Todd Payten praised his players for “putting pride back in the jersey and in the club” and vowed the Cowboys will be contenders again in the future after a “disappointing” loss to Parramatta.
North Queensland’s remarkable season ended on Friday night when the Cowboys were beaten 24-20 at home by the Eels in the preliminary round.
The hosts led by eight points midway through the second half at Queensland Country Bank Stadium, but two quick tries from Reagan Campbell-Gillard and Maika Sivo turned the table in Parramatta’s favour.
The Eels reached a first Grand Final since 2009, giving the Cowboys a five-year extension for a first appearance in the NRL’s biggest game.
But Payten was full of praise for his players.
“I’ve always been proud of our boys. Yes, absolutely,” he said in an emotional post-game press conference.
“We gave some respect back to the place.”
The Cowboys lost to Melbourne in the 2017 Grand Final but finished 13th the following year. Consecutive 14th places followed before North Queensland slipped to 15th in Payten’s first season in charge last year.
In his sophomore year at Townsville, however, the former Canberra and Wests star has made a remarkable turnaround, with the Cowboys winning 17 games to sit third up the ladder.
“Losing tonight was never part of the plan,” Payten said when asked if he expected his team to go as far as they did.
“We shouldn’t reach the final. We shouldn’t make the last four and we shouldn’t make the top eight. […] But we were 25 minutes away from the Grand Final.”
Recalling the Cowboys’ fairytale run to the preliminary final, Payten insisted it should serve as the launch pad for the club.
“I want us to go out with our heads held high. I know you [the players] are disappointed, they really are, but we’ve shown some respect back to the shirt and the club,” he said.
“We have a good foundation, if we don’t fall in love with ourselves and keep working hard and getting better, we will be back here.
“It’s difficult to come here, we know that and that’s what makes the missed opportunity so disappointing, but we have a wealth of talent.”
Payten also paid tribute to the Cowboys fans who have stayed loyal to the players even after four disappointing seasons. Queensland Country Bank Stadium was a cauldron of noise on Friday night and the entire region has been gripped by NRL fever this season.
That’s one of the parts I love about this club,” he said.
“This is the heartland of rugby league, I am a rugby league person and they are my people.
“We have many children in our system who come from this area. […] That’s why it means something to them to play for our club.
We represented the people of the North, North Queensland style.’