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North Queensland Toyota Cowboys coach Paul Green has blamed a poor first half showing for the 28-22 loss to the Dragons with the visitors falling short of a comeback late in the game on Saturday night.

St George Illawarra ran in five tries in the opening 40 minutes to take a 24-point lead into the break before the Cowboys kept the Dragons scoreless in the second half to pile on three unanswered tries, but it was a case of too little too late for the visitors.

A final try to Dragons centre Tim Lafai in the first half proved the difference between the two sides in the end.

"That back-end of the first half we switched off in both aspects and the game got away from us," Green said post-game.

"Our ball control and last-play options were pretty ordinary but I knew if we could just put some pressure on them we would put on some points to get us back into the game.

"They had a lot more ball than us in the first half and what we did have we didn't do much with it."

It was always going to be a tough ask for the Cowboys who lost Johnathan Thurston to a calf injury earlier in the week and were without other key players in Lachlan Coote, Jake Granville and Matt Scott through injury in the last month.

"I don't think 'Johnno' (Thurston) would've made much difference in that first half," Green said.

"Defensively we were off and we made some really basic errors that put ourselves under pressure and they got a couple of tries back-to-back that took us a while to recover from."

The Cowboys welcomed back Justin O'Neill for the clash however the Australian international was outplayed by an in-form Tim Lafai in the centres. 

Dragons coach Paul McGregor hinted he wanted his players to target the right side of the Cowboys defence and Green admitted both O'Neill and winger Kyle Feldt were not at their best to respond as the Red V ran in three tries down their corridor.

"That right-edge has been our strongest side defensively but the combinations haven't been there this year and they were rusty tonight," he admitted.

"To be fair, [the right-edge] has been a little bit disrupted too. Justin just came back tonight and [Ethan] Lowe has been there and now [Coen] Hess is there."

Despite the result, Green was confident the side could turn the results around in coming weeks with the Cowboys due to host the Knights in Townsville next Saturday night. 

"We'll be right, we're just having a rough period at the moment," Green said.

"Teams go through it and you don't know when it's going to be… ours is now.

"What it will do is give some of these young blokes time to learn the NRL."

Green was unsure if any of the Cowboys' injured players would be fit to return for the clash with the Knights.

"You would rather be going through this now than coming into the semi-finals which happened to us last year so I'm confident in the players," he said.

"We have to hang tough and we'll come out the other side a better team."

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Acknowledgement of Country

North Queensland Cowboys respect and honour the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.