Despite losing lock Jason Taumalolo and hooker Jake Granville in the first seven minutes of the game, the North Queensland Cowboys downed the Newcastle Knights 26-24 on Saturday for their fifth straight win.
The Knights, who have now suffered four consecutive defeats, were on track for a comeback after scoring two tries in the final 11 minutes but stumbled at the final hurdle – having struggled without five-eighth Jarrod Mullen who failed to return from a concussion just before half-time.
Taumalolo is likely to miss the next six to eight weeks due to a grade three medial strain to his knee suffered in the very first minute of the game, and the bad news kept coming for the Cowboys when Granville failed to return from a concussion early in the contest.
The visitors' poor start to the contest continued when the Knights crossed for the first try of the afternoon in the 14th minute through back-rower Chris Houston.
Coming off the back of a sublime ball from Mullen, Houston was able to squeeze his way between Johnathan Thurston and Gavin Cooper before pushing his way past Cowboys fullback Lachlan Coote to score.
But some Thurston magic brought North Queensland back into the contest in the 18th minute, with Scott Bolton the benefactor. The Knights defence were caught napping when Thurston chased down his own kick and stole the ball one-on-one from opposite captain Kurt Gidley, and Bolton strolled over the line on the very next tackle.
The Cowboys went back-to-back three minutes later when Coote worked his way through a gaping hole left by Houston and centre Dane Gagai to push their lead out to six.
It took a while for the Cowboys to cross the white stripe again but they did so in the 34th minute when Justin O'Neill finished up a neat backline movement to make it a 10-point lead, with the Knights having no answers in defence.
It only took the Cowboys 90 seconds in the second half to come up with more points thanks to a long-winding run from replacement rake Ray Thompson, with Thurston working off the back of it to help O'Neill cross for his second.
The Knights were able to finally hit back in the 52nd minute when an Akuila Uate hit-up turned into a 60-metre run downfield from the winger, who touched down to the right of the uprights which Tyrone Roberts was able to easily convert.
Two consecutive penalties and an error midway through the second half saw the Cowboys make their way up field with relative ease, and they capitalised when five-eighth Michael Morgan crossed to push his side's lead to 14.
With Newcastle losing hope by the second, Knights centre Joey Leilua took it upon himself to rejuvenate his team in the 69th minute. Scooting from dummy-half just 10 metres out from the tryline, Leilua somehow put the ball down despite the presence of four Cowboys defenders.
On the very next set, Knights halfback Roberts finally clicked into gear. Making a break from Newcastle's own 30-metre line, Roberts was able to draw in Coote before sending Sione Mata'utia downfield, and the substitute was able to run over Thurston on his way to the tryline to make it a two-point ballgame.
While the Knights had their chances to make the game their own, including a last ditch effort which was dropped by Roberts after the siren, the Cowboys held their own with 15 men to secure the win.
Cowboys coach Paul Green praised the effort of his under-strength side.
"Given the two blokes we lost are in the middle we knew it was always going to be at some stage get a bit scary there but it was just a massive effort from all of our boys to keep turning up for each other," Green said.
North Queensland Cowboys 26 (Justin O'Neill 2, Scott Bolton, Lachlan Coote, Michael Morgan Tries; Johnathan Thurston 3 Goals) defeated Newcastle Knights 24 (Chris Houston, Akuila Uate, Joey Leilua, Sione Mata'utia Tries; Tyrone Roberts 4 Goals) Crowd: 15,518. Halftime: 16-6.