Former North Queensland hooker and club legend Aaron Payne has fired a salvo of support for his former teammates, claiming the squad is just weeks away from hitting top gear and challenging the NRL’s powerhouses.
But Payne, who played 219 first grade matches between 2002 and 2012, says much of their ability to improve depends on their new hooker rotation assuming some of the team’s kicking game responsibilities and freeing up the creative talents of Johnathan Thurston and Matthew Bowen.
The Townsville product says the Cowboys, sitting in 11th position after just two wins in 2013, is nearing their dangerous best – they just need to “put the boot” into their opposition and take pressure off their uber-talented five-eighth and fullback.
“Obviously they’re not as high on the ladder as they’d like to be but in saying that it’s very early days and there’s a long time to go and there’s plenty of time to find form and get back near the top of the ladder,” Payne tells NRL.com ahead of the Cowboys’ clash with the Raiders on Saturday night.
“I’ve got all the confidence in them to do that – they’ve got an outstanding team – but that’ll come with confidence and winning.”
Payne predicts the Cowboys will rebound and rocket up the competition table, so long as other players in the team – especially the hookers – take the kicking load off Thurston’s shoulders.
“They’re still trying to get some momentum happening. They’re trying hard and working hard and it’s only around the corner,” says Payne, who is a Game Development Officer at the club and who also works in recruitment and as an ambassador.
“There are a few games there they’ve played well without winning. Against the Broncos they played very well. It was a high-quality game and the Broncos only scored late to snatch victory off them. They’ve been thereabouts and if they string a few wins together they’ll get that momentum they need.
“It’s not the start they were chasing but I still think there’s an upside and I’m still confident we’ve got the team and the ability to do it. There’s still plenty of time up our sleeve.
“One thing they need to do is getting other people to do some kicking in general play to take the pressure off Johnathan [Thurston]. That was evident against the Broncos – he had a lot of pressure put on his kicking game – and a few other guys need to help out with the kicking games to make us not so predictable and take a bit of pressure off him.”
A quarter of the way through the season coach Neil Henry is still assessing the best replacement for Payne in the Cowboys’ No.9 jersey. So far this season, North Queensland have experimented using highly rated English recruit Scott Moore, former Melbourne utility Rory Kostjasyn and usual No.7 Ray Thompson in the hooking role – with varying results.
Perhaps their best performances, though, have come in recent weeks with Kostjasyn at dummy-half, although Thompson was also impressive off the bench last start against Brisbane. Payne says whoever gets the permanent job needs to take ownership of the team and free up thrill-a-minute Thurston and mercurial fullback Matt Bowen.
“You’ve got to take a lot of control of that ruck area and the game plan to a certain degree,” Payne says.
“That takes a lot of pressure off Johnathan and Matthew, and they can look up and see what’s in front of them and then play football and not worry about the team being in the right part of the field at the right time.
“It’s about taking ownership of the game plan and steering the team around to take pressure off Johnathan, and taking advantage of the ruck and getting momentum through there. When you go to an edge to our strike weapons, they’ve got a bit of time and space.”
The two-time Cowboys Player of the Year says each hooking option has potential, but gelling with the rest of the team is a process that will take time.
“I think they’re all trying their hardest but for Neil Henry it’s just about finding the best fit,” Payne says.
“They’re all getting used to our style of play and I don’t think anyone’s played badly, they’re all scampering for the position and Neil’s just trying to find out which one is the best fit with our style of play. It’ll take a bit of time but we’ve got time up our sleeve.
“They are all different players. Scott Moore’s an out-and-out nine but the other two have never really been out-and-out nines and they’re trying to… they’ve played in the halves and a lot of different positions. Ray Thompson’s played in the halves most of his life. Rory Kostjaysn has played a lot of utility and a lot of different positions. I don’t think either is specialised in the nine before – each is still getting used to it and our style of play. I think they will with time.”
With the Cowboys’ struggles in 2013, Payne admits he has weighed up the possibility of a return to the NRL, but says his new lifestyle has been just too enjoyable to trade in.
“[A comeback] has crossed my mind but to be honest I am enjoying retirement too much and the body just would not hold up. I know that for a fact,” Payne says.
“As much as I’ve thought about it, I definitely know I’ve made the right decision in retiring.
“I’m still involved with the club and still get to see my teammates, which is good, so it’s been a good transition. I’m enjoying the fact I can eat and drink what I like, when I like and can sort of get my weekends back. I definitely didn’t miss the rigours of an off-season in the heat up here, watching them go through that.
“I still miss playing a little, but I wake up Monday and I’m not sore so I’m enjoying it from that point of view.”
Payne says there’s nothing stopping North Queensland beating the Raiders on Saturday – or any team in the NRL. According to Payne, the key to winning is keeping it simple: frustrated Cowboys fans should definitely keep the faith.
“I don’t think there’s any secret recipe,” Payne says.
“I think if you do the little things right, you’ll beat teams 99 per cent of the time. Play like they did against Brisbane – hold onto the ball and get a high completion rate… work on the little things like kick pressure. It’s not rocket science – do those little things well and you’ll win games of footy.
“It’s early days in the competition and people just need to hang in there and stay by their team, they’ll be the ones to get the rewards at the end of the year. I’m pretty confident about that.”