North Queensland Toyota Cowboys Under-20s coach Aaron Payne says a top-four finish to the regular season is still very much the goal as the team looks towards Friday’s Round 25 National Youth Competition showdown with Wests Tigers.
The young Cowboys – stellar in recent weeks with four consecutive wins – took a small step back on Saturday when runaway competition leaders Cronulla flexed their muscle with a devastating 36-12 win in Townsville.
It was the Sharks’ 19th win over the season, the result pushing the Cowboys back outside the NYC top four with two regular season games remaining.
Beat the Tigers on Friday and the Broncos in Round 26, and the Cowboys will finish the season in the top four and get a double chance in the finals.
Drop one, or both, of their next two games, and Payne’s young charges will almost certainly play sudden death footy in the post-season.
“We’ve spoken throughout the year about how we want to finish top-four and that’s still very achievable,” Payne said this week.
“It remains one of our long-term goals and we get a chance to redeem ourselves on Friday.”
Payne said last Saturday’s loss to the Sharks was most disappointing from an intensity and desire standpoint as the visitors were overpowered and out-enthused across the park.
“Each week, we set ourselves four targets – or KPIs – that we strive to achieve each week,” he said.
"During those four straight wins, we hit three or four of them each week … in the Sharks game, it was zero.
“So, we know where we need to get better and I’m certain the lads will respond in a positive fashion.”
The NYC Cowboys last weekend welcomed injured forwards Hiale Roycroft and Emry Pere back into the team, the pair having spent several weeks on the sidelines with lower leg injuries.
Roycroft slotted straight back into the back row, while Pere was strong off the interchange bench.
“Both boys were strong back into the team, and obviously we’re a better side with them in there.”
Pere this week was rewarded for a strong NYC season with inclusion in the revamped Cowboys NRL squad from 2018.
Payne said one of the most pleasing aspects of his job was seeing NYC players earn NRL contracts.
“It’s a great advertisement for our development pathways when we can get our under-20s blokes into those second-tier contracts,” he said.
“Emry’s deserved the opportunity and he’ll have some good company in the senior squad next year alongside Jake Clifford, Murray Taulagi and Enari Tuala."
In other team news ahead of the game, fullback Kalyn Ponga – promoted to NRL last weekend – will miss up to a fortnight of footy with a shoulder injury, while in-form centre Kurt Wiltshire suffered a hamstring injury against the Sharks, and will miss the Tigers match.
Cody Maughan will move from the back row into the centres as Hoycroft again starts.
Friday’s NYC match kicks off at Campbelltown Stadium at 5.35pm.