Todd Payten declared there are "better times ahead" for the Cowboys after halfback Tom Dearden starred to snap a 10-match losing streak against the Dragons.
The coach was delighted with the efforts of his young forwards, including Jeremiah Nanai and Heilum Luki, as they helped North Queensland overcome a 20-10 half-time deficit to win 38-26.
Payten also confirmed he is looking at Valentine Holmes as a "long-term centre" after the 10-time Maroons representative performed solidly in the position at Rockhampton's Browne Park.
St George Illawarra's rookie spine of Jayden Sullivan, Talatau Amone and Tyrell Sloan dominated the opening half, but four tries in eight minutes after the break got the Cowboys their first win since May.
It marked Dearden's maiden victory for the club and the 20-year-old couldn't have done much more, producing a try, two line breaks, a try assist, two line-break assists, 162 metres and 17 tackles.
Match: Dragons v Cowboys
Round 24 -
Venue: Browne Park, Rockhampton
"[Dearden] has won three out of our last four players' player awards. What I love about him is just the way he competes," Payten said.
"I think he made a tackle on [Mikaele] Ravalawa on the kick and he ran past six of our guys to make it. That's just a great example of what it takes to become an NRL player and the way you can you compete."
A crop of exciting forwards gives North Queensland "something to work with" as they look towards 2022, according to Payten.
Nanai and Dearden combine as the Cowboys score another quickly
"There are better times ahead. We just need to educate them and harden them to NRL speed and physicality and decisions," he said.
"I thought Heilum, when he came on, really changed the momentum of the game. I think Jeremiah Nanai had some really class touches, defended really well, moved well, made some good decisions.
"Griffin Neame – again, these guys coming up from that [Queensland] Cup system hadn't had a game for what, eight, nine weeks now.
"So we're asking a whole lot of them to just throw them straight in the deep end and they just competed pretty hard."
Jason Taumalolo wore the No.8 but Payten said that was to do with the team's jersey sizing rather than a change in his role.
In any case, Taumalolo was at his best with a match-high 209 metres.
"Jase is a lock. The only difference that makes is where they line up for kick-off and where they put their head in a scrum," Payten said.
St George Illawarra's losing run has now extended to seven matches and their finals chances are officially dashed.
Feldt the benefactor of some Nanai brilliance
But hooker Sullivan, five-eighth Amone and fullback Sloan, who played together as juniors in Illawarra's 2019 SG Ball premiership win, provided cause for optimism about where the club is headed.
The trio set up a sensational try for Zac Lomax before Sullivan, who is usually a halfback, pinched a four-pointer from dummy-half.
Dragons fans should be salivating over this try conjured by two youngsters
And on the stroke of half-time, Amone placed a lovely inside kick for the instinctive Sloan to rush through and touch down.
North Queensland's blitz began when winger Ben Hampton swooped on a loose ball and ran 95 metres to score in the 45th minute.
"It wasn't pretty, but we just needed to scrap away and find a way to win and we fell over in the end," Payten said.
"I'm very proud of the way they went about it. We left three tries out there in the first half ... so we knew we had some points in us.
"It's pleasing, but we've still got some habits that we need to fix."