North Queensland Cowboys coach Todd Payten has failed to get the best out of his $1 million wrecking ball, Jason Taumalolo this season.
Although the Cowboys are currently languishing towards the bottom of the ladder and will miss the finals for a fourth consecutive season, there is a lot to like about Payten’s coaching philosophy which was to transform a stale, predictable, overly structured team into an aggressive, fast-moving team to keep up with the speed of the modern game.
But what has been perplexing to everyone from the outside looking in, is why he felt the need to try and fix the one part of the Cowboys side that was not broken.
Not only has Payten confused Taumalolo, but he has also confused himself on how to use him.
Upon his arrival at the club, Payten was adamant of getting ‘quality over quantity’ from Taumalolo. It sounds like it would make sense, but for the bizarre reasons that he wanted to ensure the club will get a return on their long-term investment – and his own ambition to hold on to the job as head coach long term – over what the team needed from their newly appointed captain this year.
Taumalolo rose to groundbreaking heights in 2015, playing alongside Matt Scott and James Tamou in the middle-third of the field. He became a wrecking ball and played a pivotal role in the Cowboys maiden premiership.
In 2016, he was even more destructive. He went on to win the Dally M medal and at the time, he was arguably in the top two or three players in the game.
In 2017, co-captains Johnathan Thurston and Matt Scott suffered season-ending injuries, Taumalolo again took his game to another level and was instrumental in the Cowboys memorable run to another grand final appearance.Embed from Getty Images
He became a genuine leader within the club.
Even these past few seasons where the side has struggled to finish any higher than 13th position, Taumalolo has been a clear standout.
He would average around 200 run metres per game for the past four seasons and it was normal for him to ease his way into a contest during his first stint, interchanged for a 10-minute breather and would produce his destructive best during his second stint.
This season, his average run metres has dropped to around 150. But it is the way he has been rotated which leaves much to be desired. It is as if there is a pre-game plan on when he is interchanged, regardless of the game situation.
Several times this season, Payten would bring him off after just 15-20 minutes and he would be left on the bench while the team is struggling, only for him to get back on when the game is lost – all with the notion of preserving him for the years ahead rather than trying to win the game at hand.
Payten has now taken Taumalolo even further away from his strengths by shifting him to their left edge.
In the first 30-minutes of their round 21 match against the Titans, the Cowboys struggled to get out of their own end partly due to their strongest ball carrier not getting his hands on the ball.
Being restricted to an edge means Taumalolo is beholden to his inexperienced halves not only giving him the ball, but also creating time and space for him. The Cowboys do not need him holding shape and running decoy lines. He does not have the leg speed and quick lateral movement to defend on an edge.
You could see AJ Brimson targeting Taumalolo in the Cowboys defensive line and all the good attacking sides will run rings around him as long as he is defending on an edge.
Payten has suggested he will persist with Taumalolo at second row which is mind-boggling.
He would be better served putting him back into the #13 jumper and telling him to just go out there and do what he does best – run hard, bend the opposition defensive line, and get his team on the front foot so his halves and fullback have time and space to create try scoring opportunities.
The only areas where Taumalolo could evolve his game is developing a pass to link the halves like most modern lock forwards and be given the freedom to run wider lines on both sides of the field where he sees an attacking opportunity.
You can see from Taumalolo’s body language that he is frustrated with how he has been used this season and he is beginning to look disinterested after another season of failure for North Queensland.
What Taumalolo needs and what the Cowboys need from him, is to go back to being that 65-70 minute wrecking ball. Payten needs to forget about what might happen in two or three-years’ time and his own job security, and start focusing on what is best for the team now.
Feature Image: Courtesy of loverugbyleague.com