Cowboys half Jake Clifford.

He spent much of his career feeding the greatest halfback in club history and now Aaron Payne believes Jake Clifford has what it takes to succeed Johnathan Thurston as North Queensland's long-term No.7.

A three-try, 18-point performance in the opening trial of the year last Saturday has put the 21-year-old in the frame to partner Michael Morgan in the halves in round one, locked in a two-way battle with Te Maire Martin.

Clifford made his NRL debut in round 19 last season and played six games alongside Thurston who encouraged him to make the most of every opportunity.

He did that and more in the 22-16 win against the Titans and has given coach Paul Green much to consider going into the final trial against the Storm in Mackay on Saturday.

Clifford's display against Gold Coast was far from perfect – performances of 21-year-old No.7s rarely are – but Payne has no doubt that in time he will come to make the jersey made famous by Thurston his own.

"I know he's had a real desire to play for the Cowboys. He's a local kid that has wanted to play for the Cowboys and no one else which is fantastic," said Payne, who coached Clifford in the final year of the NYC under-20s competition in 2017 and played 219 games for the club.

Cowboys half Jake Clifford.
Cowboys half Jake Clifford. ©Scott Davis/NRL Photos

"I know he's had a real desire to chase that dream and it was fantastic to help him with his development and see him reach that goal last year.

"His next goal is to make himself a regular first-grader and I know that's something he's striving to do.

"The more that he plays the more confidence he'll get and I think you'll see an even better player as his confidence grows.

"Any half that comes into first grade can struggle until they've played a little bit to have the ability to direct guys around and tell them what to do.

"Some players are reluctant to tell senior players what to do, even if the position demands it, but he's always been a good communicator.

"He'll get even better in that department as he gets a bit more first grade under his belt and grows in confidence as a player."

Given Martin and Morgan took the Cowboys all the way to an unlikely grand final appearance in 2017, the former Panther is likely to get first crack but will do so knowing Clifford is waiting in the wings.

Where Martin is more of a running five-eighth with clever attacking instincts, Clifford is a genuine No.7 with an excellent kicking game, good organisational skills and goal-kicking ability to boot.

The arrival of Jordan Kahu from the Broncos may make goal-kicking less of a deciding factor at the selection table but Clifford will heed the advice left by Thurston when his chance comes along again.

Cowboys five-eighth Te Maire Martin.
Cowboys five-eighth Te Maire Martin. ©Scott Davis/NRL Photos

"He always talked about taking opportunities and that's one thing I want to do this year, take opportunities when they present themselves," Clifford said after his eye-catching display on the Sunshine Coast.

"My first six NRL games, the first three I felt I was a bit shaky still and a little bit behind the eight ball.

"Getting used to that speed of the game and the contact and stuff like that, I feel like I've got a lot of confidence out of it.

"I've just got to be consistent every week and do my role for the team and take opportunities if they present themselves."

Declaring himself ready to step into the breach left by Thurston, the Tully Tigers junior intends to use the final pre-season trial to give Green little choice but to give him the nod to play St George Illawarra in round one.

"He hasn't labelled anyone, to me anyway," Clifford said when asked whether Green had indicated who would partner Morgan first-up.

"Let the training and playing do the talking and at the end of the day he's going to pick a half. We've just got to keep playing some good footy.

"T's a very good player, led them to a grand final with Mick and played a very good game as well so it's up to Greeny to decide that.

"We'll see what the trials do and then see what happens."