North Queensland centre Peta Hiku has played every game this year in one of his best seasons yet and credits coach Todd Payten for igniting his stellar NRL form.
The 29-year-old former New Zealand Warrior jumped at the chance to reunite with Payten when his career hit an injury roadblock.
"When Toddy was at the Warriors (in 2019 and 2020) I knew I wanted to be coached by him again just because of how good a mentor he was with me and all the players," Hiku told AAP ahead of the Cowboys' away qualifying final with Cronulla on Saturday night.
Hiku was at the Warriors while Payten was assistant coach and then the interim head coach.
When Payten became head coach of the Cowboys in 2021, the New Zealand international knew he wanted to rekindle their partnership. It was just a matter of making it happen.
Hiku was ruled out for the season with a shoulder injury in May of last year while contracted to the Warriors. Within a fortnight he had signed a two-year deal with the Cowboys.
"It was always on the cards that we'd link up again because I was off-contract when Toddy left the Warriors," Hiku said.
"I spoke to him and he suggested I leave it a year because he didn't know at the time what the contract situation was up here.
"When I got injured last year Toddy had to put a lot of trust in me that I could come back fitter and stronger."
Hiku said that faith lit a fire in him to prove Payten had made the right call to back him to get back to his best.
"I wanted to prove he'd made the right decision," Hiku said.
"Pre-season was mentally and physically tough but I was finally able to get a full one under my belt after being on tours or carrying injuries previously.
"I wouldn't say I've had my best ever performances this year, but I would say that my best performances and my worst have not been too far apart.
"That has made it one of the best and most enjoyable years I've ever had."
Every coach has a game plan but Hiku said Payten involves the playing group with the decisions he makes and is willing to adapt.
"Not only do we buy into his plans, he buys into our ideas as well. If it works, he gives it a go. That is what makes him such a good coach, and us a better team."
The last finals series Hiku played was in 2018 at the Warriors.
"I am excited to play in September. For a lot of the players it is their first finals series and we have just got to enjoy it," he said.