Warriors officials don’t just dare to dream that Todd Payten can steer their team into an unlikely finals berth before leaving to fulfil his long-held ambition of becoming an NRL head coach in North Queensland, they believe he can deliver the club’s first premiership.
It might sound far-fetched given all the hurdles the Warriors have faced this season but CEO Cameron George recalled an email to ARLC chairman Peter V’landys before the competition resumed, in which he said: “This will be the greatest story in rugby league when we come to Australia and kick your ass.”
“The story is not ending for us, we are hoping it is just starting," George told NRL.com. "We don’t just want to make the top eight, we want to win everything ahead of us and Todd, the players and staff feel the same way."
Stephen Kearney was the coach when George wrote the email but few who have been involved with Payten at Wests Tigers, North Queensland or the Warriors are surprised by the success the club has enjoyed since he took charge 10 weeks ago.
After winning four of their past five matches, the Warriors have surged into contention for a place in the top eight and Payten is set to be rewarded with the Cowboys job in coming days after rejecting an offer to take charge of the Warriors on a permanent basis next season.
Match Highlights: Warriors v Knights
It’s been a collective effort by the Warriors players and staff to put aside their isolation in Australia, Kearney’s shock sacking, the departure of key players, injuries, suspensions and the loss of loan players but Payten has been in charge as interim coach.
“Everyone is hugely positive about the culture that exists and the commitment, the effort and the passion of the players and staff,” George said. “That is a credit to all of them but he has certainly been the leader of that.”
Former Wests Tigers team-mate Robbie Farah said Payten had always been destined for an NRL coaching job after retiring from playing in 2011 and taking on the club’s Under-20s job the following season.
“He always had the footy brain and I think he always had the ambition to be a coach,” Farah said.
“As a player, everyone always said he was a halfback stuck in a front-rower’s body and he understands the game very well. He is very knowledgeable but he also has very good people skills and a calm aura about him as well.
“I think when you combine those attributes you can clearly see that he was destined to be successful in the coaching capacity.”
Warriors assistant coach Tony Iro, who along with club great Stacey Jones has been helping Payten to prepare the team each week, also said he was a good man manager.
“He has got a good relationship with players, he has got a good footy brain,” Iro said.
Warriors excited to give back to Tamworth
“I am not sure if he is going to approach it differently as the head coach but certainly we haven’t seen much change in him here.
“He has obviously been out the front of things a bit more but he has been the same person. He lets the other coaches get on with their jobs.”
On the fast track to the top job
Payten has a reputation for being ambitious and his determination to land a head coaching job as quickly as possible is known to have ruffled some feathers in his previous roles at the Tigers and Cowboys but it is understood that Kearney does not believe he had any role in his sacking.
Kearney hired Payten for an assistant role at the Warriors last season after three years in North Queensland, in which he was a member of Paul Green’s coaching staff when the Cowboys won the 2015 premiership and made the grand final in 2017.
Tackle of the Week: Round 16
After Kearney was sacked following the round six loss to South Sydney, Payten was appointed as interim coach and he initially expressed interest in the role but after being offered the job he turned it down and Nathan Brown has since been appointed.
George said there had never been any concerns about Payten’s ongoing commitment after he rejected the opportunity to coach the club.
“I’ve always found Todd to be a focused person in his job, he is pretty measured in the way he goes about things,” George said. “He has got a really cool personality but he is not someone you hear before you see. He is quite direct and quite honest. He is certainly not afraid to get his hands dirty.
“He has got really strong and credible attributes that no doubt will continue to see his career progress and we are very grateful for the opportunity to have worked alongside him and very grateful for the effort he has put in this year.
“Todd’s leaving with our blessing because he is going back to Australia for family reasons and he has been given an opportunity to work at another club and that was always going to happen once he made up his mind.
“It is a club that he has had a previous relationship with, and he and his family deserve the success they get.
“When he turned down the opportunity to be our head coach on the grounds that he stated of his family and wanting to move back to Australia he was always going to get a job at another club because people like him don’t sit on the sideline for too long. The timing of it all has worked in his favour.”
Warriors respect Payten’s coaching withdrawal, Green granted immediate release
'He has definitely exceeded expectations'
As a player, Payten had stints with Canberra, Sydney Roosters and Wests Tigers in a 259-game career, which included grand final defeat in 2003 and success in 2005.
Moving into coaching immediately after his retirement in 2011, he remained close with many of the Tigers players and they pushed for him to be given the job each time it became it available.
However, Farah believes his time at the Cowboys and Warriors has now prepared him for a head coaching role.
“He has done his apprenticeship in Townsville and at the Warriors so I think it was just a matter of time before he got a job as a head coach,” he said.
“It has obviously been a challenge for him, especially when you throw in the fact that three or four of their key players went home and Blake Green got released, as well as living away from New Zealand and things like that.
“But I think he has definitely exceeded expectations and he has kept that group of players switched on. I think the results he has got over the last five or six weeks are pretty remarkable
“He backs himself and he is refreshingly honest, which I think as a player you respect honesty from your coach. Obviously the players at the Warriors have taken to that and appreciated that because he has got a positive reaction out of them.”
Making sure the future is now for Warriors
Star wingers David Fusitua and Ken Maumalo were massive losses when they returned home to Auckland with forwards Agnatius Paasi and King Vuniyayawa after the 18-10 loss to the Roosters on July 25 but since then the Warriors have won all but one match.
Green was released a week later to join Newcastle and Payten started focusing on a future he won’t even be a part of by giving rookie playmaker Chanel Harris-Tavita the opportunity to form a partnership with Kodi Nikorima.
Every try from round 16
When Harris-Tavita was forced to sit out the round 15 match against Canterbury, development player Paul Turner was given his chance, while second-rower Jack Murchie has been a revelation after joining the Warriors as a mid-season transfer.
“I think that once the group realised we were here for the long haul, given what has happened in both countries with travel restrictions, they just embraced it,” Iro said.
“Although it has been a tough period for everyone, I think it is something that a lot of us will look back on and think it was a special thing to be a part of.
“You have probably seen with their performances that they are playing with a lot of freedom and without much pressure on them, there is no expectation so they are just going out and enjoying themselves.
Try of the Week: Round 16
“There is just so much uncertainty that no one is looking past when our last game is - whether that is the end of the regular season or if we are fortunate enough to move into the finals. Plenty of things have happened this year, but we are just enjoying however long we have left of our season.”
Despite the Warriors being forced to play all of their matches in Australia this season, George said the sacrifices and commitment of the players had earned the club new fans in New Zealand.
“It is unbelievable how the people in New Zealand are fighting the fight with us,” George said. “There is so much new support and there is so much renewed support.
“The players have certainly achieved the levels we were all hoping they would reach in normal circumstances but to do it these circumstances I think everyone has realised what a fantastic group of men we have got over there doing a great job for our fans.
“You have got to get into the eight to win it but that’s not the end for us. It’s just the start.
“There is nothing in our minds that we don’t think this club can win a premiership and if that is this year under the circumstances it would be amazing for our families, because we have made huge sacrifices, and for our fans it would be crazy, crazy times.”
The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARLC, NRL clubs or state associations.