Payten turned his Cowboys stars into Origin material. Now he has to pay the price

Todd Payten really transformed the Cowboys from basement dwellers to finals contenders.

North Queensland’s improvement was evident after six players were included in the Maroons roster, up from just three last year.

While having a large number of Origin players is a testament to how a team travels, it causes a headache for coaches.

Reuben Cotter, Jeremiah Nanai, Valentine Holmes and Tom Dearden will all be absent during the Origin period, while Murray Taulagi and Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow will be free to play.

Todd Payten now has an upward battle to keep his side in the top four during the Origin period.

Foxsports.com.au has analyzed how the Cowboys will survive the Origin period.

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SITUATION

The Cowboys were the surprise pack of the 2022 season, but haven’t had much of a setback so far.

North Queensland’s casualty division is one of the smallest in the league, with only Mitchell Dunn for an extended period of time.

Against the storm in round 11 skipper Jason Taumalolo and winger Kyle Feldt suffered knee injuries but the back row enforcer is back in round 13 with Feldt’s return not far off.

The Cowboys managed to take down three of the top five teams on the current ladder, before being defeated by the reigning Prime Ministers in Round 12.

Todd Payten has led what seemed like a sinking ship to one of the league’s most electric teams, having rocketed past in recent years.

In 2021, the Cowboys finished 15th, winning just seven games.

Now, just before halfway through the season, Payten’s squad already has eight.

Making it through the Origin period unscathed will be the biggest test yet for the North Queensland side.

Injuries are common in the brutal state-state match-up, and vital cogs in the Cowboys machine will be sorely missed when sidelined.

Completely silent in the kennel – who’s next? † 06:31

THE IMPORTANCE

Ruben Cotter

The importance of the four players who will be part of the final roster of 18 players cannot be underestimated.

Reuben Cotter was simply outstanding for the Cowboys, averaging 61 minutes in a center forward role.

Billy Slater said the 23-year-old was one of the first on the team magazine, named after the Maroons.

Cotter is generally referred to as a prop for the Cowboys, with both he and Jason Taumalolo having the opportunity to bash through the middle and feed their playmaker at the first receiver.

On offense, Cotter averages 115 yards per game with twenty tackle breaks.

Meanwhile, the Mackay product in defense makes 36.8 tackles per game, with an efficiency of 93.6 percent.

In his ten appearances this season, Cotter has made only one mistake.

Coen Hess will take Cotter’s prop position and shift out of the slot with the return of Jason Taumalolo, but his go-forward in the middle will be sorely missed for the Cowboys.

Reuben Cotter’s Origin selection could be a huge headache for Cowboys coach Todd Payten. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)Source: Getty Images

Valentine Holmes

Valentine Holmes was a shoe-in for the lead after lightening the competition in 2022.

While his stats don’t reflect how damaging he’s been, Holmes has had a massive revival, putting him in the conversation for the best center in the league.

Holmes averages 121 running meters per game, with nine line breaks and 38 tackle breaks.

Many were skeptical of Holmes’ $1 million pay package after moving to the centers in early 2022 to house young gunman Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow.

But after being challenged by Todd Payten to become a full-time center, Holmes delivered spades.

The 26-year-old left his contract with the Sharks to practice his trade for the New York Jets practice squad in 2019.

But returned in 2020 and is now repaying the trust of Cowboys power brokers by signing him to a lucrative long-term deal.

‘It’s not just the coach, far from it’ | 07:53

Jeremiah Nanai

Jeremiah Nanai has branded herself as a true star of the future, but has already shown enough to be included in Slater’s starting 17.

The 19-year-old was outstanding for the Cowboys, coming on the scene with strong air power and ball runs, all from the back row.

Nanai is currently fifth on the try-scorer ladder with ten four-pointers in 12 games.

The young cannon signed a one-year deal to extend his stay until the end of 2023, but then a contract war erupts as clubs try to poach the prized talent.

While Nanai’s attacking stats aren’t outstanding, with 77 runs per game and three line breaks, his defense caught the eye of Maroons coach Billy Slater.

“He’s a good young man and his performances have earned him his jersey,” Slater said.

“Not just chasing kicks and scoring attempts, he has done a lot of work for his team, he made 51 tackles over the weekend in a very difficult environment there at Penrith.

“He really showed some toughness.”

Nanai is brought into play for the Maroons from the bench, hoping to add some spark on offense against a tiresome Blues defense line.

There is a wealth of retarded talent on Todd Payten’s current Cowboys squad and Heilum Luki has been named as the man to take on the role.

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Jeremiah Nanai was a crucial player for the Cowboys this season Photo: Zak SimmondsSource: News Corp Australia

Tom Dearden

Dearden was a Broncos eliminator just a year ago, with the Broncos allowing him to move to the Cowboys mid-season.

Todd Payten put his trust in the 21-year-old and he has become one of the deadliest halves in the game.

Half-partner Chad Townsend quietly does his job and sends his team through the park, giving Dearden a chance to cause an uproar.

It would have been nearly impossible to replace Munster and Cherry-Evans in the half, so Dearden’s selection as a substitute is a sign for the future.

Dearden has scored five tries this season, with an average of 53 meters and a whopping ten assists.

The Cowboys will greatly miss his offensive output during the Origin period.

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MATCH UPS

The series opener is set for June 8, and just two days later, the Cowboys will face the Dragons on Friday, June 10.

In the past, Origin players would sometimes back up their club team during a Sunday or Monday night game.

But never with a lead time of two days.

That means Todd Payten will definitely be without four protagonists: Cotter, Nanai, Dearden, and Holmes.

Origin players will then return for rounds 15 and 16, with both games set to test Todd Payten’s side.

In Round 15, the Cowboys will face the Sea Eagles, who struggled in 2022, before having to face the Broncos again after the second game of the series on June 26.

In their first meeting, the North Queensland side destroyed Kevin Walter’s team 38-12, but the Broncos have since improved by being one place below their city rivals on the ladder.

The Broncos have five Origin starters of their own and are hoping their stars will make it through the opening game of the Origin series unscathed.

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DEPTH

The Cowboys depth will be tested in round 13 and throughout the Origin period.

Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow is a handy substitute for Valentine Holmes in the centers, who shifts into one position.

January endorsement Brendan Elliott will make his debut for the North Queensland side after returning from the Super League.

Elliott’s versatility was clearly something Payten was looking for, to be able to play at fullback, on the wing or in the centres.

The 28-year-old will get a start on the flank and will be a crucial man in the coming month.

Ben Hampton has fallen to Dearden’s vacant five-eighth spot and is yet to appear in 2022.

Slater discusses Origin debutants | 06:23

The 30-year-old is a strong replacement for Dearden, who fits a similar run-first mold.

Young gun shooter Heilum Luki will have the chance to shine, fall on Nanai’s spot and will likely play for 80 minutes.

Nanai regularly played the entire game, but Luki also appeared off the bench in an 80-minute stint against the Raiders.

The 21-year-old is an imposing figure with a height of 195cm and will be a crucial cog in the Cowboys machine during the Origin period.

Dolphins recruiting Connelly Lemuelu get a chance to shine off the couch for Todd Payten’s side.

At the start of the season, the Cowboys coach moved the young gun from center to back row in an interesting move given the club’s depth in position.

Cowboys’ Connelly Lemuelu could be a pivotal figure during the Origin period. Photo: Brendan RadkeSource: News Corp Australia

Lemuelu played 13 games at the centers in 2021 and did not come on the field in 2022.

But if supercoach Wayne Bennett sees something in the young gun, he can show his skills during the Origin period.

His versatility is very useful for Payten as his outside backs are covered meaning North Queensland coach can play props Jamayne Taunoa-Brown and Griffin Neame on the bench.

Ben Condon, Kane Bradley, Brendan Frei, Riley Price and Jake Bourke are on the extended bench for the club’s Titans clash.

Condon and Bradley are the only players in that group with NRL experience, but Payten’s eye has been perfect so far this season, picking the right players at the right time and, when called upon, in to get into shape.

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