How rival NRL coach helped fire up Cowboys power man
IT was the phone call from a rival NRL coach that could be the spark behind a Cowboys forward pack resurgence.
Dropped for the last few games of the 2020 season and down on his luck, Coen Hess admits he had lost confidence in his own game last season.
But a call from master coach Wayne Bennett asking him to join the Queensland Maroons camp for the end of season Origin campaign was enough to turn it around.
It has sparked the fire back inside the barnstorming backrower, who believes a fast-paced pre-season under new coach Todd Payten has the club champing at the bit to kick off the season against Penrith.
But before all of the work on the fields in Townsville, it was the wisdom of Wayne.
"Wayne spoke to me and said I am picking you (for the Maroons) on what I know you are capable of. Him saying that gave me a lot of confidence. It made me believe in myself (again)," Hess said.
"Last year I was questioning myself a fair bit. But for him to give me that praise, as well as Mal (Meninga) and Neil (Henry) in the camp, I just tried to be a sponge and learn as much as I could.
"They drilled into us how important it was to train at the intensity you want to play at and that is something I want to bring into this year."
It has not been hard to transfer that onto the training paddock back home, with Payten bringing a similar mindset to the Cowboys pre-season.
It has been all about throwing out the old sluggish plays and bringing in the pace.
Pace onto the ball in attack, pace off the line in defence. Constant movement and the ability to play eyes up football.
The backrower who burst into the NRL off the back his explosive pace and footwork in 2016 has welcomed the change in tempo.
"This pre-season has been a lot more up tempo. We have trained for a bit longer. That is the way the game is heading, it is getting a lot faster. That is the way we wanted to train," he said.
"I think if you don't train at that level, you might get spooked come game day. A lot longer, a lot faster and a lot hotter.
"I think everyone puts in a good pre-season and then the good players can transfer that into a good playing season. The seasons are quite long and it takes a full squad as well.
"For myself, we have our new systems in place and if I can consistently do my role in the team, then I can put a good year together.
"Everyone has come in (to this season) with a spring in the step, and the whole mood of the group has changed a lot. Everyone has brought a lot of energy and hype. Everyone is enjoying it."
The Cowboys will need to dig deep into that energy when they take on last year's grand finalists Penrith Panthers in the season opener on Saturday.
HOLMES HANDED MISSION FOR OPENER
VALENTINE Holmes is a man on a mission, and it is a simple one from coach Todd Payten.
"(I want him to) play like the best winger in Australia which is what he was before he went to America," Payten said.
The Cowboys marquee signing, who gave up a dream NFL career with the New York Jets to return home last season will start life under Payten on the left wing against Penrith.
It is where he started the trial against the Broncos, playing outside game-breaking teenager Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow and the pair will again aim to become a lethal attacking weapon down the flank.
Holmes lost out in a two-man duel for the fullback role with Scott Drinkwater, with Payten opting for the latter's communication around defensive structures.
But the coach said he has not given up on Holmes taking the number one jersey back by season's end.
"There has been a lot of public opinion about our fullback position," Payten said.
"Valentine has spent time there in the past through the pre-season. I did express to Val that we haven't given up in him as a fullback, he just needs more time there under his belt.
"Scotty has played a lot of time there during his junior career and down in Melbourne before he came here."
"Val has been included in all of our spine meetings. I want him to think like a fullback during the week.
"We have played him at centre as well. I think he could make a good strike centre. There is many things that could play out throughout the season. Everyone needs to do their job, everyone needs to do what is best for the team and everyone is on the same page for that."
It is not the only big decision Payten has made for the season opener with Indigenous All Stars hooker Reuben Cotter and premiership winner Jake Granville both included on the bench.
Granville, who showed glimpses of reclaiming his speed out of the ruck in the trial, will play back up to starting hooker Reece Robson while Cotter will have a more daunting task.
He will back up barnstorming forward Jason Taumalolo in the lock rotation.
It is a nod to Payten's desire to play faster footy through the middle, with Cotter demanding selection with his performance in the trial.
"To be fair he wasn't in the 21 (for the trial) until we had an injury," Payten said. "He came in and he started, I thought his leg speed through the middle and his tenacity, the way he moves and defends and tackles, it just complements what we have in terms of our bigger bodies through the middle.
"He will be a ball-playing lock through the middle and with the way the game has gone we have seen the resurgence of the smaller, quicker locks through the middle. He is another to add to that."
McGUIRE DECLARES HE'S FIT FOR PANTHERS CLASH
Cowboys enforcer Josh McGuire confirmed the impacts of his hamstring injury are now behind him, and he is raring to go for round one.
However assuming his place in the team may not be as easy as it once was, with a host of North Queensland forwards looking to knock him down the pecking order.
The final week of the pre-season will be the 31-year-old's first full week of training with the side, but he is confident he will be ready to hit the ground running against the Penrith Panthers this Saturday.
While McGuire has typically been an automatic selection in the NRL, with a wealth of State of Origin and international experience behind him, the rise of several Cowboys has clouded his final position in the team.
Francis Molo is coming off arguably his best season to date, and with a new contract to fight for he has, by all accounts, been the most consistent forward throughout the pre-season.
Injured young gun Tom Gilbert is another who has punching above his weight and competing with the more established stars, while Wiremu Greig daunting 124kg frame has caught the eye of rugby league pundits.
That is not even taking into account fellow regular starters Jason Taumalolo and Jordan McLean, as well as journeyman recruit Lachlan Burr and Corey Jensen.
With round one teams to be selected today, McGuire is not fazed at this stage about where he lines up.
If anything, the heightened competition for spots has been a driving force to get back on the training paddock, and help launch a rejuvenated North Queensland contingent out of the finals wilderness.
"I don't like trials to be honest, high risk low reward those things," McGuire laughed.
"I always pride myself on my fitness so I'm ready to rock and roll I think, just need to get through this week and get ready for Penrith.
"I'm sweet, I think it's just another age thing - they protect me, I play the pension card. I'm very excited to be back with the group, the staff here have been first class and got me back ready to go.
"I'm just trying to get back to training with the team, Todd will decide what he wants to do with the team.
"It's just good signs isn't it that the club has more quality players in our 17 week to week. "That's what we need, we just need everyone playing good footy to start the year well."
The Cowboys will face one of the toughest tests they could expect when round one kicks off.
In Penrith, the defending minor premiers, North Queensland will confront an outfit who showcased the style of football last season that is set to epitomise the Todd Payten era.
The likes of Jarome Luai, Stephen Crichton and Apisai Koroisau played fast and instinctive rugby league, something Payten has encouraged throughout the pre-season.
McGuire said this first round clash would serve as the perfect indication of just how far they had come under a new mentor.
There are not too many unfamiliar faces in the Cowboys roster from the 2020 campaign, however the squad have spoken regularly about how vastly different the aura around the club has been since Payten and his coaching staff touched down in Townsville.
Now, McGuire said it would be a strong early indicator of whether they had learnt to trust their attack and believe in their ability to spark an offensive style of play.
"Obviously they (Penrith) are one of the form teams from last year, this year they've lost some experience but like us have some really good young forwards coming through," McGuire said.
"It's just going to be a game of chess out there, we just have to make sure that we turn up, we prepare well and we can win that contest in the middle to give our halves the opportunity to play some footy.
"They earnt the right to be the favourites. We know they're a very good team, and what better way to start the year off than the benchmark of the competition.
"You're here to win football games, so you may as well start against the best straight away to give you a real gauge of how your pre-season has been and where we're at as a team."
Originally published as How rival NRL coach helped fire up Cowboys power man