North Queensland coach Todd Payten believes the future remains bright for the Cowboys, despite his team suffering a ninth consecutive loss to Wests Tigers on Saturday night.
The Cowboys were in the top eight 10 weeks ago but have not been able to win a game since their round 13 bye on the first weekend of June and the 24-16 defeat by the Tigers put paid to any mathematical hope they had of making the finals.
However, Payten was pleased with the performances of 18-year-old forward Jeremiah Nanai and 20-year-old prop Griffin Neame in their NRL debuts, as well as rookie second-rowers Ben Condon (21), Heilum Luki (20) and centre Daejarn Asi (20).
The club’s high injury toll has also forced Payten to play 32-year-old hooker Jake Granville in the centres and 29-year-old playmaker Ben Hampton on the wing.
Jeremiah Nanai scores a debut try you have to see to believe
“What excites me the most as a coach is the young talent, and our young kids. We have just got to develop them quickly,” Payten said.
“We are getting some hard lessons at the moment. We have got a lot of kids out there and they kept competing right to the very end.
“We have got two back-rowers who have less than five games starting under their belts, and we had two kids on debut, Daejarn out in the centres, and we have got Jakey Granville and Benny on the other edge.
Hampton puts Dearden under the posts
“We have got some good young kids and we just have to develop them and teach them the right way. They are getting some hard lessons at the moment about the speed of the game and the physicality of it, but they went after it.”
Nanai scored a try with his first touch of the ball in the NRL and it was Neame who threw him the final pass after winger Kyle Feldt kicked a loose ball infield and it bounced up into the hands of hooker Reece Robson.
“They were pretty sound,” Payten said of the debutants. “I thought Griff carried the ball really strong, and looked agile and defended well.
“Jeremiah looked threatening as well. He has got good feet and good hands. They will grow from that and hopefully they are here for a long time.
"We will just reassess where we are at with the rest of our squad but we have got to have an eye on next year and preparing for that.”
However, he was disappointed with the last-tackle options and kicking games of halfback Tom Dearden and five-eighth Scott Drinkwater.
Cowboys immediately take advantage of extra man with try to Hampton
“With our inexperience we need to get our last plays right and I think we kicked the ball dead three times,” Payten said.
“It is frustrating, but we have just got to be smarter. We are just low on confidence. We have lost as many as we have lost so we are just a little bit tentative at the moment and that is what happens when you lose games.
“We are just putting ourselves under pressure with either errors or piggy-back penalties. They [the Tigers] didn’t kick from their own half in that first 40 minutes so it was disappointing.”