A "big decision" on Michael Morgan's career is looming as the injured Cowboys halfback prepares to see a specialist in Brisbane.
And with their captain's future in the balance, North Queensland coach Todd Payten said the club isn't considering a release for out-of-favour playmaker Jake Clifford, who is Newcastle-bound for 2022.
Speaking on Tuesday, Payten conceded he wasn't sure what to expect from Morgan's specialist appointment on Thursday regarding his troublesome shoulder.
"We'll have some more clarity after that," Payten said.
"In what direction, I've got no idea ... [The appointment is] probably to get another opinion. It's going to be a big decision whatever happens.
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"We just have to do our due diligence and make sure that he's gotten all the advice."
The premiership-winning pivot, who is contracted until the end of 2023, had a post-surgery infection during the game's COVID break last season and has struggled with soreness this year.
He played the first two rounds before being sidelined and has refrained from full-contact training for the past fortnight.
The club had been taking a week-to-week approach and initially hoped Morgan would return against the Wests Tigers on Sunday.
There have been reports that Clifford is wanted immediately by the Knights after halfback Mitchell Pearce suffered a pectoral injury.
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Clifford was dropped for last week's clash with Cronulla and has again been left out of the side, but Payten is loath to let him go.
"It hasn't been considered because last week we had to get an exemption to field Griffin Neame in our 21 [man squad]. I don't think we're going to leave ourselves short in that regard," Payten said.
"Jake's been good ... I can only compliment the kid in the way he's approached being dropped."
Elsewhere, Payten reiterated that veteran prop Josh McGuire, who is contracted next year, is free to negotiate with rivals and the club won't prevent him from leaving if he can secure a longer deal.
Interest from the Dragons has not developed into anything more significant at this stage as the club finalises a deal to bring second-rower Billy Burns to Wollongong in a swap with Penrith for prop Eddie Blacker.
Details of the move are being finalised with both clubs set to announce the trade on Wednesday or Thursday.
Back on the Cowboys, Payten admitted that confidence is low after their winless start.
The Tigers, who themselves have only one won game, won't be easy-beats after almost pulling off a comeback against the Eels.
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Tigers skipper James Tamou has played under Payten at North Queensland - he was the assistant coach when they won the 2015 grand final - and had nothing but nice things to say about him.
"Great coach. He was fully deserving of getting the Cowboys gig and a couple of clubs were chasing him," Tamou said.
"I know his style. He's a players' coach as well. Go and listen to all the things that have come out about him. He loves the team and he's passionate."
Tamou is wary of his former club.
"I hate these games against teams that are in a so-called hole. When their backs are against the wall, you don't what they're capable of and they're very unpredictable," he added.
"When you go up against the Storm, you know what to expect; you know what to prepare for. But a team like this with their backs against the wall and nothing to lose, they just play unpredictable football and sometimes that's the hardest football to play against."
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