Straight after the Cowboys' 30-26 win over Manly – their eighth from eight attempts at home – Johnathan Thurston was seen hunched over in the middle of the field with his hands on his knees, slowly shaking his head.
Those 10 seconds epitomised North Queensland's night. It was a tough slog.
They are still undefeated at home, but it was probably their closest call of the season at 1300SMILES Stadium.
A healthy Monday night crowd of 15,854 were on hand to witness Manly's stunning second-half resurgence from an 18-4 half-time deficit.
In very much atypical fashion the Cowboys were overpowered through the middle, giving up three tries to back-up props Addin Fonua-Blake (two) and Sosaia Vave.
Offloads were the theme of the night, with both teams benefitting from broken-play situations, but the Cowboys had the last laugh from second-phase play when Thurston put Tamou over to re-take the lead.
Taumalolo would bag his second off simple yet stellar ball movement to ice the game.
After a subdued start to the game the hosts claimed 30 metres from their first real move of the night – a left-side shift – before Thurston hit an unimpeded Jason Taumalolo running through a chasm in the middle of Manly's defence.
While they were coming up short inside their attacking 20-metre zone the Cowboys were slowly grinding their way to a second try before Jake Trbojevic threw a spanner in the works.
The older Trbojevic brother sneaked an offload that ignited a chain of passes before brother Tom put Cherry-Evans – who returned from an ankle injury a week earlier than expected – through a gap to beat Justin O'Neill over 50 metres.
Backing up from Origin both Cowboys props put in solid first stint, with Matt Scott lasting the better part of half an hour and James Tamou 25 minutes.
With the assistance of Jason Taumalolo (144 first-half run metres), the Cowboys were rolling through Manly's line with consummate ease, and Antonio Winterstein was on the receiving end of their second four-pointer. It signalled the ninth Manly game in a row where the opposition winger had scored a try.
Jake Granville came up with a highlight in the shadows of half-time, spotting disruption around the ruck and attacking it, before putting boot to ball and finding Lachlan Coote streaming down the left side.
Up 18-4 going into the second half the Cowboys were shell-shocked, and quickly.
Back-up bookend Vave opened the visitors' second-half account with a soft try right between the uprights just over five minutes in, while Fonua-Blake showed his brute strength to bust through four Cowboys and score on the right edge.
Both were simple one or two-out plays, but they had the hosts well and truly on edge.
Seldom are North Queensland – starters or reserves – overpowered in the battle for territory, but the Cowboys were clamouring for the likes of Scott, Tamou and Taumalolo to re-join the fray.
Fonua-Blake's second try – off a Josh Starling offload close to the line – gave the Sea Eagles an almost unthinkable lead 20 minutes from time, before the home side flicked the switch through tries to Tamou and Taumalolo.
The cool head of Cherry-Evans gave Manly a sniff with a penetrating run and chip to Lewis Brown to score with five minutes remaining, but Thurston kept the ball down the other end of the field as his side calmly kept the visitors at bay on the last play of the game.
The Cowboys will sweat on centre Kane Linnett, who was helped down the tunnel by medical staff with a calf injury.
North Queensland Cowboys 30 (Jason Taumlolo 2, Antonio Winterstein, Lachlan Coote, James Tamou tries; Johnathan Thurston 5 goals) defeated Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles 26 (Addin Fonua-Blake 2, Daly Cherry-Evans, Siosaia Vave, Lewis Brown tries; Jamie Lyon 3 goals) at 1300SMILES Stadium. Half-time: Cowboys 18-4. Crowd: 15,854. Holden Cup: Cowboys 40-10.