North Queensland’s chances of a finals return in 2022 don’t solely come down to Jason Taumalolo getting back to his best but they’re no chance if he can’t regain peak form.
Taumalolo and fullback Valentine Holmes eat up a sizeable chunk of the Cowboys’ salary cap but the club did not get value for money out of their high-priced duo last season as the side fell away dramatically after challenging for the top eight halfway through their campaign.
A mix of injuries and a drop in output from the pair was a major factor in the team losing 11 of their last 12 games to tumble from seventh in round 14 to second last, only ahead of wooden spooners Canterbury.
Payten reduced Taumalolo’s minutes in his first season as Cowboys coach in the belief that he was being asked to do too much over the course of 80 minutes.
The “less is more” approach was supposed to result in a greater impact from the star lock but it seemed to backfire in Taumalolo’s 15 appearances.
Renowned as the NRL’s best metre eater, he averaged just 155 metres per game, well down on his record of 207 the previous year and his lowest output since North Queensland’s premiership run in 2015.
His post-contact metres dipped below 1000 for the first time since 2013 and the Cowboys won just 20% of matches when he suited up, the worst record of his decade-plus career.
The 2016 Dally M Medal joint winner is 28 and should be in the prime of his career. He is under contract at a lucrative rate until the end of 2027 after signing a mega deal four years ago.
North Queensland can’t afford to have their marquee player giving them better-than-average contributions for their investment – he needs to be elite otherwise the diminishing returns will become more problematic as he enters the veteran stage of his career.
They have a similar dilemma with Holmes. Even his harshest critics wouldn’t say he was bad in his 32 games since returning to the NRL with the Cowboys last year after giving up on his hope of breaking into the NFL with the New York Jets.
He’s had a few injuries and been shuffled around from fullback to wing and centre but the Cowboys expected more and need more from him for their roster to be any chance of becoming playoff contenders.
Despite being one of the NRL’s younger coaches, Payten is renowned for his old-school approach of not guaranteeing anyone’s position in the team.
If that method works, a player will not get comfortable and always be at their best to ensure they don’t lose their spot.
But when the player doesn’t respond to the tough love because they don’t think they’re getting due recognition, they can go the other way. This is what seems to have happened with Holmes – his best season at the Sharks in 2018 was when he was given a decent chance to settle into the No.1 jersey despite the claims of Josh Dugan or Matt Moylan.
Once he found his groove, his form in the second half of the season was sensational and he nearly claimed the Dally M Medal, finishing third behind Warriors star Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Newcastle’s Kalyn Ponga in a red-letter year for fullbacks.
Holmes needs to prove that season was not just a flash in the pan. He’s been an elite winger since he came into the NRL seven years ago at Cronulla but despite plenty of opportunities at the Cowboys and with Queensland at Origin level, he has not delivered the goods on a consistent basis when handed the No.1 jersey.
The other issue Payten needs to sort before the start of the season, or within the first month at least, is which two players will be his halves combination.
When the club signed Broncos prospect Tom Dearden and Sharks veteran Chad Townsend in April, it appeared five-eighth Scott Drinkwater’s cards had been marked but he not only re-signed on a two-year deal, he was their best player in a disappointing season.
Dearden, who joined the club for the last dozen games of the season, has been rated highly as a potential star of the future since his NRL debut in 2019 but his form has suffered after experiencing a similar scenario at Brisbane where he was in and out of the team.
The least-experienced of the trio at 20, he is probably the likely player to miss out in the “three’s company” halves race but Payten won’t worry about reputations when it comes time to select his side for round one.
Drinkwater is versatile enough to find a place elsewhere in the backs but he’s developed into a decent five-eighth and his best days are ahead of the 24-year-old whereas Townsend, who turns 31 next month, is in the veteran category but still capable of organising a team with his kicking and passing game.
Veteran halfback Chad Townsend has joined the club from Cronulla via a mid-season stint with the Warriors while Kiwi centre Peta Hiku and young prop Jamayne Taunoa-Brown have also made the trek north with him.
They’ve turned over a large part of their roster with forwards Francis Molo (Dragons), Shane Wright (Salford), Peter Hola (Raiders) and Corey Jensen (Broncos) moving on and centres Justin O’Neill and Javid Bowen retiring.
Star on the rise
Heilum Luki was blooded at NRL level last season, making 11 appearances mostly off the bench and despite being a little rough around the edges, the 20-year-old second-rower showed he has a big future. The Cowboys have lacked impact on the edges to replace long-term duo Gavin Cooper and Ethan Lowe, and Luki has the size and athleticism to give them that much-needed point of difference.
Who’s under the pump
Payten to a certain extent. This should be the year where he gets significant improvement out of the team. Last season was about establishing his systems and making some long-overdue changes to the roster to get new blood on the Cowboys’ paddock. He knocked back the possibility of building on his impressive caretaker season at the Warriors for the North Queensland gig so 2022 will be a year where he solidifies his tenure for the long term or questions are asked about whether he can turn their fortunes around.
If they can make Townsville a fortress again, the Cowboys could be on the fringe of the top eight and potentially even break into the finals. But they need to settle on a halves combination quickly and for Taumalolo and Holmes to live up to their price tags.
They faded swiftly in the second half of last season when a few injuries struck – their depth is slightly improved in 2022 but still not enough to cover sustained absences from their better players. If Payten’s approach doesn’t start to bear fruit in the first half of the season, they have the potential to again finish among the also-rans.
1. Valentine Holmes
2. Kyle Feldt
3. Peta Hiku
4. Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow
5. Murray Tualagi
6. Scott Drinkwater
7. Chad Townsend
8. Jordan McLean
9. Reece Robson
10. Coen Hess
11. Mitchell Dunn
12. Heilum Luki
13. Jason Taumalolo
14. Reuben Cotter
15. Ben Condon
16. Jamayne Taunoa-Brown
17. Lachlan Burr
Others: Daejarn Asi, Kane Bradley, Tom Dearden, Tom Gilbert, Jake Granville, Ben Hampton, Laitia Moceidreke, Jeremiah Nanai, Griffin Neame, Emry Pere, Connelly Lemuelu