A strong second-half showing from the North Queensland Cowboys helped them to a 24-12 win over the Newcastle Knights on Saturday night.
Kalyn Ponga starred against his future club, scoring two tries and playing though apparent pain to earn man-of-the-match honours, while the potential Queensland Origin battle between rival centres Justin O'Neill and Dane Gagai remains unclear after both players had quiet games.
The Cowboys dominated the opening exchanges of the game, almost scoring twice in their first two sets, and dominated the possession with 84 per cent after 15 minutes.
Gavin Cooper opened the scoring when he pushed through the Knights' goal-line defence from dummy-half, earning the Cowboys first points after the hosts had controlled the early exchanges of the game.
North Queensland kept the pressure on with another grubber into the in-goal, and strong defence earned them a repeat set. The pace of the Cowboys' attack was too much the Knights and the visitors were caught for offside, giving the home side an easy penalty goal.
But taking the two turned out to be a poor decision, as the pressure release gave the Knights field position at the Cowboys' end and they immediately capitalised through Nathan Ross with a left-side ball movement, levelling the scores at six-all.
The Cowboys couldn't take the momentum back and the Knights scored a long range try when Brendan Elliot scooped up Cooper's grubber kick to run the length of the field and score, taking the lead.
Both teams fell into the arm wrestle, when a bomb from John Asiata turned Knights' fullback Elliot around and he dropped the ball before kicking it dead.
The Cowboys made good use of the field position with Ponga diving over the line on the left side after several stagnant plays from the Cowboys, leaving the half-time score at 12-10 in favour of the Knights.
The Cowboys didn't get the start they were after, giving a penalty off their second tackle, and the Knights used the field position to earn a repeat set, but the home team managed to absorb the pressure.
They were rewarded for the defence with a penalty to give them good field position, and after working the ball left a Michael Morgan pass saw Kane Linnett push through two players to score on the left edge.
The Cowboys looked to stretch their lead to beyond a converted try when a wayward pass from the Knights was collected by Justin O'Neill, but good scrambling defence from Newcastle kept the Cowboys out and an unforced error from Morgan released the pressure again.
After some strong North Queensland defence pressured the Knights into sending a kick out on the full, Ponga crossed for his second of the night off a sharp ball movement with the final pass coming from John Asiata to put the fullback in open space.
The Knights struggled to have any impact in the second half, despite several forays into Cowboys territory, their execution lacked and North Queensland was able to weather the storm throughout the second half, only managing to earn a single repeat set.
Unfortunately for the visitors that set came with 45 seconds to go in the game, and the Cowboys had no trouble defending until the end of the match.
Cowboys 24 (Gavin Cooper, Kalyn Ponga, Kane Linnett tries; Ethan Lowe 2 goals, Kyle Feldt 2 goals goals) def. Knights 12 (Nathan Ross, Brendon Elliot tries; Brock Lamb 2 goals) at 1300 Smiles Stadium. Half-time: 10-12. Crowd 13,678.