The NZ Warriors scored their first victory in Townsville since 2002 when they held off a fast-finishing North Queensland Toyota Cowboys 20-16 at 1300SMILES Stadium tonight.
Down by 14 points with only 15 minutes remaining, the Cowboys scored the final two tries of the match and came agonisingly close to grabbing the third that could have at least forced the round three clash into golden point extra-time.
It’s the first loss at home for the Cowboys since they were beaten by Brisbane last season and the first victory of the year for the Warriors, who also ended a run of defeats last season with a victory against North Queensland at Mt Smart Stadium.
The Cowboys now have a 1-2 win-loss record after back-to-back four-point defeats and head into a round four Queensland derby against the Gold Coast at CBUS Super Stadium on Monday week.
Cowboys coach Paul Green opted to start Rory Kostjasyn at hooker with Ray Thompson reverting to the interchange bench. Tariq Sims wore the NQ No.13 jersey for the first time in his first run-on start since round 17 in 2012. The Warriors brought in centre Konrad Hurrell on the bench and left out forward John Palavi. Sione Lousi started instead of Feleti Mateo.
On a humid North Queensland night, the story of the first 20 minutes centred on three incidents on the eastern side of 1300SMILES Stadium.
Warriors winger Glen Fisiiahi came up with a double and his rival on the Cowboys’ flank, Antonio Winterstein, was 'snipered' and unable to provide the quick hit back the home team was looking for.
Fisiiahi’s first try arrived on the nine-minute mark after the Cowboys were left outnumbered on their right-hand side.
He had his second 10 minutes later when the video referees confirmed he had managed to avoid a knock-on and then get downward pressure on a Shaun Johnson grubber kick that Michael Morgan was unable to clean up at the back.
Johnson missed both conversion attempts from out wide to leave the Warriors 8-0 up.
Winterstein should have provided North Queensland’s opener not long after, taking a wide ball from Morgan 10 metres out with no Warriors defenders between him and the tryline.
But with the four points beckoning, the Cowboys winger inexplicably tripped and grounded the ball short of the line, losing possession before he managed to slide into the in-goal.
However, the Samoan World Cup representative quickly made up for that mishap, steamrolling two Warriors defenders, and shaking off a third, in a charge to the corner in the 27th minute to finally provide a reward for the home team.
A string of penalties – the count was 7-2 at one point - had North Queensland parked deep in the visitors' territory for the remainder of the half, but the Warriors somehow managed to hold on.
The pressure was almost exclusively on the Cowboys in the first 15 minutes of the second 40, not helped by two errors inside their own 30-metre zone.
After hammering away without success, the Warriors eventually added to the lead when giant replacement Konrad Hurrell crashed over, one pass off the ruck, just to the right of the posts.
Johnson’s first successful conversion of the night restored the eight-point gap.
Sione Lousi soon made it back-to-back tries for the visitors, again cashing in on some poor Cowboys defence close to the play-the-ball to build the lead to 14 with Johnson’s kick from in front.
It took a Warriors mistake after an almost faultless first 25 minutes to the half that invited North Queensland back into the contest.
Under little pressure, Fisiiahi spilled a Thurston bomb five metres out and Michael Morgan was first to the scraps in the in-goal.
Now down by eight, there was renewed spirit in the Cowboys lineup and Winterstein almost repeated his barrelling effort of the first half before a desperate Tariq Sims was stopped over the line a couple of plays later – the video refs confirming the on-field call of 'no try'.
The Cowboys continued their fightback with a spectacular Kyle Feldt try in the corner in the 75th minute and it looked like he may have scored the equaliser with time running out, only to be denied after his foot hit the sideline before he managed to get the ball over.
It was the second near-miss of a thrilling final few minutes, coming after Scott Bolton looked like he was about to dot down only to have Warrior Chad Townsend strip him of possession in the act of scoring.
Even with 36 seconds to go, there was still a chance for NQ but a dropped ball on the first tackle confirmed the Warriors as winners.
COWBOYS: 1. Michael Morgan 2. Kyle Feldt 3. Brent Tate 4. Kane Linnett 5. Antonio Winterstein 6. Johnathan Thurston 7. Robert Lui 8. Matthew Scott 14. Rory Kostjasyn 10. James Tamou 11. Gavin Cooper 12. Jason Taumalolo 13. Tariq Sims. Interchange: 9. Ray Thompson 15. Glenn Hall 16. Ashton Sims 17. Scott Bolton.
WARRIORS: 1. Sam Tomkins 2. Glen Fisiiahi 3. Dane Nielsen 4. Jerome Ropati 5. Manu Vatuvei 6. Chad Townsend 7. Shaun Johnson 8. Sam Rapira 9. Nathan Friend 10. Ben Matulino 11. Jayson Bukuya 12. Simon Mannering 16. Sione Lousi. Interchange: 13. Feleti Mateo 14. Jacob Lillyman 15. Suaia Matagi 20. Konrad Hurrell.
Cowboys: Antonio Winterstein, Michael Morgan, Kyle Feldt, Johnathan Thurston 2 goals
Warriors: Glen Fisiiahi 2 Konrad Hurrell, Sione Lousi, Johnson 2 goals