With the wind at their backs in the first half, the Dragons found themselves trailing 16-0 at half time, and 22-0 soon after the break.
But some ill-disciplined play from the Cowboys - including the sin-binning of Cowboys playmaker Johnathan Thurston in the 62nd minute - saw the Dragons invited back into the contest with the home side scoring 18 unanswered points in the final 17 minutes to almost pull off a miraculous victory.
Thurston played a sensational first half, dictating play around the ruck and taking full advantage of the inexperienced Dragons lineup. Tries to Thurston, centre Ashley Graham, and winger Brenton Bowen, gave the visitors a 16 point buffer at the break.
The Dragons needed to be the first to score in the second half and almost did so in the 44th minute through winger Luke MacDougall, the ball going to ground and the try going begging.
The Cowboys lifted following a tremendous 40/20 kick from Thurston a few minutes later, followed soonafter with a try to centre Paul Bowman.
At 22-0 down and with 30 minutes remaining, the Dragons were looking short odds to be on the wrong end of a thrashing.
But as the possession flow turned around, and some thrilling end-to-end play from both sides, the Dragons clawed their way back with several line breaks on the edges of the ruck.
With the Cowboys on the back foot and close to their line, Thurston committed a foul in the play-the-ball as the tackled player tried to get to his feet. His exit from the field signalled two quick tries from Dragons stand-in five eighth Richard Williams.
Dropped to the Premier League during the week, Williams was recalled into the NRL fixture following an injury Ben Hornby.
A third try to MacDougall, and sharp conversion from Wes Naiqama put the Dragons just four points behind with two minutes remaining.
In an exciting finish, a near chance out wide from centre Matt Cooper was snuffed out by the Cowboys defence before a cross field kick was defused just before fulltime.
St George Illawarra Dragons 18 Tries: Richard Williams (2), Luke Macdougall Goals: Wes Naiqama (3/3) North Queensland Cowboys 22 Tries: Johnathan Thurston, Ashley Graham, Brenton Bowen, Paul Bowman Goals: Johnathan Thurston (3/4)
League Unlimited Commentary: Glorious afternoon and a strong southerly in Wollongong for this Dragons v Cowboys clash. The Cowboys will be without five eighth Jason Smith and he'll be replaced by Justin Smith. In worse shape are the Dragons, fielding a team largely made up rookies as their injuries continue to mount. Key playmaker Ben Hornby and forward Danny Wicks have been ruled out and join the growing list of players sidelined in the Dragons camp. Meanwhile Saints half back Mat Head still looks a starter despite a question mark over his fitness and early return from injury. Teams coming onto the field...
The Cowboys kick off! the Dragons will have the wind at their backs in the first half.
Possible TRY to Cowboys. Video ref looking at possible obstruction...
4 min: TRY North Queensland Cowboys Half back Johnathan Thurston gets the nod from the video ref and really no doubt. Thurston threatening close to the line and second phase play eventually seeing Thurston crashing over next to the posts. Conversion attempt by Johnathan Thurston successful. North Queensland Cowboys 6-0
6 min: Big kick off from Saints looks certain to go over the dead ball line on the full, but front rower Matthew Scott unable to capitalise with his front on the line, and its a line drop out.
9 min: Possible TRY to Cowboys. Centre Ashley Graham in the corner but video ref looking at if he took the corner post out before putting down.
9 min: TRY North Queensland Cowboys Graham gets the green light, just getting the ball down before the corner post is collected. Good signs for the Cowboys as the Dragons are struggling a little on their right side defence, Cowboys full back Matt Bowen finding room in the lead up to the try. Conversion attempt by Johnathan Thurston unsuccessful. North Queensland Cowboys 10-0
15 min: Possible TRY to Cowboys. Vid ref looking at off side and grounding as well the sideline. Again down the Cowboys left flank and Dragons right side defence being stretched. Thurston instrumental in putting a kick through and winger Neil Sweeney on hand to pick it up.
NO TRY - Video ref rules that Sweeney's heel touched the sideline.
18 min: Enterprisng play by the Dragons with utility Rangi Chase dazzling then up the line. A neat flick pass out the back being part of the show.
21 min: Saints full back Josh Morris a bit groggy after a heavy tackle. Play stopped while he gets his bearings. Looks like he'll be staying on the field.
24 min: Cowboys now getting repeat sets at the Dragons line after Jason Ryles gives away a penalty and then Rangi Chase loses possession. Cowboys grubber sees the Dragons forced into a line drop out. In a sloppy couple of movements, the Cowboys cough up possession before the Dragons hand back possession yet again.
27 min: Dragons get a relieving penalty after the Cowboys give away silly penalty in the play-the-ball, holding onto the tackled player.
29 min: TRY North Queensland Cowboys Brenton Bowen plants it down after Thurston sees an opening on his right side and chip kicks into the corner. Brenton Bowen is easily the first to the ball. Wide conversion attempt by Johnathan Thurston is tremendous to watch as he adds the extras North Queensland Cowboys 16-0
32 min: Dragons kick out the full from the restart... the ball sailing over the dead ball line.
35 min: Big run from Ryles up the centre of the ruck as the Dragons get a rare attacking opportunity. Cowboys subsequently forced into a line drop out Dragons get a repeat set at the line.
37 min: Senstaional run from Matt Bowen who sprinted some 95m and looked certain to score before Richard Williams somehow managed to chase him down. The Cowboys coming at them in waves in the subsequent plays, but Dragons amazingly hang on.
Half time: Cowboys 16-0 Running into a stiff breeze in the first half, the Cowboys have dominated possession and field position with half back Johnathan Thurston dictating terms. The Dragons have put in a gutsy effort at times but inexperience across the park and lack of ball is putting them on the back foot. With the wind favouring the Cowboys in the second half, you can expect the Thurston and M Bowen to go up another gear and the scoreboard could easily blow out to anything. The Dragons with all the work to do.
Welcome back. Teams are on the field, Dragons to kick off and the Cowboys with the wind and the scoreboard behind them in the second half...
44 min: Dragons putting together some good plays early in the second half. An opportunity to score out wide is bombed when winger Luke MacDougall knocks on following a long pass from half back Mat Head.
48 min: 40/20 kick from Thurston puts the Cowboys on the attack.
50 min: TRY North Queensland Cowboys Paul Bowman dives over 10m in from touch when an inside pass creates a simple gap from close range. Conversion attempt by Johnathan Thurston swings around beautifully and is successful. North Queensland Cowboys 22-0
53 min: Another well executed Cowboys raid and Saints survive but appear to be just hanging on.
57 min: Big run from Josh Morris after Luke MacDougall creates a bust up the middle. A run of some 70m and Morris steps around Matt Bowen before he is reeled in by the cover defence.
62 min: SIN BINNED - Johnathan Thurston is sin binned following a professional foul, Thurston all over the man trying to play the ball. The Dragons cutting through the Cowboys defence after centre Matt Cooper makes a big bust down his left side.
63 min: TRY St George Illawarra Dragons Richard Williams score 15m in from touch following a simple play and following the penalty. Conversion attempt by Wes Naiqama successful. North Queensland Cowboys 22-6
65 min: Cowboys giving away a few silly penalties and looking a tad frustrated. Now being penalised for high tackles and lifting above the horizontal.
67 min: TRY St George Illawarra Dragons Richard Williams again. At first receiver following a scrum, Williams puts on a right foot step to get a double. A change has come over this game with the Dragons now getting seeing more of the ball. Conversion attempt 15m wide by Wes Naiqama successful. North Queensland Cowboys 22-12
72 min: Handling errors from sides creeping in. Thurston back on the field.
74 min: Another run downfield for the Dragons as Mat Head puts forward Sam Isemonger into a hole. Cowboys hang on.
76 min: Possible TRY to Dragons. Video ref looking at a dropped ball and who got hand to ball...
76 min: TRY St George Illawarra Dragons McaDougall gets the nod after a pass from Cooper is ruled to have been knocked down by a Cowboys player. Conversion attempt by Wes Naiqama successful. North Queensland Cowboys 22-18
78 min: We're in for a sizzling final two minutes as the Dragons get a penalty. Cowboys high tackle.
79 min: Head puts in a cross field kick. Its close... Cowboys have the ball!
Full time: Cowboys have withstood a second half charge from the Dragons to win 22-18 and come away with the two competition points. A great first half display from the Cowboys and in particular from Johnathan Thurston who set up what was ultimately a hard fought victory. The Cowboys should have won this comfortably but some ill-disciplined play in the second half invited the Dragons back into the contest. Credit to the Dragons who fielded an understrengthed team. With Jason Ryles stepping up in the front row and Richard Williams showing some clever play at five eighth, the home side were able to stage an spirited fight back when it looked like they were going to be on the end of a hiding.