Jake Granville has proven to be the Cowboys' buy of the season after the hooker scored a hat-trick against the Warriors on Saturday night, including the match-winner with two minutes remaining to give the Cowboys a 28-24 victory.
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Five key points from Cowboys v Warriors
It was Granville's second try in the final 10 minutes after another desperate scoot from dummy half gave the expectant locals something to cling to.
"I didn't think a six-point lead in this game was going to be enough. I always thought whoever was going to win would probably have to score twice," Cowboys coach Paul Green said after the game.
For the visitors, halfback Shaun Johnson put in his best performance of the season, with high kicks that bamboozled Cowboys fullback Lachlan Coote and a solid running game including a try assist.
Bringing a six-point lead into the second stanza the Warriors came out the more intense side and almost had first points when Solomone Kata found himself one-on-one with Coote, but the 12-kilogram disparity proved meaningless as the short-statured Cowboy stripped Kata over the line.
The Kiwis then caught a break as Cowboys were penalised on the play for being inside the 10, and Manu Vatuvei got revenge for being put on his back multiple times with a strong angle run, trampling two Cowboys to score.
But the Cowboys answered immediately when Thurston put up a towering bomb that all but struck the top of the crossbar, and it was too much for fullback Tuimoala Lolohea who knocked on, with Coote first to the loose ball.
Johnson slotted a penalty goal in the 66th minute to put the visitors up eight points late in the contest, before Granville's heroics cemented a comeback victory for the home side.
"I think we shored we've grown a bit as a team," Green said.
"It's probably a game earlier in the year that we wouldn't have won. We hung in there and stuck to what we did. We were flat coming off a five-day turnaround, it's been a big three weeks for us against some good teams. It was probably to be expected but we made life hard for ourselves as well."
The Cowboys were backed by a sizeable breeze in the first half, but didn't have it all their own way.
The Warriors scored first despite being pinned in their own 20 in the opening stages, with Johnson making use of the elements with a perfectly weighted bomb that sat up just enough for Konrad Hurrell to worry Thurston into a knock on. Second-rower Bodene Thompson picked up the crumbs and offloaded to Hurrell who was soon blowing a kiss to his mother in Tonga after a trademark try.
The breeze hurt the hosts again when Coote almost sent his restart into the stands, and it was capitalised on when the Warriors capped a classy passing movement with a try to Jonathan Wright in the corner.
Coote misjudged the wind again on the next restart – for the third wind-related mishap within five minutes – sending it out on the full again, and the Warriors continued carving up the Cowboys middle third despite conditions, while North Queensland were stuck in the mud playing slow one-out football out of their own end.
It took more over 20 minutes for the Cowboys to snap into action with Thurston turning it on the inside for Coote to hit a hole and link with Granville in support.
The Warriors started coughing up a lot of ball in tackles up the middle and the home side eventually evened it up all too easily when Granville recognised numbers to the left, going through hands to finish with Kane Linnett.
When Chad Townsend sailed a kick out on the full it looked like the Cowboys may have taken a lead into the sheds, but Hurrell had other ideas, almost going length of the field off a Gavin Cooper fumble.
Michael Morgan again showed his pace in the open field, ripping down the hulking Tongan on the 10-metre line, but the Warriors shifted right and scored through Solomone Kata on the on the next play to go into half-time up 16-10.
It set up a grandstand finish, with Granville proving the difference in the dying stages.
"There's not a lot of difference between jubilation and disappointment and unfortunately we were on the wrong side of that tonight," lamented Warriors coach Andrew McFadden.
"A lot of effort there but just couldn't finish it off.
"I think we made just one too many errors. I thought they played pretty good football in the second half, it was a bit of end to end stuff, both teams were pretty tired and it just came down to a few key plays."
North Queensland Cowboys 26 (Jake Granville 3, Kane Linnett, Lachlan Coote tries; Johnathan Thurston 4 goals) def. New Zealand Warriors 24 (Konrad Hurrell, Johnathan Wright, Solomone Kata, Manu Vatuvei tries; Shaun Johnson 4 goals). Crowd: 16,038.