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Cowboys rope in Hagan to help as Payten transforms team from easybeats to finals contenders

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Expert
20th May, 2022
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Cowboys coach Todd Payten tried to get Michael Hagan onto his coaching staff as an assistant coach and when that approach was knocked back, he settled for the next best option.

The premiership-winning former Knights coach accepted an offer from Payten to join the North Queensland set-up in a mentoring role in the off-season after 12 months earlier declining an approach to be a full-time assistant.

Not wanting to make a fuss, Hagan’s appointment was never publicised by the club and he emphasised to The Roar that his role is merely to support the significant change Payten is bringing about at the club.

After a disappointing 7-17 record to finish 15th in Payten’s first year at the helm, the Cowboys have been the NRL’s big improvers in 2022 to already have the same number of wins after 10 rounds heading into Saturday night’s match-up with Melbourne in Townsville.

From his regular catch-ups with the coaches and the team, Hagan can see a united squad, one that shares all-important camaraderie on and off the field.

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“My observation, in terms of what I’ve seen and how they’re working together as a team, they look like a very close-knit group and that’s always a good indication of a team going well, when they’re pretty good mates on and off the field,” he said.

“They’ve got that model where they’ve got a number of young players who’ve all played a lot of football together and they’re building that cohesion not just for this year but next year and after that. There’s some tremendous talent up there and I think they’ve realised that potential a bit sooner than expected.”

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - MAY 15: Cowboys celebrate a Reuben Cotter try during the round 10 NRL match between the Wests Tigers and the North Queensland Cowboys at Suncorp Stadium, on May 15, 2022, in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Albert Perez/Getty Images)

(Photo by Albert Perez/Getty Images)

Rising stars like forwards Jeremiah Nanai, Reuben Cotter and Heilum Luki, winger Murray Taulagi, five-eighth Tom Dearden and centre Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow are thriving under Payten’s methods.

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North Queensland’s 36-12 trouncing of the Wests Tigers at Magic Round last Sunday was their fifth win in a row, registering 30-plus points in four of those victories.

The differences across the board when you compare against last season’s injury-riddled campaign couldn’t be more stark.

They’ve gone from having the worst defence in the league to trailing only premiers Penrith, a turnaround of nearly 20 points per game from conceding a laughable 31.2 to a seriously good 12.5.

The Cowboys’ dodgy defence meant they were ranked last for tries, line breaks and offloads conceded while they missed more tackles than any other team and were ranked 14th for the amount of running metres they gave up. This year, they’re top five in all those key defensive metrics.

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20212022
Record: 7-17 at 29.1% (15th)Record: 7-3 at 70% (3rd)
Defence: 31.2 points per game (LAST) Defence: 12.5 (2nd)
Tries conceded: 5.5 (LAST)Tries conceded: 2.3 (2nd)
Line breaks allowed: 6.7 (LAST)Line breaks allowed: 3 (2nd)
Missed tackles: 36.8 (LAST)Missed tackles: 27.2 (5th)
Offloads conceded: 10.8 (LAST)Offloads conceded: 6.4 (1st)
Running metres conceded: 1544.9 (14th)Running metres conceded: 1277.4 (3rd)
Points scored: 19.2 (12th)Points scored: 25.1 (4th)
Line breaks: 4.4 (12th)Line breaks: 4.4 (7th)
Try assists: 2.6 (15th)Try assists: 3.7 (3rd)
Tackle breaks: 24.9 (15th)Tackle breaks: 28 (12th)
Offloads: 6.7 (LAST)Offloads: 7.1 (14th)

But it’s not just their defence which has been transformed. In attack they were ranked in the bottom five for points, line breaks, try assists, tackle breaks and offloads. While they still don’t break tackles or offload at a great clip, they’re third in try assists, fourth in points scored and seventh for line breaks.

It all adds up to a happy camp in Townsville as they try to show their recent 35-4 annihilation of title contenders Parramatta was no fluke with a strong showing against the Storm.

Unlike last year when Jason Taumalolo and Valentine Holmes missed large chunks of the campaign after a chronic shoulder problem forced co-captain Michael Morgan into premature retirement early in the season, the Cowboys have enjoyed a near injury-free run.

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“There were games last year where we were putting kids together who had never played together, kids playing against men for the first time in the NRL arena, we had guys out of position and we were asking a lot of them at the back end of the year,” Payten said on Friday. “I know how quickly it can turn and we need to make hay while the sun shines.

“We’re in a fortunate position against other clubs, we’ve got at least 26 training each week so we’ve had the ability to get some 13 v 13.

Cowboys coach Todd Payten looks on

(Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

“Our second team, our Renegades team as we call it, have done a great job of preparing the main squad. We’ve got some really quality players in that team and they put our guys under pressure. We’ve replicated some of their [Melbourne’s] shapes. We’ve got a plan and then when things are going against us we need to fight and scramble. So it’s a pretty simple message.

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“A lot of focus has been on our D but our attack and ball control has given us the energy to throw everything into our D.”

Hagan said the team looks super fit, benefitting from a problem-free build-up over the summer months when the surgeon’s scalpel didn’t cause too many disruptions to off-season training.

The guidance of experienced campaigners in Taumalolo, Holmes and prop Jordan McLean, coupled with the acquisition of veteran halfback Chad Townsend and centre Peta Hiku has ensured the younger members of the squad don’t get too carried away with their overnight success.

“I don’t think you can underestimate the impact of Chad Townsend,” Hagan said. “Those guys having a good influence on the younger players and they become the on-field coaches in many ways.

“Everyone looks really clear on their roles, which is a reflection on the head coach.”

Hagan coached Payten in the lower grades at Canberra a quarter of a century ago as a young prop coming through the ranks who went on to play 259 games at the Raiders, Roosters and Wests Tigers, including the 2005 grand final, before retiring a decade ago.

At 43, he’s at an age that hits the sweet spot of still having a feel for the modern game but also being far enough removed from the current players so he’s not in that awkward spot of coaching former teammates or opponents.

“He reached out to me 18 months ago to be an assistant coach when he first got to the job and I said thank you but that’s not really a job I want to do anymore and then 12 months later Todd and the chairman, Lewis Ramsay, and Peter Parr, who’s now on the board and I’ve known for 20 years, approached me to put a bit of support around Todd in a mentoring role. So that’s how it started back in October,” Hagan said after flying into Townsville to watch the captain’s run session on Friday.

“Todd and I have spoken in the pre-season once a fortnight and then in season every week. I’m just looking at how they play, who they play the next week. Looking at the areas that he maybe hasn’t thought of or a couple of suggestions along the way. It’s very much a supporting role. He’s very clear on what he wants the team to look like.

“Todd has a real affinity for the club because he spent time here as an assistant coach. He feels very much at home here and very comfortable in this area. He looks quite settled and calm as a coach, to me, which is reflecting in a range of things.”

Payten said the team had bought into his methods and the results were there for all to see of having everyone on the same page. Playing the game “the right way” gives you the best opportunity to beat the best teams.

“[I’m] proud and excited about the brand of football that we’re playing, that’s gotten us to where we are at the moment. We’re going to have to do that for longer than we have done at any stage throughout the season. The players are starting to believe that it’s achievable and they’re starting to believe our message so it’s a good place to be,” he said.

“Our fans are starting to know we’ll fight and scrap, and do that for as long as it takes.”

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