Veteran hooker Aaron Payne has labelled the next month the most important of the season for the Cowboys as they look to stay in touch with the top four without injured captain Johnathan Thurston.

Currently sitting in fifth spot on the NRL ladder and almost assured of a finals berth, North Queensland lost ground on the leading group following last week’s 38-18 loss to Wests Tigers and could see their top four hopes slip away altogether should they fail to beat the cellar-dwelling Gold Coast at Skilled Park tomorrow night.

The Cowboys have won one and lost one in Thurston’s absence and don’t expect their star halfback back for four more weeks but Payne said the remainder of the squad had the opportunity to set the scene for a genuine premiership tilt in his absence.

“The way I see it is that we don’t have him (Thurston) for another four weeks or whatever so it is a great opportunity for us to build momentum without him – and we can use that confidence when he gets back knowing that we’ll be a better team with him there,” he said.

“But we’ve got to play some good footy without him if we want to push for that home ground advantage in the finals. Obviously with JT not being there it’s a bit of a loss in terms of his leadership on the field but there are a lot of experienced players in our team and we’ve just got to help each other out, share the role and lead the young guys the right way.”

Payne said last week’s loss to the Tigers gave added importance to tomorrow night’s clash, with North Queensland now two points outside of the top four.

“Every game is an important game but especially coming off a loss… it is a huge game for us,” he said. “We still want to try and finish in the top four and get a home semi like everyone does.

“On the weekend I think Melbourne and Manly – those top-four sides really flexed their muscle and I think it is up to us to start trying to build a bit of momentum. The weekend was disappointing so this weekend is important to get the two points but also to get momentum leading into the back end of the year.”

The Cowboys enjoy a decent draw over the coming weeks with tomorrow night’s trip to the Gold Coast followed by games against Penrith and Canterbury. But he was quick to play down talk of an easy two points against a Titans side that has won just four games in 2011.

“There is always a healthy rivalry there against the Queensland teams so it will be a competitive game,” Payne said. “Although they’ve been losing quite a few games, they’ve been right in the thick of the games and testing teams. They’re still stacked with talent. They’ve probably lost a bit of confidence – but we won’t be taking them lightly.”

Payne, who is looking to build a career as a horse trainer once his playing days come to an end, warmed up for the weekend by watching one of his horses, Feline Irish, win in Townsville on Wednesday.

However, his immediate future remains clouded.

Off contract at the end of the year, he is hoping to pen a new multi-season deal to stay in North Queensland but has yet to open negotiations with the club and admits he could be forced to look elsewhere.

“The Cowboys have expressed interest but they haven’t put forward anything formal yet,” he said.

“I’d like to stay in the NRL if I can – I don’t really want to go overseas – but definitely if I can’t come to an agreement with the Cowboys I’ll look at another club for another couple of years.

“I haven’t got much of an idea what’s happening at the moment but the sooner I can get something sorted the better. It’s my livelihood and my future and my family’s livelihood.”

Payne and wife Laura are expecting their first child in early 2012 but Payne said the prospect of starting a family wouldn’t stop him from moving elsewhere if need be.

“We recently bought a big block of land and we’re going to eventually live on that when I retire but if I’ve got to go away for a couple of years, I will,” he said.

“I’m still hoping I can stay but we’ll have to wait and see what happens.”

Late NRL news:

•    Cronulla is likely to be without captain Paul Gallen for tomorrow night’s clash with Newcastle after he suffered a calf strain against St George Illawarra on Monday.

•    The Panthers are sweating on the fitness of star forwards Luke Lewis (shoulder) and Trent Waterhouse (knee) for Sunday’s crucial clash with Manly.

•    The Dragons are taking no chances with Ben Hornby and are resigned to again be without their captain for Monday night’s trip to Canberra, as he recovers from a fractured hand.