Todd Payten has well and truly transformed the Cowboys from cellar-dwellers to finals contenders.
North Queensland’s improvement was clear after six players were included in the Maroons squad, an increase from only three last year.
While having a large number of Origin players is a testament to how a team is travelling, it causes headaches for coaches.
Reuben Cotter, Jeremiah Nanai, Valentine Holmes and Tom Dearden will all be absent during the Origin period, while Murray Taulagi and Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow are free to play.
Todd Payten now has an upward battle to keep his side in the top-four through the Origin period.
Foxsports.com.au has analysed how the Cowboys will survive through the Origin period.
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STATE OF PLAY
The Cowboys have been the surprise package of the 2022 season, but so far haven’t had to deal with much adversity.
North Queensland’s casualty ward is one of the smallest in the league, with only Mitchell Dunn out for an extended period.
Against the Storm in Round 11 skipper Jason Taumalolo and winger Kyle Feldt suffered knee injuries, but the back-row enforcer is due back in Round 13, while Feldt’s return isn’t far away.
The Cowboys have managed to beat three of the top five teams on the ladder currently, before being bested by the reigning premiers in Round 12.
Todd Payten has steered what looked like a sinking ship to be one of the competition’s most electric teams after scraping by in recent years.
In 2021 the Cowboys finished 15th, winning only seven games.
Now just prior to the halfway point of the season, Payten’s side already have eight.
Coming through the Origin period unscathed will be the biggest test yet for the North Queensland side.
Injuries are common in the brutal state vs state match-up, and vital cogs in the Cowboys machine will be sorely missed if sidelined.
The importance of the four players who will be a part of the final 18-player squad cannot be understated.
Reuben Cotter has been simply outstanding for the Cowboys, playing 61 minutes on average in a middle forward role.
Billy Slater said that the 23-year-old was one of the first on the team sheet, named at lock for the Maroons.
Cotter is generally named at prop for the Cowboys, with both he and Jason Taumalolo having the ability to bash through the middle and feed their playmaker at first receiver.
In attack Cotter averages 115 running metres per game with twenty tackle breaks.
Meanwhile in defence the Mackay product makes 36.8 tackles per game, with a 93.6 per cent efficiency rate.
In his ten appearances this season, Cotter has only made a singular error.
Coen Hess will take Cotter’s prop position, shifting out of lock with the return of Jason Taumalolo, but his go-forward will be sorely missed in the middle for the Cowboys.
Valentine Holmes was a shoe-in for the centre role after lighting up the competition in 2022.
Although his stats don’t reflect just how damaging he has been, Holmes has had a huge resurgence, placing him in the conversation for the competition’s best centre.
Holmes is averaging 121 running metres per game, with nine line breaks, and a staggering 38 tackle breaks.
Many were sceptical of Holmes’ $1 million pay-packet after being moved into the centres to accommodate young gun Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow at the start of 2022.
But after being handed a challenge by Todd Payten, to be a full-time centre, Holmes has delivered in spades.
The 26-year-old left his contract with the Sharks to ply his trade for the New York Jets’ practice squad in 2019.
But returned in 2020 and is now repaying the faith shown by Cowboys powerbrokers by signing him on a long-term lucrative deal.
Jeremiah Nanai has earmarked himself as a true star of the future, but has already shown enough to be included in Slater’s starting 17.
The 19-year-old has been outstanding for the Cowboys, bursting onto the scene with strong aerial ability and ball-running skills, all from the backrow.
Nanai currently sits in fifth place on the try scorers ladder with ten four-pointers in 12 games.
The young gun signed a one-year contract to extend his stay until the end of 2023, but a contract war will then break out as clubs attempt to poach the prized talent.
While Nanai’s attacking stats aren’t outstanding, with 77 running metres per game and three line breaks, his work in defence is what stood out to Maroons coach Billy Slater.
“He is a good young man and his performances have earnt him his jersey,” Slater said.
“Not just chasing kicks and scoring tries, he has been doing a lot of work for his team, he made 51 tackles on the weekend in a really tough environment down there at Penrith.
“He really showed some toughness.”
Nanai will be injected into the game off the bench for the Maroons, hoping to add some spark in attack against a tiring Blues defensive line.
In Todd Payten’s current Cowboys squad, there is a wealth of backrow talent and Heilum Luki has been named as the man to take the role.
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Dearden was a Broncos discard only a year ago, with the Broncos allowing him to make a mid-season move to the Cowboys.
Todd Payten put faith in the 21-year-old and he has become one of the most deadly running halves in the game.
Halves partner Chad Townsend quietly goes about his business, steering his team around the park, allowing Dearden to run riot.
It would have been nearly impossible to displace Munster and Cherry-Evans in the halves, so Dearden’s selection as the replacement player is a sign for the future.
Dearden has scored five tries this season, averaging 53 running metres with an impressive ten try assists.
The Cowboys will sorely miss his attacking output through the Origin period.
The series opener is scheduled for June 8, and only two days later the Cowboys take on the Dragons on Friday June 10.
In the past, Origin players sometimes back-up for their club team on a Sunday or a Monday night game.
But never with a two-day turnaround.
That means Todd Payten will be without four key players for certain — Cotter, Nanai, Dearden and Holmes.
Origin players then return for Round 15 and 16, with both games set to test Todd Payten’s side.
In Round 15, the Cowboys face the Sea Eagles, who have struggled in 2022, before again facing up against the Broncos after the second game of the series on June 26.
In their first encounter the North Queensland side demolished Kevin Walter’s team 38-12, but the Broncos have improved since to sit one place below their cross-town rivals on the ladder.
The Broncos have five Origin starters themselves and will be hoping their stars will come through the Origin series opener unscathed.
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The Cowboys depth is set to be tested in Round 13 and throughout the Origin period.
Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow is a handy replacement for Valentine Holmes in the centres, shifting in one position.
January signing Brendan Elliott will make his debut for the North Queensland side after returning from the Super League.
Elliott’s versatility was clearly something Payten was looking for, being able to play at fullback, on the wing or in the centres.
The 28-year-old will get a start on the wing and will be a crucial man going forward over the next month.
Ben Hampton has slotted into Dearden’s vacant five-eighth spot and is yet to make an appearance in 2022.
The 30-year-old is a strong replacement for Dearden, fitting a similar run-first mould.
Young gun backrower Heilum Luki will get a chance to shine, slotting into Nanai’s spot and likely will play a full 80 minutes.
Nanai has regularly played the full game, but Luki has made appearances off the bench as well as one 80-minute starting stint against the Raiders.
The 21-year-old is an imposing figure, standing at 195cm and will be a crucial cog in the Cowboys machine through the Origin period.
Dolphins recruit Connelly Lemuelu will get his chance to shine off the bench for Todd Payten’s side.
At the beginning of the season, the Cowboys coach shifted the young gun from the centres to the backrow in an interesting move considering the club’s depth in the position.
Lemuelu played 13 games in the centres in 2021 and hasn’t taken the field yet in 2022.
But if super coach Wayne Bennett sees something in the young gun, then he could be set to showcase his skills through the Origin period.
His versatility is very useful for Payten, having his outside backs covered meaning the North Queensland coach can play props Jamayne Taunoa-Brown and Griffin Neame on the bench.
Named on the extended bench for the club’s Titans clash is Ben Condon, Kane Bradley, Brendan Frei, Riley Price and Jake Bourke.
Condon and Bradley are the only players in that group with NRL experience but Payten’s eye has been perfect so far this season, picking the right players at the right time and if called upon will slot into the in-form side.