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I picked the Cowboys to finish 12th

Well, I hate to say it, but I was wrong.

Late last year, I wrote a piece titled ‘Crystal-ball Cowboys: How the side will look in 2022’ picking the North Queensland Cowboys to finish 12th overall on the ladder this season, a slight improvement from last season but nonetheless, an improvement.

I was ridiculed. “Interesting take on things Gibbo,” wrote one commenter.

“Looks to me like a roster with a (sic) some aging stars, a couple of young players that should progress with another year of experience and a bunch of journeyman/underachievers. I see another bottom 4 finish next year unfortunately.”

Here’s another: “The Cowboys have been the most disappointing side this year IMO and I can’t see it improving next year unless they make a few more signings over the off season.

“I think their roster needs a massive clean out. They’ve got some serious plodders in that forward pack. Not too long ago they had one of the best forward packs in the competition, now it is just about the worst pack in the NRL.”

As it turns out, every single one of the predictions in the comments section, as well as my article, were completely wrong. “The talent is there but not the consistency or game plan.”

“Val Holmes should never have been signed…”

“I don’t see 2022 being any better than 2021. They look like strong contenders for the 2022 spoon.”

The joke’s on all of us. They’re not contenders for the spoon; they’re not finishing in 12th (that was the Canterbury Bulldogs). Instead, they are contending for a spot in the Grand Final!

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

I never thought I’d be writing those words at this time of the year in 2022. The only commenter who was near prophetic was the one who wrote, “I think it will take a herculean ‘Coach of the Year’ effort from [Todd] Payton (sic) to just avoid the spoon.” Well, if not the coach of the year, Payten has to be in the top two.

What sparked the turnaround? It was solid defence underpinned by a hunger to win and a commitment to have each person’s back in both attack and defence.

It took a coaching team thinking outside the modern coaching box and going back to relatively old-school methods of coaching to build intensity, resilience and determination to win.

Who are the standouts?

All season it has been Valentine Holmes. He plays like a man transformed at the centre position, routinely taking tough hit-ups and often creating enough of a break in the line to set up another teammate to score or even to score himself.

Tom Dearden plays fearlessly and is the first man up in attack and often the last man in defence.

Why was everyone so wrong?

Everybody, even the “experts”, underestimated this team’s ability to transform so quickly. Nobody denied their talent, but most agreed that the Cows were several years away from contending for the eight, let alone potentially getting to the Grand Final.

Most underestimated Payten’s ability to so quickly develop the culture that he wanted once some of the deadwood had gone and every single player on the team bought into his culture.

Payten could get a gig as a “transformation specialist” in just about any business in the country. The players play with confidence knowing the coach backs them to do their jobs and to do them well.

What are the takeaway lessons?

For sides like the Wests Tigers, New Zealand Warriors and the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs, it demonstrates that even after years of perennially bad results, with the right attitude, mindset and team culture, any side can rise quickly and get to the top.

It does, however, take work.

The legendary runs up Castle Hill (and take it from me as someone who has driven up it: that would not be an easy run) at any hour of the day or in the middle of training, the uncertainty around training, never knowing what’s coming next and the unconditional support of their coaches has driven this team’s success.

My heart tells me that the Cowboys will beat the Parramatta Eels and make the Grand Final, but regardless of the result, the Cowboys have already won this season.

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