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The absence of four gun players on Origin duty represents a massive challenge for North Queensland but such is the belief Todd Payten has instilled in his squad that they fully expect to return to the winner’s list against the Titans.

After having their six-game unbeaten run halted by Penrith, the Cowboys head into Thursday night’s game without Valentine Holmes, Jeremiah Nanai, Reuben Cotter and Tom Dearden, but they do have Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow and Murray Taulagi on deck after they were released from Maroons camp to play.

Another massive ‘in’ for the Cowboys is lock Jason Taumalolo, who has recovered from a knee injury suffered against the Storm a fortnight ago and is ready to match motors with a Titans pack missing Tino Fa’asuamaleaui and David Fifita.

“Jason is ready to go, he moved really well at training,” Payten said on Wednesday.

“He was as agile as I’ve seen him before he hurt his knee. The week off has probably done him the world of good as we move forward into the back end of the year.

Hampton and Elliot ready to step up: Payten

“Having Jase back is another strength for us on top of Hamiso and Murray being available. I think Hamiso will do really well in the centres. Muz and him have got a really good friendship and I expect them to have a really good combination out on the left.”

Payten also has the luxury of being able to call on vastly experienced duo Ben Hampton and Brendan Elliot to slot in at five-eighth and wing respectively, while Connelly Lemuelu joins the interchange bench.

Hampton has racked up 114 NRL games since debuting with the Storm in 2013 while the much travelled Elliot has 66 games to his credit in stints at the Roosters, Knights, Titans and Sea Eagles.

“We’re in a great position to be in to be able to bring in a guy like Ben Hampton who has played in two grand finals,” Payten said. “He is such a livewire around the group and he brings a lot of energy to the team.

“Brendan Elliot is a pretty reserved kind of kid but you can tell he’s really excited about making his club debut. Has been really professional and worked hard since coming in to the group.

“I think he has taught the guys who have been on the fringes a lot of the year about what it takes to make sure you prepare well whether you are in the team or outside the team week to week.

“He’ll be outside Pet [Peta Hiku] and both of them have enough experience to defend well together.”

Much of the Cowboys’ success in 2022 has been based around defensive intensity and Payten expects those high standards to be met regardless of who goes in our out of his side during the Origin period.

More than chasing kicks: Nanai has earnt his debut says Slater

“We proved to ourselves again [last week] that we have the capabilities to defend for long periods, they threw the kitchen sink at us,” Payten said.

“But what we took out of that game is that we have to be able to complete at a high level.

“We didn’t have to do a lot of contact at training this week because of all the defending we did at Penrith, it was more about building combinations and getting them comfortable defending next to each other.

“It’s about limiting their opportunities down our end. We want to trade sets and play the tough style of footy we played for the first 10-11 weeks.

“They have some real threats – Jayden Campbell is fast and string, AJ Brimson is a runner, Toby Sexton is a runner. We have to defend their run shape first, no dummies, and they compete on kicks really well, so we have to have no plays off and keep moving until we get the ball back.

“They will be desperate so we know what’s coming at us. We need to start as fast they will start and hang in there for as long as it takes.”

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