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Cowboys coach Todd Payten

North Queensland are only two points outside the top eight but coach Todd Payten has admitted "it's nearly goodbye" to their season if they don't improve quickly.

The Cowboys have lost their past four matches, conceding an average of 40 points per game in that period, and slipped to 12th place.

While there were promising signs as North Queensland shot to a 12-point lead over the Rabbitohs last round, they ultimately lost 46-18.

And with a clash against the fifth-placed Roosters at Townsville's QCB Stadium on Sunday, Payten has acknowledged it's crunch time.

"No shying away from that - yeah, our season is there for the taking," said Payten, who expects Maroons players Valentine Holmes, Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow and Francis Molo to back up from Origin III.

"We either front up and show what we've got and play the best we can - otherwise it's nearly goodbye."

The injury-ravaged Roosters are coming off a surprisingly tense 22-16 win over the cellar-dwelling Bulldogs but Payten wouldn't say they're vulnerable.

"I don't think they played to their usual standard," he said.

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"Conditions were difficult and I thought their ball-control allowed the Dogs to stay in the game for longer than expected.

"I can't imagine that their ball-control will be like that two weeks in a row. They're a good team, they've got some really good players and they know their game.

"We're going to have to play some footy, we're going to have to move well, we're going to have to compete better than we have done for a period now."

Payten is seeing promising signs from halfback Tom Dearden, who has yet to taste victory in four appearances for the Cowboys.

"He's improved from week to week. It was a challenge for him to come into a new squad," Payten said of the 20-year-old ex-Bronco.

"He's had a difficult time at his old club and he's come up here a little bit wounded in some ways.

"He has put himself in the game with the way he competes, and that's what I like about him, so if he continues to compete the way he competes, we'll be able to put the polish on his game," Payten said.

"He was involved in two [of our] tries on the weekend, he saved a couple of tries just by working back with the ball.

"I can see [Dearden's confidence growing] at training through the week. He’s certainly more vocal in our field sessions.

"We've asked him and the players around him have asked him and they want to be led. He's taking that on, so again, another step forward. We'll get there."

With NSW and ACT-based clubs relocating to Queensland for at least a month due to Sydney's COVID-19 spike, Payten said the "small advantage" for his team is the benefit of a home crowd.

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But while there will be "challenges" for the squads in biosecurity bubbles, Payten knows a "camp" environment can unite a team.

That's what he found last year as interim coach of the Warriors, who unexpectedly spent much of 2020 on the NSW Central Coast.

"They'll spend a lot of time together, get to know each other better and it can pull the group tighter together," he said.

"I just thought that over time I got to know [the Warriors players] as people just as much as I got to know them as rugby league players.

"That just allowed me to work out which way to massage my message to certain individuals.

"And they got to see me for who I was, I guess. Obviously, I could be as direct and not as direct as I needed to be from week to week. I thought that was a real positive for us."

Acknowledgement of Country

National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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