Let’s be honest – even by the most optimistic projections, few people at the start of the year had the North Queensland Cowboys sitting second on the NRL ladder with just four rounds to go.

They’d been poor in 2021, finishing 15th after a 10-game losing streak under new coach Todd Payten, who was then criticised for his decision to bring premiership-winning halfback Chad Townsend north.

The team was viewed as too inexperienced, made up of a number of ‘good-not-great’ players and lacking any real impact outside Jason Taumalolo and Valentine Holmes. They might have been expected to improve on last year, but no one thought they’d become a genuine finals chance so quickly.

So what’s the secret? What’s the big difference that’s been the catalyst for the unexpected revival?

According to Cowboys hooker Reece Robson, it’s the little things.

“It’s hard to say (what the biggest problem was),” Robson told ZeroTackle.

“We started laying the foundations last year but we were still missing a few little areas where we weren’t switched on for the full 80 minutes and had a few lapses in concentration. We’ve built on that this year.

“Now we’re celebrating all the little effort areas that we’re working hard on but a lot of people haven’t been noticing. That’s been a huge part of our turnaround.”

Those subtle changes, driven by coach Todd Payten, have made a big difference to the Cowboys’ fortunes – not just in terms of the season, but in the 80 minutes of every rugby league game.

“We’ve put (a focus on) effort areas in parts of the game, so we can front-load our energy. Then towards the end we’re getting more freedom to score because of the pressure we’ve put on at the start.”

Now the Cowboys squad is reaping the benefits, but the young group knows they’ll only get out what they put in.

“It’s a big part of your life, footy, and when it’s going well everyone’s happy around the place. It’s a great environment up here, but the more we can keep building on that and working hard, the better it’ll be.”

Steady hands on the wheel

Payten has rewarded the club’s faith at a time when assistant coaches who've made the jump to the head role are struggling for support, both from the media and within their own setup.

Had the Cowboys followed what’s becoming the standard and dismissed Payten after a 15th-place finish, there’s a big chance North Queensland wouldn’t be enjoying the success they are now.

With two grand final appearances in the past 10 years, the club and fans have naturally started to expect success – but Payten also knew things didn’t need to be overhauled.

“I came here when (Paul) Green was in charge,” said Robson.

“But when Todd came there was no uncertainty about my role. We had a conversation at the start of pre-season, but things weren’t changing too much for me. I just wanted to play the best footy I could.

“When you get a new coach you naturally want to prove yourself and that’s what I tried to do, but Todd’s been great. He’s let me know what he wants from me and he’s taught me a few things. We just try to continue working on those things every week.”

Though Payten is leading the club’s revival, he’s not the newest member of it, with former premiership winner Chad Townsend arriving in the off-season. Though his departure from Cronulla – with whom he won a title in 2016 – was sadly acrimonious, he’s found new life as the leader of North Queensland’s attack and has been directly responsible for the club’s success.

NOW COWS: Chad Townsend and Valentine Holmes have reunited at the Cowboys. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

“Chad has been huge for us – game management is easily the biggest thing he’s brought,” said Robson.

Robson and Townsend’s fellow spine members, Scott Drinkwater and Tom Dearden, have both enjoyed breakout seasons in 2022. Dearden made his State of Origin debut and has constantly impressed, while Drinkwater has leaned into life in the No.1 jersey - his total of 10 tries in 2022 is already double his next-best haul.

Robson chalks the spine’s collective improvement up to Townsend’s arrival, and the freedom it’s given the young Cowboys to play in the way that best suits them.

“He’s really let me, Tom and ‘Drinky’ relax and play our own style of footy. We let him do the game management and steer the team around while we relax and play the style of football we enjoy. Tom especially, he’s been able to use his running game which is so dangerous.

“It’s the same with Scott Drinkwater out the back. Chad has really taken the stress away from us in terms of steering the team around, and Drinky just pops up anywhere he wants and does the freakish things he can do.

“It’s taken a lot of the pressure off all of us, not having to talk – or at least not as much as you would normally – when you have someone like Chad there. He speaks a lot on the field, and that helps me do important things for the team when I need to. We can sit back and let him direct.”

Though Townsend gets the plaudits, the entire team has stepped up this year. Robson is fourth in the NRL for made tackles, Holmes leads the league in scoring. Townsend and Drinkwater are both in the top 10 for try assists, back-row revelation Jeremiah Nanai is third on the tryscoring charts, Murray Taulagi leads the league in intercepts while veterans Jason Taumalolo and Peta Hiku eat up the metres in attack. The playing group are executing their roles remarkably, both as a team and as individuals.

The right kind of isolation

Speaking with Robson, who plays in one of the most demanding positions in one of the most competitive leagues in the world, it’s surprising to hear him use words like ‘relax’ so often – but you can see the comfort, togetherness and ease the Cowboys are playing with each week.

It’s undoubtedly easier to take a moment when you’re far away from the distractions and density of the big cities, and Townsville is about as far as you can get in the modern NRL – even Brisbane is closer to Sydney than it is to Townsville.

While it’s no doubt contributed to the city-based media denying the Cowboys the attention their second-place standing deserves, Robson says it’s another unique advantage the team is happy to enjoy.

“It’s a great lifestyle here,” Robson says.

“Being out of the way of the media is a massive bonus, being away from the limelight. You get out of that loop and it’s good. You come in, work on the things you need to and then you can get away from it.

“It helps a lot of the boys to relax up here, having that time to themselves.”

Full-team effort

But as much as we can praise the impact of a veteran half or the prolific rise of a number of under-rated young guns, they haven't done it alone. The Cowboys also have a number of players from that 2015 premiership and 2017 disappointment in the squad.

WOLLONGONG, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 28: Jason Taumalolo of the Cowboys looks dejected after a Dragons try during the round 15 NRL match between the St George Illawarra Dragons and the North Queensland Cowboys at WIN Stadium on June 28, 2019 in Wollongong, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Jason Taumalolo, Kyle Feldt and Jake Granville are all still representing the club and making an important impact – and Robson knows the experience these big names have is only going to prove more helpful when push comes to shove.

“They’ve been massive,” Robson says of the veteran trio.

“Having blokes like that in your side, who’ve done it all before, is a massive lift for us. As young guys in the side, just to have those blokes around – you know they can come up with the right play at the right time because they’ve done it before.

“But it’s also more beneficial for us when we get further down the track into the finals. They’ll be huge for us then.”

While the impact of talented veterans has had a run-on effect through the rest of the team, they’re also a league-leader in what’s become another key component of a successful title charge – the bench.

Last weekend Payten was able to call on Luciano Leilua, Reuben Cotter, Griffin Neame and Granville. Two of them scored tries and Cotter made an impact from the moment he was inserted, turning the tide after the Bulldogs started well.

There’s been plenty of focus and analysis of bench rotations this year – even at Origin level – and the way Payten and his team have managed it all has delivered results and impressed the dummy-half.

“The boys who’ve been coming on have really been lifting us and that’s hugely important,” Robson said.

“Todd’s great at seeing how the game goes and deciding from there what we need. Those guys coming off the bench can keep the intensity up – and even lift it.

“That’s really big for me, and if you can get them coming on at the right time to maintain momentum and keep your foot on the throat it really benefits you late in the game.”

With a run home that includes the in-form Roosters and both of last year’s grand finalists, there’s still a chance the Cowboys might miss out on second place. Though that could be seen as a cruel end to a remarkable season, they know it’s not the end of the world if things don’t go their way.

“It’d be lovely to get that home semi, would be great for all the boys to run out up in front of our fans in Townsville, but it’s not something we’re talking about,” said Robson.

“Sure, it’s in the back of your mind, where you want to finish and who you’d like to play, but we don’t put much energy into that. We just try and play our best footy week-in, week-out."

"We're happy to sit back and let our footy do the talking."

It’s a simple plan – and it has been from the start – but it’s working wonders on a remarkably talented Cowboys side. The only question hanging over them now is how far can they go?

The interview and writing of this piece took place before the tragic death of former Cowboys coach Paul Green. If you, or anyone you know is struggling, please don't hesitate to seek support.

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