The desire was obvious but the execution lacking as the Cowboys gave interim coach Josh Hannay reason to be optimistic in a 24-12 loss to the resurgent Sea Eagles.
Hannay, in the hot seat for the first time after replacing the premiership-winning Paul Green on Monday, sought resilience from his team and they obliged for much of the contest.
But Manly, while below their best, had enough class through halves Cade Cust and Daly Cherry-Evans to secure the result at Queensland Country Bank Stadium. The two points put Des Hasler's depleted side into the top eight, momentarily at least.
Cust was particularly strong in the second 40 minutes, setting up a try for his captain and scoring another to prove he's a more-than-capable replacement for the injured Dylan Walker.
The Sea Eagles, who welcomed prop Addin Fonua-Blake back from suspension, lost second-rower Joel Thompson to an ankle injury after 11 minutes. However, they were reportedly willing to send him into the fray if needed.
Hannay's first big decision as head coach was axing Kiwi international centre Esan Marsters, opting to bring Mitch Dunn into the starting side.
Match: Cowboys v Sea Eagles
Round 11 -
Venue: Queensland Country Bank Stadium, Townsville
The mentor would have been nervous as Manly quickly set up camp on North Queensland's line before second-rower Curtis Sironen bullocked his way to the opening try in the eighth minute.
The Cowboys regrouped and found the defensive grit they showed against Penrith last week but errors cost them in attack. Reece Robson looked most likely to break the game open for the hosts, creating opportunities with his speed from dummy-half.
Manly weren't without mistakes themselves and the game descended into a stop-start grind. A wrestle in back-play between Cherry-Evans and North Queensland rookie Tom Gilbert was about as lively as things got for a while.
Sea Eagles hooker Danny Levi brought the excitement back. His eyes lit up from close range in the 25th minute when he noticed only fullback Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow and halfback Jake Clifford blocking his path, burrowing through the lightweight pair to pinch four points.
A blade of grass then denied Jack Gosiewski from claiming Manly's third try in the view of the NRL Bunker. Dunn did an outstanding job to get underneath the bustling back-rower.
Sironen cuts back inside for the first try
Buoyed by the fantastic save, the Cowboys rolled downfield and winger Kyle Feldt scored his sixth try in six starts at the venue - and 10th of the season - in trademark fashion by soaring above Jorge Taufua to snaffle a Jake Clifford kick.
Hannay's half-time speech must have resonated because North Queensland took control to begin the second half. Gavin Cooper almost barged over but Corey Waddell, Jake Trbojevic and Brendan Elliot managed to restrain the determined veteran.
Impressive second-gamer Daejarn Asi attempted a long money-ball a few tackles later but it bounced over the sideline, much to the relief of the visitors.
Still, the Cowboys threatened with second-phase play. Clifford broke into the clear but his misguided pass to the supporting Reuben Cotter was knocked on.
While North Queensland missed their chances, Manly took theirs as Cherry-Evans crossed in the 58th minute after Cust’s bust. Feldt nearly pulled off an incredible try-saver as he initially held up the Sea Eagles skipper, only for him to desperately twist and ground the Steeden.
With 14 minutes to play the Cowboys should have moved within six points when Asi put in a perfect grubber for Coen Hess but the back-rower made a meal of the putdown and the opportunity was lost.
Cust made the home side pay soon after when he dummied his way past the defence to stretch the lead. North Queensland responded through a Francis Molo barge-over try in the 69th minute.
It wasn’t enough to spark a last-gasp comeback, but Tabuai-Fidow's scintillating line-break in the shadows of full-time was heartening for Hannay despite the Cowboys slipping to their seventh loss in the past eight weeks.
Feldt doing Feldt things