North Queensland Toyota Cowboys head coach Paul Green says that with the high-octane, free-wheeling fun of the Auckland Nines tournament over for another year, the ‘serious’ work of preparing for a fast-looming NRL season kicks in from now.
That starts with Saturday’s first main trial match against the Sydney Roosters deep in Cowboys’ country in Mackay, with BB Print Stadium expected to be packed to the rafters to watch their Cowboys heroes go around for the first time as a 13-man unit in 2017.
Green named a strong 24-man squad to battle the Roosters on Tuesday, with impressive teenage centre Enari Tuala a late draftee into the side, while first-choice hooker Jake Granville – who was to be rested – comes in for the injured Ray Thompson (knee).
Also absent will be co-captain Johnathan Thurston and Nines skipper Gavin Cooper, who played in Friday night's All Stars match in Newcastle.
Green didn’t play down the significance of the Mackay blockbuster, with Round 1 spots up for grabs and the game a chance to assess how the pre-season grind has been converted into form on the paddock.
“It’s part of our preparation. We’re getting ready for round 1 and getting ready for an NRL season, so this is the serious stuff if you like,” Green said.
“We certainly aren’t so interested in the result at the weekend but we are interested in what we get out of the game.
“There’s a few things, both attack and defence that we want to see happen, things that we’ve been working on all pre-season.”
Led by veteran props in co-captain Matt Scott and his long-serving pack-mate Scott Bolton, the Cowboys forward pack is a compelling mix of youth and experience, with Sam Hoare, Patrick Kaufusi, Braden Uele and new recruits Corey Jensen and Shane Wright included.
“In those (forward) positions there’s a real opportunity, particularly off our bench,” Green said.
“That’s what we want to see, those young guys to put their hand up and show they want to be an NRL player. I’m not set on the starting pack at this stage, there’s a couple of options there and there’s a few guys in the mix.”
Of the squad in general, the fourth-year mentor said: “It’s a good mix. It’s a balance between giving some guys some game time – sort of getting that match fitness under their belt – and also giving those young guys an opportunity to show what they’ve got.
“I’m just keen to see everyone get a run and work on what we’ve been practising on these last few months, and actually see how it holds up under the pressure of a proper game.”
Green said that with the departure of regular first-17 props James Tamou (Panthers) and Ben Hannant (retired) in the off-season, the door wasn’t closed on further recruitment, but he was satisfied with the strength and balance of his 31-man NRL roster.
“I’m happy with what we’ve got now, if I was to go through the season with this squad I’d be happy with that,” Green said.
“But we do have room in our cap and have a position on our roster where we could buy someone later if they did come up.”
Like that starting front-row position alongside Scott, Green said the bench utility spot – occupied in recent seasons by the departed Rory Kostjasyn (Newcastle) – was still undecided ahead of the March 4 season opener against the Canberra Raiders at 1300SMILES Stadium.
New recruit Ben Hampton (ex-Storm) will be looking to press his claim, as will a number of younger Cowboys, including five-eighth Kyle Laybutt, who will likely partner Hampton in the halves to start out on Saturday night.
“Those young guys … similar to that front row position, that utility role is probably up for grabs, so we’ll be looking at all those guys and see what they do on Saturday,” Green said.
Speaking for the first time about the injury over in Auckland to young centre Shaun Hudson – who ruptured his anterior-cruciate and medial ligaments – Green said the 21-year-old second-year Cowboy was “obviously shattered”.
Hudson hurt his knee while crossing for a try in last Sunday's match against the Rabbitohs, with scans back in Townsville this week revealing the worst possible news.
The former Titans under-20s skipper will have surgery in a few weeks’ time.
“His season’s done (but) we’ll rally around him,” Green said.
Tonight's game kicks off at 7pm, and will be preceded by the Cowboys under-20s taking on feeder club Mackay Cutters from 4.45pm.