Stung by criticism, North Queensland coach Paul Green says he has never seen Coen Hess more focused ahead of the NRL restart.
But Green has baulked at talking up a super-fit Hess, saying he did not want the young back-rower to endure any extra pressure after being a "victim" of expectation in a frustrating 2019.
Hess, 23, has been the talk of the Cowboys ahead of the NRL's return after emerging from the coronavirus shutdown fitter than ever.
After losing 6kg during the pre-season, Hess found another gear in training during the pandemic break to be in career-best shape.
The lanky forward looks primed to stake an early claim for a State of Origin recall in Friday's clash with Gold Coast after losing his Queensland jersey last year, capping a disappointing season.
While impressed with Hess' work ethic, Green said he would not make any bold predictions after claiming critics had savaged the youngster in the past when he did not live up to their expectations.
"Some of the criticism aimed his way stung him last year," said Green, who took over the Cowboys reins in 2014.
"I am not going to put any more pressure on him because I think he has probably been a victim of that.
"He doesn't live up to anyone else's expectations so then everyone starts bagging him.
"(But) he's come back in great condition, he's probably the most focused in the time I have coached him.
"Whether or not that transfers into a good performance we won't know until we get into the season but he is certainly in a good position to start well."
Hess admitted he had been flattered by his teammates' glowing praise when he returned from the shutdown but was focusing on letting his footy do the talking in 2020.
"I have done a lot of hard work but that doesn't mean anything if I don't put it out on the field and perform well - that is where my head is at the moment," he said.
Still, Hess allowed himself to dream of an eighth Maroons cap.
He said switching the interstate series to the end of the season this year may inspire him to be more consistent and earn another Queensland jersey.
"I think it (end of year Origin) is a really good thing. Everyone gets picked on the year they have had," he said.
"I have (in the past) started the year fast then tapered off towards the end.
"I think it will hold everyone accountable and (make players) want to perform for the whole year."
Australian Associated Press