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Holmes still No.1 option in Payten's 'fast' plan to revamp Cowboys

Valentine Holmes is poised to remain at fullback under new Cowboys coach Todd Payten, who has kick-started a major overhaul of the team's structures and standards.

Payten has assumed the reins after a season in which North Queensland finished 14th with a 5-15 record. They parted ways with long-time coach Paul Green in July and Josh Hannay saw out the campaign in an interim capacity.

The Cowboys haven't made the finals since 2017 - when Payten was on Green's staff as an assistant - and the new mentor acknowledged he must reinstate high benchmarks and change the side's style.

And Holmes, who returned to the NRL in 2020 after a one-year sojourn with the NFL's New York Jets, looks likely to wear the No.1 jersey despite some calls for him to play on the wing.

"Val will be spending the pre-season at fullback. It was a big ask for him last year to come back from the NFL, the physical demands with limited preparation," Payten told

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"I thought his season was stop-start, he was hampered by [an ankle] injury, he was hampered by the COVID period."

The 25-year-old former Shark only played 12 games for the Cowboys - 10 of them at fullback. He filled the custodian's role in Queensland's game-two State of Origin defeat before shifting to the flank as they won the series.

"Even in the Origin period just gone, he hadn't played for seven weeks and playing fullback is a massive ask with the load," Payten said.

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"There are some parts to his game that he's very good at. He carries the ball [well] as a fullback. There's some awareness parts of his game which could improve, and that [comes with] time on the park.

"At the moment he's going to spend the pre-season at fullback along with one or two others."

Payten feels captain Michael Morgan, who also had an injury-interrupted year, is best suited as a "running five-eighth - but Michael is also our best organising halfback within the club".

"Some guys are going to have to lift their game if they want to be an organising halfback within the team and take the pressure off Morgo.

"It obviously depends on who's fit and available for us as well, how we structure the team, but first and foremost we need [Morgan] on the park and getting his shoulder right," Payten added.

Young playmaker Jake Clifford's signing with Newcastle for 2022 and beyond will "absolutely not" jeopardise his chances of partnering Morgan at the scrum-base, Payten insisted.

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Scott Drinkwater is another halves option.

At the heart of Payten's plan is transforming North Queensland into a "fast-moving" outfit which plays direct.

The club has been criticised in previous years for being too predictable and repeating the same attacking movements.

"We want to be an aggressive, fast-moving team, so we have to practise that at training," Payten said.

I want to peel back the structure and the mindset that we've been stuck in.

Todd Payten

"By that I mean simply it's the way we carry the ball, taking the ball over the advantage line and into the other team.

"And then it's some of our movements in the way that we defend. So that's retreating fast to get onside, getting off the line and making decisions quickly. If we fail, we're going to fail fast.

"The game's evolved, particularly over the last 12 months with the rule changes. The teams that were there in the finals time adapted better than most from an attacking point of view. 

"I want to peel back the structure and the mindset that we've been stuck in here for a little while.

"It's about getting our eyes up, reacting to ruck speed and capitalising on opportunities that may present themselves rather than sitting back, waiting for the next play.

"That's going to take a little bit of time, I understand that. But that's our philosophy moving forward as coaches."

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The former Warriors mentor is also determined to make the word resilience synonymous with his troops.

"I've got to work them hard at training - raise our standards around what's acceptable and what's not," he said.

"Senior players need to drive that as well. And putting our boys under pressure from a physical and mental point of view between now and the first week or two after Christmas."

Helping push Payten's messages are new assistants Dean Young and Steve Georgallis, who recently finished as interim head coaches for St George Illawarra and Canterbury respectively.

"They're different personalities. Dean's certainly more forthcoming with how he feels and what he sees. I've enjoyed that," Payten said.

"I've worked with Steve in the past, I know he's really competent but he'll sit back and wait for his opinion to be asked for. At the moment I'm really enjoying how we're working together.

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"Not just our coaching staff, but our high-performance staff. We're all getting on well and we're very connected and that's a big part of being able to do things well."

A host of youngsters like Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow, Daejarn Asi, Tom Gilbert and Connelly Lemuelu debuted for North Queensland last season and Payten is "excited" about the gifted youths.

The Cowboys are keen to snag a strike centre with strong defensive abilities but Payten said limited funds had made it too hard to recruit anyone of that ilk.

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Lachlan Burr, who has followed Payten from the Warriors, is the Cowboys' only signing for 2021.

"Lachie's a terrific person, first and foremost, and low maintenance to coach. He's fit, he's professional in his approach," Payten said.

"I would expect him to relieve some pressure off some of our middle forwards - Jason [Taumalolo], Josh McGuire, Jordan McLean."

Several players, including Drinkwater, Lemuelu, Justin O'Neill, Francis Molo, Jake Granville, Ben Hampton, Corey Jensen, Shane Wright, Murray Taulagi and Ben Condon, are unsigned after 2021.

"[We'll] see how they approach the pre-season and get some footy under their belts before we make a decision on any of those [off-contract] players," he said.

"I don't think the club needs to be in a rush, it's very important that we make the right decisions going forward."

Cowboys coach Todd Payten.
Cowboys coach Todd Payten. ©

Payten nearly pulled off a minor miracle by leading the Warriors to the cusp of the top eight despite huge adversity last season. But he's keeping a lid on expectation of the Cowboys.

"I'm not going to come out and make bold statements," he said.

"I just want us to be able to fight, compete, become a better defensive team and show some resilience - and I know we'll improve. I'll judge myself on that. I do understand it's a results-based business, but that's where my mindset is at the moment."

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