through the window at the club, in the digital age that content delivers transparency, insight and engagement and is positive to use. And that was missing from the Cowboys for some time.
The club’s general manager of footy Peter Parr had also stepped away from his day-to-day position at the club, moving on to a non-executive position on the board’s new footy sub-committee.
Former Cowboys and Warriors lock Micheal Luck has started his tenure as the club’s new chief operating officer, handling all footy matters. Luck has held roles in pathways coaching and HR within the club, and has widely been praised for his intelligence, which is hoped to be of value for the Cowboys as they move into a new era.