Cowboys back-rower Gavin Coooper has challenged teammate Robert Lui to pick up where he left off last year and finally give Johnathan Thurston the support he needs to turn North Queensland into genuine premiership contenders.
With Lui and Michael Morgan both unable to train due to injury at present and Thurston not due back at training until after Christmas, the halves department is looking very light on at the Cowboys but Cooper is confident the work done at the back-end of the 2013 season will transfer into next year.
Injuries forced former coach Neil Henry to try a number of combinations before settling on Lui and Thurston and the numbers suggest it is a pairing worth sticking with.
In the 13 games that Lui partnered Thurston in the halves last season the Cowboys were triumphant on nine occasions, which includes the controversial "seventh tackle" elimination final defeat at the hands of the Sharks. Not a bad strike-rate for a side that won 12 games from 24.
After off-field issues delayed the start of Lui's career at the Cowboys, Cooper believes the six-game winning run at the end of last season uncovered just how valuable the former Wests Tiger can be for the club.
"Robbie's an unreal talent and he does complement 'JT' well with some of the stuff that he does," Cooper told NRL.com. "This year there'll be a bit more of a burden on him and 'Cootey' (Panthers recruit Lachlan Coote) at fullback with the loss of 'Mango' (Matt Bowen). It's something I hope they knuckle down to at the start of next year and something that will be really focused on at training.
"He's still in the injured squad for another week or so but I expect him to be a lot more vocal than he was when he first got here. He found his voice and place in the team in the latter parts of last year and that's because he was a bit more vocal and he took a bit of the heat off the older guys."
It is very much a skeleton squad operating in the Townsville heat at present with Thurston, James Tamou, Matt Scott, Brent Tate and Antonio Winterstein all still on World Cup duties while Ashton and Tariq Sims, Kane Linnett, Jason Taumalolo, Ray Thompson, Rory Kostjasyn and Joel Riethmuller have all recently returned from Europe and will resume training soon.
It makes for a challenging start for new coach Paul Green but Cooper believes the exposure to the standards expected in the top grade of many of the club's young players will have positive flow-on effects in the future.
"It's a little strange sometimes at training when you haven't got the big guys calling the shots or talking about what we want to do for the day but it's still hard work," the 28-year-old said. "We're still putting in a lot of hours, like every club is, but it's given a couple of young boys a shot who wouldn't normally get a shot this time of year. That's good to see, where the club will be heading in three to four years time.
"They're still very raw in everything they do and a lot of coaching to be done but I'm still learning at 28. There are a couple of boys there who are 19 so they've still got a long way to go but there are good signs there."