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Cowboys lock Jason Taumalolo.

Cowboys assistant coach Dean Young refused to use his team’s disrupted preparation as an excuse for their 38-0 surrender to Newcastle on Saturday night.

Former Cowboys Kalyn Ponga and Jake Clifford were two of the architects of Newcastle’s seven-try-to-nil rout as the Knights handed North Queensland their third straight defeat, and leap-frogged them on the ladder in the process.

Both teams are on 14 points but the Knights are ninth and the Cowboys are 10th because Newcastle have a slightly better points difference.

Young was in charge for the Cowboys after head coach Todd Payten remained in Townsville as part of a 14-day COVID-related isolation. Payten will also miss the Cowboys’ next game against South Sydney next Friday night.

The Cowboys had to cancel a scheduled training session on Wednesday as players and staff underwent COVID testing, and flew direct from Townsville to Newcastle on Saturday, but Young insisted those developments had no bearing on their lacklustre showing.

Match Highlights: Knights v Cowboys

"We thought it was a good week, actually," Young said at the post-match media conference.

"Obviously not having the head coach here isn’t ideal, but we had a really good training session on Monday, we were planning to train our main session on Wednesday, then the CEO (Jeff Reibel) came in before we started our video and said we had to go home, so we did.

"Then we waited until the next morning until [Cowboys head of football] Micheal Luck texted us all and said training’s back on at 10 o’clock so we trained the next day and we trained really well.

Cowboys prop Jordan McLean.
Cowboys prop Jordan McLean. ©Brett Costello/NRL Photos

"There were probably some positives in the week in terms of we got the Origin players to train, which we wouldn’t have if we’d trained the day before, and the direct flight here was great.

"We were here in an hour and 50 [minutes] and there was no long bus trip from Sydney, so we’re not using the preparation as an excuse."

The Cowboys never recovered after Ponga scored the first of his two tries in the second minute.

They conceded three more first-half tries to trail 22-0 at the break, and over the course of 80 minutes made far too many mistakes to mount any extended pressure.

Young likened the performance to their 26-24 loss to Cronulla in Townsville two weeks ago.

"We started the year really slow, 0-4, but got it together and went through a period where we played some decent footy," Young said.

"But the last three weeks, there’s just real big clumps in our game where fundamental errors are putting us under pressure, poor discipline is releasing the pressure on the opposition, and we’re not giving ourselves a chance now.

"I thought the second half there, we went set for set with them for 20 minutes, but it was all too late. If we did that at the start of the game, we might have been in there and in with a chance."

Cowboys fullback Valentine Holmes.
Cowboys fullback Valentine Holmes. ©Brett Costello/NRL Photos

Young said Payten did not have any direct contact during the game, instead trusting himself and the Cowboys football staff in Newcastle to call the shots based on the plans they made during the week, but did send him some notes at half-time.

"We had a plan in place. He wrote down some things and texted them through about his thoughts on the first half but I’ll give him a call shortly," Young explained.

"Todd trusts all his staff and he said that he was happy for us to take over, and he was just going to give us his thoughts about what he thought in the first half, and it was pretty similar to what we saw in the Cronulla game."