A desire to keep in the top four will be the driving force behind the North Queensland Toyota Cowboys Under-20s side in their Round 10 encounter with the Canterbury Bulldogs on Saturday.

Cruelled by poor recent form and untimely injuries, Aaron Payne’s young charges have lost their way a touch during the past fortnight, with back-to-back losses to the Eels and Titans partially undoing some good early-season work that had the side winning six of its first seven games.

Last weekend’s late-game loss on the Gold Coast was a bitter pill to swallow, a late try to the hosts killing off the resurgent Cowboys, who led for large portions of the second half.

Payne, while disappointed with recent form, said some honest discussions had proved fruitful as the team looked to return to playing high quality football for the full 80 minutes.

“There were parts of our last game where we were quite good but there were far too many areas in which we were poor,” Payne said.

“This game against the Bulldogs is really important in our bid to stay in that top four and we look forward to getting the opportunity to play back to our standards again.”

Improving their own game aside, Payne said he was fortunate to be able to name his “strongest team in some time” this week, with several players returning from either National Rugby League duty, injury or representative commitments.

Given last week’s Gold Coast match was played in the NRL’s official Rep Round weekend as a catch-up fixture, Payne was without starting props Kaleb Fuimaono and Emry Pere, who represented the Junior Kiwis against a Junior Kangaroos team featuring Cowboys centre Enari Tuala.

Payne gets his two big boppers back, but young Tuala broke his jaw in the very first play of last Friday’s game, ruling him out for several weeks.

“Losing Enari is tough but with Kaleb and Emry back, we’re looking for them to lead the way and hopefully our other core forwards will follow that lead off the interchange bench,” Payne said.

Also returning to the team will be livewire fullback and NRL squad member Kalyn Ponga, who has spent most of the season to date playing NRL, but who this week made way for Paul Green’s first-choice custodian Lachlan Coote, himself returning from a troublesome calf injury.

Ponga will provide an extra attacking dimension for the young Cowboys, while regular halfback Jake Clifford makes his way back into the side after a week out with a groin strain.

Saturday’s match at Belmore Sports Ground kicks off at 12.30pm.