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O'Neill backs Payten to instil Warriors-like resilience at Cowboys

Cowboys centre Justin O’Neill hopes incoming mentor Todd Payten can instil the same levels of resilience shown by the Warriors under his coaching when he returns to North Queensland next season.

Payten was an assistant coach at the Cowboys when they won the 2015 premiership and qualified for the 2017 grand final before joining the Warriors, where he took over midway through this season as interim coach.

Under Payten, the Warriors have overcome being forced to relocate from Auckland to Gosford, the sacking of coach Stephen Kearney, the loss of homesick stars, loan players being recalled by their clubs and a heavy injury toll to be the only team outside the top eight still in finals contention.

In contrast, the Cowboys ended a nine-match losing streak with last Sunday’s golden point defeat of St George Illawarra and may need to win one of their remaining three matches against Melbourne, Penrith and Brisbane to ensure they avoid the wooden spoon.

“We have struggled this year to adapt I think, which has affected our footy, but I look at other clubs like the Warriors and I think they have definitely had to do it a lot tougher than we have,” said O’Neill, who is an ambassador for the Fight Cancer Foundation’s Footy Colours Day.

“All the things we have had to deal with like flying in and flying out of games, and quarantining after games against NSW teams, they are not even at their own household, they are living in hotels, and have had to overcome a lot of things just to keep our game alive so it’s a credit to them.

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“I have been impressed with the resilience of their team and their playing squad, and just what they have had to sacrifice to be able to play.”

O’Neill, 29, is old enough to have played against Payten during his debut season for Melbourne in 2010 and worked with the former Wests Tigers prop when he worked under recently departed coach Paul Green at the Cowboys.

“He was a great player. He was at the start of that new era of skilful front-rowers and we had him in our squad a few years back so we got to see some of his coaching skills,” O’Neill said. “He has been in the Cowboys system before and we have done great things with him in the past.

“He was really good for us and I am looking forward to starting next year on a good footing with Toddy.

"It has been a pretty tough year and a pretty unexpected year so it would be nice to finish the season with a few more wins. That would definitely help us starting next year.”

In the meantime, O’Neill is helping to raise awareness and funds for the Fight Cancer Foundation by promoting Footy Colours Day.

“My wife’s grandmother passed from cancer and it is just such a cruel disease for adults to go through let alone kids,” O’Neill said.

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“Having kids of my own it was something I definitely wanted to support and help in any way I could to raise the awareness of kid’s cancer, in particular.”

While not everyone can get together due to COVID-19 restrictions, O’Neill said families, workplaces, schools or sporting clubs could host their own virtual or socially distanced Footy Colours Day and it can be held on any day of their choosing as there is not a designated date in 2020.

“It is the 25th year of the Footy Colours Day and this year is more important than ever,” O’Neill said. “Cancer doesn’t stop during a pandemic and it has taken an impact on the Fight Cancer Foundation this year.

“There are still ways around it with socially distancing or virtually have your Footy Colours Day at home or wherever so we can create awareness and raise some much needed funds.”