Payten right in mix for NRL coaching gong

·4-min read

It speaks volumes of coach Todd Payten who is quick to defer the accolades to his wider North Queensland group even though he is the architect behind the Cowboys' success this season.

After four straight bottom-four NRL finishes, the Cowboys sit on the precipice of the 2022 grand final.

Payten has transformed a team that few gave a semblance of a competitive chance this season.

The Cowboys finished 2022 with a club equalling record 17 wins, eclipsing their total from last year in just 10 rounds and has Payten almost a lock for coach of the year.

Payten's side's turnaround has been nothing short of miraculous but there's a case for many around the league to take out coaching honour.

Ivan Cleary led Penrith to another minor premiership, only four losses in 2022 and another shot at the NRL grand final.

Jason Demetriou has South Sydney on the cusp of back-to-back grand finals in his first year as coach after what was supposedly a rebuilding year for the Rabbitohs.

Another rookie coach, Craig Fitzgibbon, steered Cronulla to second on the ladder before his side bowed out of the finals in straight sets.

But the man that's orchestrated rugby league's best story in 2022 is Payten, taking the worst defensive team last year to second best and flipping the script on his once wooden-spoon tipped club.

He found Valentine Holmes a spot in the centres after a shift from fullback, partnered young Tom Dearden with an experienced playmaker in Chad Townsend, and successfully fine-tuned Jason Taumalolo's game to maximise his impact on fewer minutes.

Nine players earned call ups to Queensland and NSW's State of Origin squads after two made it last year, while the majority of their promising youth have inked long-term extensions this season.

It might be sheer coincidence but Payten knew his North Queensland side was the real deal when they hammered Parramatta 35-4 in round eight.

The Cowboys entered the game in Darwin with a 4-3 record and trounced the Eels in humid conditions in the top-end.

That was game three of a five-match win streak, the highest they would achieve in 2022, and now they face Parramatta again in hot and sticky Townsville for a crack at the big dance.

Payten said their round-eight win over the Eels was the moment he and his players realised they had the means to go far in 2022.

But what does Payten think of his side's turnaround?

"It's been a journey but you've got to put yourself in the frame by going after it," he told AAP.

"It didn't just all happen quickly for our squad , it was sort of two steps forward one step backwards.

"Some games last year we copped a beating but we didn't turn it in, which held us in good stead to build upon."

And build they did, Queensland Country Bank Stadium proving to be the second toughest away trip in the NRL this year with the Cowboys no blowover on the road either finishing 9-3 away from home.

A lack of major injuries allowed Payten to use 24 players all season, and they all buy in to his coaching style and openness in communications.

Something Payten learnt himself as a prop forward.

"As a player I always liked honest feedback. That's the way I coach," Payten said.

It's also the mantra adopted by mentor Tim Sheens, who gave Payten his debut in the NRL as a player and head coach of Wests Tigers NYC side.

The 43-year-old will bring up his half century in games coached for North Queensland on Friday and could secure coach of the year even if they dont progress further.

Payten said it was nice to be in the conversation for the coaching gong but the entire organisation should take the credit.

"It's nice, but I'm the face of a team effort. Everyone's done a great job," he said.

"When you've got the right people and people are working hard and doing their jobs and for the right reasons - good things can happen and that's what's happened."

Co-captain Taumalolo said Payten's management of players separated him from the rest.

"Toddy has never wavered with his decisions. He's a tough guy and person when he's making tough decisions, but he's a fair and honest person too," he told AAP.

'That's what's made him a great coach and a great leader.

"Me and Chaddy (Townsend) are great co-captains but it all starts from the top and that's Toddy."