Broncos playing dangerous game with rising star
Cowboys coach Todd Payten has declared his interest in boom Bronco Tom Dearden as North Queensland ramp-up plans to bring the out-of-favour halfback to Townsville.
News Corp can reveal the Cowboys have set aside funds in the salary cap to make a formal play for Dearden whose future at the Broncos is increasingly tenuous after his shock snubbing in favour of Brodie Croft for round one.
Dearden's preference is to remain at the Broncos, but if he can't unseat Croft within six weeks, the off-contract 20-year-old will go the open market where up to seven clubs are ready to pounce.
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The most dangerous threat is Brisbane's 2015 grand-final nemesis the Cowboys, who held preliminary talks with Dearden last month as they look to replace Newcastle-bound Jake Clifford in 2022.
Speaking for the first time about Dearden since meeting with the playmaker in Townsville, Payten revealed the former Cowboys scholarship holder is on his hit-list to partner Michael Morgan in the No.7 jumper.
Asked if he has interest in Dearden, Payten said: "The answer to that question is ... yes.
"We had a conversation when Tom came to town recently and he made it clear he wanted to play some more football before he progresses any further (with a decision on his future).
"We're all sitting back and looking at some options as a recruitment team.
"With Jake Clifford leaving, there is a halfback spot open and we are trying to find our identity as a team and our style of footy.
"Whoever comes into the team has to fit that identity and complement what we already have here.
"I've only seen Tom from afar, but he played first grade at a young age so he has to have some sort of ability.
"He competes well and has a sound kicking game and I like the way he organises and directs the team around the park.
"I found him to be a really pleasant kid when we met. He understood the game and what his strengths and weaknesses are ... he will only get better."
The challenge for the Broncos is assuring Dearden he is not getting mixed messages.
Two years ago, under former Broncos coach Anthony Seibold, Brisbane's front-office told Dearden they would not recruit another halfback. The club subsequently purchased Croft from Melbourne.
Since Kevin Walters took over in November, Dearden was given assurances he was a 10-year halfback the club would build the team around.
Dearden spent almost the entire pre-season running as Brisbane's No.1 halfback, only to be sensationally axed by Walters in favour of Croft on the eve of last week's season-opener against the Eels.
Privately, Dearden is questioning where he stands at the club as he prepares for Souths Logan's Intrust Super Cup opener against Burleigh on Sunday.
While aware of the Cowboys' interest, Dearden's manager Sam Ayoub has urged the rookie playmaker not to hit the panic button.
"Rushing into a new contract at this point in time is not a smart thing to do," he said.
"Tom has no shortage of interest but it's important to take the pressure off him.
"Our thought process is let's give it five or six weeks, then we will look at his situation.
"In the meantime, I want Tom to focus on his footy - I am confident he can fight his way back to play NRL."
Originally published as Broncos playing dangerous game with rising star