The North Queensland Cowboys have been the shock package of the NRL in 2022 and now hard-running forward Coen Hess has revealed the physical and mental training that has the club ready to be satisfied with a second premiership.
After a dismal 15th-place finish in 2021 that included a 10-match losing streak, the men from North Queensland became hot wooden spoon favourites.
The additions of veteran Peter Hiku and former Cronulla Premiership halfback Chad Townsend – who had been dropped to reserve grade and then sent to New Zealand – inspired little confidence.
Hess has thrived under Payten’s tutelage and is enjoying one of his best seasons to date
Now the Cowboys are riding high in second place on the NRL ladder with just two rounds remaining in the regular season and a top four finish well within their grasp.
Coach Todd Payten has previously talked about the physical nature of the pre-season to prepare the charges for 2022’s dramatic turnaround.
“I thought we had enough ability, we had a bit of inexperience and I just thought we lost games in periods of games rather than moments,” Payten said on NRL 360.
“We needed to sharpen our guys up mentally and physically and we just challenged them day after day.
“We threw them some curveballs at different stages. We have Castle Hill here – we ran up it three times without any warning.
“We got them in very early in the morning for two reasons; beating the heat is one thing and making them a little uncomfortable with time management, getting out of bed and preparing for exercise is another.
“We made a lot of contact, a lot of tackling and we made them do things they didn’t want to do day after day. At the moment it shows that it worked.’
Now Hess has revealed that a secret boot camp in the Tully rainforest in far north Queensland was the catalyst for the Cowboys’ revival.
Not only were the players flogged to their physical limits, but they were challenged mentally under duress to emulate decision-making in crunch moments of NRL games.
“Toddy is trying to drive this ‘jump the fence’ idea. For us, it’s about going from offense to defense and doing it well,” Hess told Code Sports.
“That’s where we left off the last couple of years. We were caught in the transition between the two, so I think the army camp at Tully was designed to challenge us mentally to go, go, go.
“The army people specialize in jungle operations, so it was a very humid climate and we alternated between physical and mental challenges. We did it for what felt like 10 hours, had a little break and did it again.
“Toddy rewired us all mentally. He made us enjoy hard work and solving problems together under pressure.’
Reuben Cotter is one of the toughest players at the Cowboys and made his State of Origin debut for the Queensland Maroons this year
Hess said the mental exercises were the same used to train Australian Defense Force personnel who needed to make quick decisions in do-or-die situations.
“There were memory tests and we also spent a lot of time on secret hand signals,” Hess said.
“The idea of it is that if the crowd is that high and we can’t communicate verbally, we have little techniques, like what the army uses, where we can be quiet but still get the message across.
“We were taken into all these different rooms and there were 30 items on a table that you had to remember. It reflected back to us remembering plays and sets in football.
The Cowboys have become one of the teams to beat in the NRL and will play finals after many thought they would collect the dreaded wooden spoon
“It was all subliminal messages related to football life. With the army, in their field, it is do or die.
“You need mental toughness to push through pain and keep believing you can pull through. We need the same mentality when the game looks lost.
The ultimate proof in the pudding that the training was effective was when the Cowboys launched an incredible comeback to beat the Manly Sea Eagles 28-26 in a landslide at 4 Pines Park on June 17.
Trailing 26-12 with seven minutes left on the clock, the Cowboys scored three quick tries to get home and grab an important away win.
“The Cowboys win another one with an incredible — if not overwhelming — comeback,” Andrew Voss said in commentary for Fox League.
Coen Hess and Chad Townsend of the Cowboys celebrate after a memorable win
“Chad Townsend has this saying, ‘Win the game early and get the points late’ and that’s what happened in that Manly game,” Hess said.
“You can relate it back to the camp where we implemented some of these tools and strategies.
“No one panicked or was stressed. We played free-flowing footy. We communicated and remembered what works for us.’