Green’s blunt warning for Cowboys stars
Cowboys coach Paul Green has opened up about his two years from hell and challenged million-dollar stars Michael Morgan and Jason Taumalolo to step up for North Queensland in 2020.
Green is entering the most pivotal season of his career as the NRL premiership-winning coach attempts to bounce back from the Cowboys' worst performance in nearly a decade.
With Johnathan Thurston no longer at the helm and Matt Scott forced into an early retirement, the Cowboys slumped to 14th spot on the ladder in 2019.
The lowly finish followed North Queensland's 13th-placed result in 2018, Thurston's last season in the NRL.
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The Cowboys' swift fall down the ranks over the past two seasons followed a golden period for the club of which Green played a key role in.
Succeeding Neil Henry in 2014, Green coached the Cowboys to fifth in his first season, the club's maiden NRL premiership in 2015, backed it up with a preliminary final in 2016 and grand final loss in 2017.
But the demise of the Cowboys as a premiership contender has been dramatic and Green said he endured a long off-season of soul searching.
"Yeah, I thought about it a lot," Green told The Sunday Mail.
"It was one of the toughest years I've ever been involved in to be honest.
"There were a number of different challenges we had throughout the year. It was a mixture of things, not just one thing.
"We had a couple of off-field issues which don't help, particularly the timing around them. We had to make changes there.
"Then we had some injuries, serious ones that you can't mitigate against. It was a real mixed bag of challenges."
Green, 47, is contracted to the Cowboys until the end of 2021, however coaching in the NRL is a fickle game and North Queensland sacked Henry in a season where he went on to make the finals.
Green said he hasn't been read the riot act by club powerbrokers and he isn't feeling pressure over his future.
"Not really - it comes with the job," he said.
"(They haven't said anything) but they don't really have to. Everyone knows what the expectations are."
The Cowboys have struggled to transition into life without Thurston.
The four-time Dally M Medal champion and Immortal-in-waiting was such a dominant figure at the Cowboys that the next era was always going to be tough to manage.
Green's task was made harder this year by a number of unexpected setbacks.
Former Dally M medallist Ben Barba was the Cowboys' blue-chip signing for 2019, but was sacked a month before the season following an alleged domestic violence incident.
Replacement fullback Te Maire Martin suffered a brain bleed early in the year and didn't play again while Scott's career ended early following a stroke.
After a golden run from 2014-17, captain Morgan has struggled to live up to his $1 million-a-season price tag and flourish without Thurston.
Ten of the players that featured in North Queensland's 2015 grand final triumph against the Broncos are no longer at the club and Green said it was time for the new brigade to stand up.
"The guys you mentioned (Morgan and Taumalolo) aren't the rookies anymore - their time to step up is now," Green said.
"I think they will, just due to the fact that the guys who have retired aren't there any more and they were fairly dominant players.
"We were lucky in that respect. We had stable, good leadership for a long time. It is a bit of a change in that respect.
"It's a good opportunity for them to put their stamp on the team."
The Cowboys have undergone a significant overhaul of their playing roster over the past two seasons.
They have brought in new faces with the acquisition of hooker Reece Robson (Dragons) and Kiwi international Esan Marsters (Tigers), and have some exciting young talents in Peter Hola, Tom Gilbert, Connelly Lemuelu and Emry Pere.
Test star Valentine Holmes has signed with the club for six years following his dalliance with the NFL and Green is expected to hand out a number of NRL debuts in 2020.
"Nine players left the club after last year so the last two years there's been a bit of a turnover," Green said.
"We've done pretty well from a recruitment point of view. We've got a couple of good young blokes coming through as well.
"We needed to have a bit of a regeneration of the list without slashing and burning,
"We've been doing it for the last two years. We've had a couple of disappointing years so we had to do something about it."
The 2019 season was North Queensland's worst finish since 2010, when the Cowboys (15th) were saved from the wooden spoon by Melbourne's huge salary cap penalty.
Entering his seventh season in charge, Green has overhauled North Queensland's training approach following an end-of-season review and said the Cowboys would not die wondering next year.
"I'm not going to make any bold predictions, we've got a job ahead of us and everyone is aware of it," he said.
"No one is happy with how the past two seasons have panned out. We don't want to have another year like that.
"We're working hard to avoid that but there's no guarantees, that's one thing I know."