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Payten's tough talk strengthens Cowboys between the ears

Restoring their reputation as a mentally strong team is a key priority for the Cowboys in 2021 as co-captain Michael Morgan revealed he’d finally shaken off the pain of 18 months plagued by injuries.

North Queensland loom as one of the more intriguing storylines of the Telstra Premiership as new coach Todd Payten looks to sprinkle the touch of magic he gave the Warriors last year when they produced a season of inspiration in the most difficult of circumstances, isolated in Australia due to the COVID pandemic.

Payten turned down the Warriors' coaching position on a permanent basis to finally begin his full-time NRL coaching career in Townsville where he will look to rebuild a North Queensland outfit that’s underperformed ever since their charmed run to the 2017 grand final.

After three years of bottom-four finishes Morgan said Payten had delivered some honest truths in his first weeks in the job then completely transformed their training program and approach to football in a bid to reinvigorate a team that looms as a surprise packet.

Match Highlights: Broncos v Cowboys

"[Payten] was pretty honest with what he thought of us when he got here," Morgan said.

"We’ve worked hard to become a team that he wants us to be. We’re not there yet and there is still plenty of work to go."

The Cowboys were not at all flustered by trailing 18-6 at half-time of their pre-season trial with Brisbane on Saturday night, because for the first time in a long time they had the mental resilience to fight their way back.

NRL Trials: Broncos v Cowboys

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Part of the reprogramming of the Cowboys has been to restore faith in their ability to grind out wins, even when the scoreboard is not in their favour.

"I think it’s about trusting our game plan," Morgan said.

"You’re not going to blow teams out of the water in the first half with back-to-back tries early, you have to hang in there and be mentally tough and we haven’t been that for a while and hopefully this is the start of that now."

Being mentally tough has indeed been the biggest challenge of Morgan’s career in recent times. Last year he endured a shoulder operation during the 10-week COVID shutdown and tore his calf muscle four weeks into his comeback performance to end the season prematurely.

But now, Morgan looks and feels rejuvenated for a big year ahead.

"At times I have been pretty frustrated by it," Morgan said.

"I’ve had a full pre-season, I had a good break over the off-season and it’s a new place at the moment and a change, and we’re doing everything differently so it’s been pretty refreshing."