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While Kevin Walters and Craig Fitzgibbon are in the running, Todd Payten is the coach of the year in waiting




In 2021, the North Queensland Cowboys won just seven matches. Their victims were generally of the lesser kind when it came to serious NRL contention.

Wins against the Tigers, Bulldogs, Raiders, Broncos, Knights, Warriors and Dragons accurately reflect precisely where the team was at, with only the Knights destined to qualify for finals play and a number of convincing beltings dished out in between those wins.

After a short stint as interim head coach at the Warriors in 2020, Todd Payten was lured north to Townsville after compiling an impressive coaching CV over the last decade. The squad he inherited was a disheartened one, with no finals action since 2017 and one sliding further into the abyss under Paul Green.

In his first season at the helm, Payten shocked a few with his criticism of star forward Jason Taumalolo, mounting what he now concedes was potentially unfair pressure on the team’s most important and valuable asset. However, his approach began a pattern that continues to this day, with refreshing honesty and bluntness in his words that is well out of step with some of his fellow coaches – those Des Hasler types who answer questions yet appear to say very little of consequence.

Payten is a rugby league journalist’s dream, with something of concrete almost certain to emanate from his lips whenever he speaks, and his emotional investment in both the team’s results and his coaching career is clear in his obvious professionalism.

At just 43, Payten is a relatively young coach, yet one who persisted in building for the future throughout 2021 despite the Cowboy’s continued poor returns. His frustration was obvious the longer the season unfolded, yet with a few astute signatures leading into the 2022 season and the squad now singing from the same song sheet after a full year under his guidance, the tide was to turn in quick time.

Cowboys coach Todd Payten looks on

(Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

Despite early losses to the Bulldogs, Warriors and Roosters, the Cowboys won eight of their first 11 matches in the current season, shocking the Eels and Storm along the way. Since that marker they have lost just two further games, with the Panthers proving too good on their home deck and the Sharks snatching the two points last Friday in Townsville.

In spite of that loss, North Queensland sit second on the premiership ladder, well behind the Panthers yet with serious claims on a top-four position come finals time. Considering from just how far back they have come in the race for finals in 2022, Payten must certainly be the frontrunner for coach-of-the-season honours at this point in time.

To lift a team from 15th on the ladder and into serious contention within the time frame he has is nothing but a coaching masterclass from the Parramatta-born Payten.

The early tensions with Taumololo and the clear vision he took into the club that appeared to ruffle the feathers of those with whom his ideas did not sit comfortably at the time make sense with the benefit of hindsight.

In the early stages of his Townsville reign many wondered whether Payten was perhaps attempting to do a little too much too soon, maybe instilling dramatic change incredibly briskly and placing his future relationships with players in jeopardy.

Well, those relationships seem to have survived rather well and are in fact flourishing amid the consistent and impressive success achieved by a team now feared right across the competition.

Only the Panthers and Storm have managed more attacking points this season, while North Queensland also possess a defensive record of which to be proud, one bettered only by the table-topping Panthers.

Those numbers are sustainable and do not lie, with minimal points conceded historically a prerequisite for premiership success. However, most impressive has been the style of play Payten has nurtured up north, with a powerful forward running game complemented by a willingness to shift the ball decisively when the time is right and with halfback Chad Townsend controlling the tempo superbly at the helm.

Payten has morphed an also-ran into a premiership threat in just his second season, established the foundations for a period of success with the young talent at his disposal and won over the fans and players up north through the implementation of a clear vision and slick execution.

For those reasons he is the coach of the year at this point of 2022, and should the Cowboys manage a run deep into the finals, Payten will almost certainly be handed that title officially come the end of the year.





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