Todd Payten praised his players for ‘putting pride back into the jersey and into the club’ and vowed the Cowboys will be contenders again in the future after a ‘disappointing’ loss to Parramatta.
North Queensland’s remarkable season ended on Friday night, with the Cowboys beaten 24-20 at home by the Eels in the preliminary final.
The hosts led by eight points halfway through the second half at Queensland Country Bank Stadium, but two quick tries from Reagan Campbell-Gillard and Maika Sivo turned the table Parramatta’s way.
The Eels reached a first Grand Final since 2009, stretching the Cowboys for a first appearance in the NRL’s biggest game to five years.
But Payten was full of praise for his players.
‘I’ve been proud of our lads for a long time. Yeah, absolutely,’ he said in an emotional post-match press conference.
‘We put some respect back in the place.’
The Cowboys lost to Melbourne in the 2017 Grand Final, but finished 13th the following year. Back-to-back 14th place finishes followed, before North Queensland slid to 15th last year in Payten’s first season in charge.
In his second year in Townsville, however, the former Canberra and Wests stars has engineered a remarkable turnaround, with the Cowboys winning 17 games to finish third on the ladder.
‘Losing tonight was never part of the plan,’ Payten said when asked if he expected his team to come as far as they did.
‘We weren’t supposed to make the finals. We weren’t supposed to make it out of the bottom four and we weren’t supposed to make the top eight. […] But we were 25 minutes away from the Grand Final.’
Reflecting on the Cowboys’ fairytale run to the preliminary final, Payten insisted it should serve as a starting platform for the club.
‘I want us to walk out with our heads up. I know they [the players] are disappointed, they really are, but we put some respect back into the jersey and the club,’ he said.
‘We have got a good foundation, if we don’t fall in love with ourselves and continue to work hard and get better, we will be back here again.
‘It is hard to get here, we know that, and that is what makes the opportunity missed so disappointing, but we have got an abundance of talent.’
Payten also paid tribute to Cowboys fans, who stuck by the players even after four seasons of disappointing footy. Queensland Country Bank Stadium was a cauldron of noise on Friday night and the entire region has been gripped by NRL fever this season.
That’s one of the parts I love about this club,’ he said.
‘This is rugby league heartland, I am a rugby league person and they are my people.
‘We have got a lot of kids in our system that have come from this area. […] That’s why playing for our club means something to them.
We represented the people of the north in North Queensland style.’