North Queensland Cowboys coach Todd Payten admits he still loves watching the Warriors, ahead of the clash with his old club on Sunday.
There is no room for sentiment in the NRL – and Payten is not the type anyway – but he will no doubt have mixed feelings this weekend.
Payten did a superb job as interim coach in 2020, engineering an unlikely turnaround to put the Warriors in the playoff mix towards the end of the season.
As well as being stuck in Australia, Payten had a threadbare squad due to injuries and withdrawals but created a culture of accountability that hadn't always been evident previously.
He was favourite to land the permanent role, before surprisingly backing out after being offered the job, in what he described as one of the toughest decisions of his life.
But Payten retains a soft spot for the Warriors, and has enjoyed seeing their progress in 2021, off the back of the foundations laid last year.
"I've loved watching them," Payten told Newstalk ZB. "I think they know their identity. They're very comfortable with the way that they play."
When the Warriors have clicked – against the Titans, Raiders and Dragons in particular – they have shown multi-faceted threats.
"On top of what they throw at you, they've got some terrific athletes that put pressure on you with the way that they move," said Payten. "And then their skillset, they offload the ball. They're playing the right way and when they get it right, they're very hard to stop so a very good team in my opinion."
Payten revealed he also did a double take last Sunday, almost mistaking Warriors' debutant Reece Walsh for an NRL superstar.
"He's super quick - I honestly thought it was Kalyn Ponga there for a while with the way he moved," said Payten. "[That was my] first reaction. He's left footed, wearing headgear, super quick and good on his feet … he can throw a good pass and he plays what he sees.
"He's got that youthful buzz about him. It must be exciting for Warriors fans. The recruitment team over there have got that one right."
Listed to start at five eighth, Walsh will be a key figure against a resurgent Cowboys team.
Payten was under immense pressure after a flat start, with four consecutive defeats, including hammerings at the hands of the Panthers, Titans and Sharks.
That prompted murmurings in the Sydney press about his job security, but the Townsville-based team have enjoyed a remarkable turnaround, with clutch victories over the Tigers, Bulldogs and Raiders in successive weeks.
"It's hard to put a finger on it, but we've had a seismic shift in the way that we're playing our footy," explained Payten. "When we're attacking, in previous seasons, it's been very structured, and it's been 'this play for that play for this play', and we almost set up for a big play.
"The game has evolved and we are trying to evolve our game to go with the current trends and it's been a huge shift for the players in that regard. We've shifted our whole defensive system as well. We've taken small strides [over] the last few weeks but we know our best footy is in front of us."
Given his background, Payten has a better playbook than most opposition coaches on the Warriors and hopes to use that inside knowledge on Sunday.
"There are so many threats with the Warriors lads," said Payten. "They run hard, there is a lot of big bodies there, they offload the ball, they are very potent close to the line. Roger [Tuivasa-Sheck] has a big influence [and] managing how he comes into the game will be really important.
"We're going to have to be on our game in all parts of it, so it's hard to pinpoint one thing."