Cowboys' plan to unleash Hess
He rose to the occasion of a sudden-death finals match like a seasoned NRL veteran and Cowboys coaching staff concede they must find a way to give outstanding young back-rower Coen Hess significant game time in 2017.
A walk-up start in the starting 13 at almost any other NRL club, the 20-year-old is currently stuck behind Queensland Origin representative Gavin Cooper and fringe Maroons prospect Ethan Lowe for a place in North Queensland's back row.
Hess himself stated that he is prepared to bide his time and play from the bench or even drop back to the Intrust Super Cup but the coaching staff at the Cowboys are already devising a plan to make him a significant contributor this season.
An absolute standout when brought in for the semi-final against the Broncos following the neck injury suffered by Lowe the week prior, Hess is in his first full pre-season with the NRL squad but assistant coach Josh Hannay insists he will add a great number of games to his nine career starts to date.
"We have [discussed it]," Hannay told NRL.com when asked how to get Hess greater minutes playing behind the likes of Cooper and Lowe who each averaged more than 77 minutes per game in 2016.
"There's a way. I don't want to divulge too much but I think the club feels he has earnt the right to be there.
"'Lowey' was on the cusp of Origin last year and Gav Cooper's an Origin back-rower but there are certainly ways we can manipulate our forward pack a little bit to accommodate everyone."
With the club boasting an abundance of back-row talent – including reigning Dally M Player of the Year Jason Taumalolo – but a thin rotation of front-rowers, the likely scenario would see either Cooper or Lowe shift into the middle in order to accommodate Hess on an edge.
Hess and Lowe will both be part of Queensland's Emerging Origin squad that will gather at RACV Poyal Pines for a three-day camp later this week with Hess on a mission to absorb as much as he can from the coaching staff and more seasoned players.
The Mt Isa junior has been a perennial inclusion in Queensland junior teams coming up through the grades and knows despite any good impressions that he made last year a spot in the Cowboys' 17 is far from assured.
"Obviously 'Lowey' and 'Coops' have locked down their positions and deservedly so," Hess told NRL.com.
"I'm still obviously very young and raw so I understand that I have a bit of time on my side. If that's playing Q Cup for the year or even if I was lucky enough to jag a bench spot and be included into the team somehow I'm not too sure but I'm prepared to be patient, bide my time and develop as much as I can before I'm even considered for a regular starting role.
"Obviously there's a few players in the [Emerging Origin] squad who have had a lot of NRL experience; me being only nine games into my career I can learn a lot off the players but I'm sure the coaching staff down there will be very vital in my development."
A former Cowboys great who has returned to Townsville to work under head coach Paul Green this year, Hannay has seen Hess's work ethic first hand over the past three months and says the 190-centimetre, 113 kilogram behemoth continues to grow in stature.
"He's got an enormous future. He's just a massive frame and he's getting bigger in the right areas," said Hannay, likening him to Dolph Lundgren's character Ivan Drago from Rocky IV.
"He's not losing any of his mobility but he just keeps getting bigger and bigger through his chest and shoulders and thighs but he's still got a little waist and ankles.
"He's a kid that's going to make it because he's from Mt Isa, he doesn't take anything for granted and he's got a great work ethic.
"He's come of a pretty good season last year – in that semi-final against the Broncos he was unreal – but he turns back up this pre-season and it's like starting again. He's trying to improve, trying to work hard and cement his spot."
First published on NRL.com.