North Queensland coach Todd Payten has angrily defended his use of Jason Taumalolo after seeing his side destroyed by Penrith in their opening game of the NRL season.
The Cowboys were totally outclassed in Penrith on Saturday night, going down 24-0 to the premiership heavyweights in a game highlighted by Taumalolo's lack of minutes on the field.
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In 50 minutes of game time, Taumalolo returned just 55 running metres - one of his lowest totals and a far cry from his 2016 Dally M Medal-winning form.
Taumalolo is consistently one of the game's leading players in terms of running metres, frequently averaging more than 200 metres a game.
However, Payten has made the conscious decision to limit his game time, in the hopes of saving the superstar forward from potential burnout.
Following Saturday night's chastening defeat, Payten defended his use of Taumalolo, while also delivering a stunning spray about his defensive work against the Panthers.
"He got 55 because we didn't hold the ball," Payten said.
"That's got nothing to do with his minutes.
"I don't care the type of flak I'm going to cop about that.
"But I've said it several times. Jase is contracted here for seven years. If we cook him, 65-75 minutes a game, in three to four years, what value are we going to get out of him?
"This is a long-term decision about Jase's health and my ambition to hold onto the job, I guess."
Payten also said his Test forward needs to set a better example to the younger players when it comes to his defensive intensity.
"For anyone to stay on the park in the middle of the field like Jase does, they're going to cut corners somewhere and it comes in your defensive movements," he said.
"Your retreat speed, your linespeed, and if we let Jase get away with that, the young forwards that we have in our club, think that's the way we defend.
"It's not a decision around Jase. It's more a decision around the way we want to defend as a unit, particularly in the middle of the park."
The extraordinary honesty is the most criticism Taumalolo has copped publicly as one of the biggest names in the NRL.
Payten's tactics under fire from experts
However, several commentators suggested the Cowboys' tactics were the issue and couldn't understand why a player of Taumalolo's ability would be kept on the sidelines for as long as he was.
“I’m not sure what Todd is thinking in this,” Braith Anasta said in commentary for Fox Sports.
“He needs to be on that field more than he has been. Where is Taumalolo? Get him on there!
“I’m just amazed he’s not out there.”
Champion former halfback Cooper Cronk agreed that Taumalolo simply needed to see more of the footy against the Panthers.
“He’s one of your biggest impact players, he just needs the ball more. I know we spoke pregame that Todd Payten’s trying to get more effective runs out of him by playing less minutes but the big guy needed to be out there," Cronk said.
Payten did stress that the defeat was not just about his co-captain, considering he was benched for 30 minutes of it.
The Cowboys' ball control was deplorable with 18 errors for the game, including basic fundamentals that went wrong.
Ex-Queensland second-rower Coen Hess played 80 minutes for just six runs, 38 metres and two errors, while Jake Clifford and Kyle Feldt also had three errors each.
"It was a bit of concentration, a bit of fatigue. We tackled ourselves to a standstill and, in my opinion, we're lucky it wasn't 50-0," Payten said.
"We've got bucketloads of work to do.
"It was pretty positive at half-time. To give away that sort of possession and field position and only be down 8-0 was a real positive and the players felt that.
"It was important that we started well in the second half but that wasn't the case. They rolled down the field pretty easily.
"We just weren't good enough. We're a long way off."
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