Star centre Brent Tate has warned North Queensland must quickly find a solution to their wobbly starts or risk bowing out of the premiership race early as they prepare for a daunting trip across the Tasman to face his former club the Warriors on Saturday night.

The Cowboys snapped a three-game losing streak with their 28-20 win over Cronulla at Dairy Farmers Stadium over the weekend – but not before conceding the opening try for the seventh match in a row.

In fact, figures supplied by NRL Stats this week show just how slow North Queensland has been out of the blocks in 2011, having scored just 72 points in the first 20 minutes of games – worse than all but Canterbury and the Gold Coast.

They have typically made amends after the half-time break and rank first in the NRL for second-half points with a whopping 308 (20 more than next-best Manly) but Tate said the Cowboys would pay the price if they continued along the same path over the coming fortnight.

“It’s a damning stat and to be honest I’m scratching my head to even give you an answer,” Tate told NRL.com.

“I don’t know why, I don’t have any explanation. I do know that everyone has a lot of belief in our attack so if we get behind we know that we do have the points in us to come back at teams but it’s not a great statistic and the Warriors are a team we just can’t afford to be giving points away to. I’m sure it will be a bit of a damp track over there and they’re not a team you can be trying to pull back with the conditions and the crowd.

“At the start of the year we put a few scores on teams but they were still working out their defensive strategies. It’s a lot harder to come by points now because everyone at this time of year is defending pretty well and it’s a semi-final intensity in every game.

“So it’s something we need to address pretty quick.”

Despite their difficulties in scoring early points, Tate said defence was the side’s focus this week as they prepare for a final round clash that could have huge repercussions on the makeup of the top eight.

Currently sitting fifth, the Cowboys could potentially steal back a top four spot with a win over the Warriors but could drop to seventh (behind the Warriors and Dragons) should they lose this weekend.

“I think defensively we’ve been struggling a little bit,” he said. “I know that as a team we’ve got points in us so that’s one thing we’re confident in, but defensively we’ve been a bit off. When you’re a bit off, the attack of teams is so slick these days they can put points on you. So I think defence is the real focus for us.”

Asked how aware the playing group was of the potential ramifications of Saturday’s game, Tate said: “We haven’t spoken about it as a group although I’m sure we’ll touch on it during the week. Regardless of where we are on the table I think it’s a big game for us because we need to be playing some good football heading into the semis – we need to get some confidence.

“Whilst we won on the weekend it wasn’t pretty but if we could get a win this week over there I think it would be huge for us. Look, I think everyone is pretty aware of what’s at stake and what is on the line. It’s probably going to be a lot like a semi-final week come early.”

One positive for the Cowboys in recent weeks has been the emergence of young guns Jason Taumalolo and James Segeyaro, who have made an enormous impact off the bench.

Notably, no other side in the Telstra Premiership has enjoyed such an impact, with North Queensland’s interchange players having contributed 17 tries and 21 line-breaks in 2011 and Segeyaro leading the bench players’ try-scoring list with five.

“We lost Tariq Sims (to a broken leg) on the weekend, who was going great guns, but we’ve been lucky to have the emergence of young Jason Taumalolo who will get better with the more footy he plays,” Tate said. “It’s strange how things work at times but the performance of those young guys coming off the bench – they’re all positives. Although we had lost three on the trot before last weekend there was still a lot to be happy about and positive with. You know, we’ll be up for this weekend. Against quality opposition, we just know we’ve got to perform, or else we won’t be a chance.”

Saturday’s clash also holds special significance for Tate, who returns to Mt Smart Stadium for the first time since joining North Queensland this season after three years with the Warriors.

“It’s something I’ve been looking forward to,” he said. “Obviously I called it home for three years, had an awesome time and still have a lot of great mates over there, so it is going to be a bit funny.

“But I’ll try not to put too much thought into it and I try to take the emotion out of it because it can get clouded at times. I try to just focus on us and get our own backyard right.

“You know, we probably haven’t been playing our best footy so I’m really hoping a game against quality opposition that is right near us on the table will bring the best out of us as a group.”

North Queensland score breakdown by quarter
Minutes   NQ       Opponents
1-20       72 pts       116 pts
21-40     146           116
41-60     100           100
61-80     208           128