It’d be hard to find a better center in the game at the moment than Valentine Holmes.
But if it weren’t for an honest conversation with Cowboys coach Todd Payten the key positional switch that’s sparked his career-best form may have never happened.
Between Tom Dearden becoming an Origin player and Jeremiah Nanai scoring tries for fun, the Cowboys are oozing with feel-good storylines this season. But Holmes’ reinvention should top the list.
He won’t declare it, but a lot of punters believe the 27-year-old has never played better.
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When asked by foxsports.com.au what’s changed after a mixed couple of seasons since returning from his bid to make the NFL, Holmes put it down to the birth of his son Billy — a “massive motivation” — last November.
“I’m happy off the field and that makes me play better on it,” he said.
But the 2016 premiership winner also conceded the deep desire to play finals again has been a driving force too.
“I just wanted to be better personally and as a team,” Holmes said.
“When we had these honest talks in pre-season, I just said I missed playing finals footy — and that’s pretty much what everyone wanted. Most of the boys in our team haven’t even played finals.
“When I was at the Sharks I used to think it comes around all the time because we made it almost every year. It’s definitely something you take for granted.”
FINDING A HOLME IN THE CENTER
Holmes’ career started on the wing, but he saw himself as a fullback and so that was the position he signed with the Cowboys to play in 2020.
But Payten saw things differently and after trialling him in the centers at the back end of 2021, the conversation that inspired Holmes’ best-ever season happened.
“Probably the first (honest conversation with Payten) I had was that I wasn’t going to play fullback when my main focus was to be a fullback for the Cowboys — that’s what I signed here to do,” Holmes said.
“When he gave me that challenge to be a center I was really surprised by it… But it just goes to show that he had faith in me to do the job for the team.
“The direction we were going, it was just something I had to do that was best for the team. We had young ‘Hammer’ (Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow) training really well (at fullback during pre-season) and Todd was really happy with how he was going.
“He wanted me in and around the ruck close to the ball, but he thought center was a good position for me and I think he made that decision clear in the pre-season when he got to see me training there.
“He really liked me there and felt like I could still be closer to the ball and get a few more touches than what I would on the wing.
“Defensively, he knew I could make tackles out there… I wasn’t the one that could put big shots on but just make my tackles.”
Although it was a bit of a curveball, Holmes adopted the ‘team first’ mentality, which wasn’t anything new for him. And as a compromise, Payten made a deal with Holmes that gave him the best of both worlds.
“I kind of had been doing that most of my career,” Holmes said with regards to putting the team first.
“I had always wanted to play fullback, because that’s where I played when I was younger. I loved getting the ball where being on the wing you might score 20 tries a year but it just didn’t do it for me.
“I didn’t really want to score the tries, I wanted to be the one setting them up, or be around the ruck and touching the ball a lot.
“(Payten) knows I like doing that so he’s given me the license to roam around, take scoots whenever I want, trail ‘Drinky’ on the inside, or be around Chad (Townsend) if there’s an offload as well as be out in the centres.
“I guess that’s probably why people think I’m in good form… I’m just having fun out there.”
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Former Cowboys center Brent Tate, is confident Holmes has “definitely found a home in the centres.”
He also believes that unwavering support of players is the “great thing” about Payten’s coaching.
“He doesn’t pigeon hole his players,” Tate told foxsports.com.au.
“He gives the players the opportunity and confidence to be able to go and play footy.
“The more time Val has the ball in his hands the more dangerous the Cowboys are.
“At center sometimes you can go a game without getting the ball, but Val is always on the ball. He gets to dummy half and does the tough carries and then he pops up all over the field.
“His grounding in wing and fullback play gives him that floating role and understanding that makes him such a weapon in attack.
“I think that has been great coaching from Todd to say ‘look for your own (ball) and go and sort it’.”
THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE
Holmes has only missed two Cowboys games this year — both for Origin-related reasons. He leads his team in linebreak assists and average running meters, while he sits second in try assists and tackle busts.
And while his attacking stacks are worthy of recognition, it’s his defensive game that Tate believes sets him apart.
“Defensively has probably been the best thing about what he has done this year,” Tate said.
“Defensively center is a very tough position to learn. Every single tackle at center you have to make a decision defensively because you have lots of attacking players coming at you and they are coming fast.
“If you don’t make the right decision it usually means points. He has been supper impressive the way he has embraced that.
“He has really got his head around what it takes to play center and he is defending superbly. He’s been brilliant.”
Holmes knew what he was getting into defensively when making the switch to the centers and he echoed what Tate said about the importance of decision making.
“It was a relatively new position for me,” he said.
“To play centre, it’s very defensive related where you have to make the right decisions so you’ve got to be pretty switched on.
“That was pretty much my focus all pre-season — to be good defensively — because as most people know over the last few years we’ve leaked too many tries and most of that came down on both sides of our edges… So (the coaching staff) wanted us to be more so good defensive centres.”
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Defense has become such a big priority for Holmes that he developed an in-house competition.
“We definitely pride ourselves on defence, especially the left edge,” he said.
“We have competitions with our right edge to try and be the better defensive side. We always take it on with each other at training and it translates into games.”
That comes as no surprise to Shane Flanagan, who coached Holmes at the Sharks and has seen his competitive nature first hand.
“I remember he was right winger and Jack Bird was the centre, Chad Townsend was the half and Luke Lewis was the back-rower,” Flanagan told foxsports.com.au.
“I think we played Newcastle and Val scored four tries, Chad scored two, Luke Lewis scored two and ‘Birdy’ scored none.
“They were good mates and Val was always the one that scored all the tries.
“They challenged each other in that group on who was scoring the tries. It was like a competition within the team, it was really infectious and Val as a big part of that.”
HOW AN NFL STINT SUITS HOLMES THERE’S NO ROOM FOR ERROR
If he wasn’t already a hero in Townsville, Holmes became one last Saturday when he kicked the matching field goal from 45 meters out to send the Cowboys to a preliminary final.
“He is clutch. There is a few guys that can handle coming up with the big plays in pressure situations and he is one of the best,” Fox League’s Cooper Cronk said in commentary.
He also became public enemy No.1 in the Shire given it happened at the Sharks’ home ground — where he spent five years before a shock exit to chase a career in the NFL.
“It was a strange one because we didn’t know,” Flanagan said when asked about Holmes’ exit.
“He just said he wanted a release. If he came to me saying he was going to the NFL, I wouldn’t have had a problem, but it was ‘I want a release from the club’ and we didn’t know where he was going — but there were all these Rumors that he was going to go to the Cowboys straight away.
“It was a bit of a shock. More for that group of players because they wanted to stick together, they thought they could win a couple of grand finals in a row. So to lose him was a bit of a shock and some of the boys couldn’t understand why he was going.
“It wasn’t about money, he wanted to challenge himself and once we all got our heads around the fact that he was going to another code we were comfortable with it.”
Holmes returned to the NRL in 2020 after signing a six-year, multimillion-dollar contract with the Cowboys.
He prefers to keep his NFL chapter relatively closed, but he revealed the biggest lesson he learned from 12 months in one of the most brutal industries in the world.
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“I think mentally how to prepare for a game is one thing I really took away from being over there because the NFL was very cutthroat.
“So if you aren’t coachable, if you make a mistake at training or stuff up in a game you’re pretty much cut, you’re gone and you don’t know if you’re going to get another shot at another team or somewhere else.
“They take literally every training session, every game — and even their diet — seriously. Even being five or 10 minutes early to a meeting is on time.
“I guess being younger guy when I was at Sharks I would always rock up to meetings a minute before and not get in trouble, but not be there early to talk to coaches or write down some notes.
“Then you see those guys over there doing it, obviously they’re getting paid some good money, but it just goes to show that’s come up from a young level from when they were in college and carried on through.
“That’s probably the biggest thing I’ve taken out of it.”
There’s no hard feelings from Flanagan, who is loving watching Holmes evolve back in the NRL.
“He’s just an athlete but also super talented in relation to spatial awareness, how to beat a man and as he’s gotten older he’s understood his strengths and weaknesses in his footy,” he said.
“He’s strong and powerful… I haven’t got a bad word to say about him.”
But as for the things the punters can’t see — Holmes’ mindset — Flanagan believes that famous NFL pursuit tells us everything we need to know.
“It does (speak volumes). He’s always challenging himself. He’s got an amazing amount of self-belief that he can do most things he puts his mind to… so that (NFL dream) sort of sums him up pretty well,” he said.