A rampaging Jason Taumalolo has lead the Cowboys to a crucial 26-20 victory over the Penrith Panthers in front of a record crowd of 10,289 at Carrington Park in Bathurst tonight, in a display which Cowboys coach Paul Green will hope has revived their 2018 season.
North Queensland survived a late Panthers fightback , with Taumalolo running for over 220 metres and he was well supported by Matt Scott in a timely performance for Queensland selectors. Scott was at his dominant best in an entertaining battle with Panthers enforcers Regan Campbell-Gillard and James Fisher-Harris, which had the country fans on their feet on numerous occasions, with some brutal defence and kamikaze style runs in a terrific running battle throughout the match.
The Cowboys flew out of the blocks early to lead 20-4 at the break, only for the Panthers to fight back in a spirited second half performance to give Paul Green's men a late scare.
The loss for the Panthers were further compounded, literally for Anthony Griffin, with prop Trent Merrin suffering a compound fracture of his finger , which saw Merrin ruled out just prior to kickoff, and will likely see the former Australian representative miss several weeks.
The Cowboys had their season on the line and it was a different outfit that crossed the stripe at kickoff, with both Taumalolo and Scott leading the way early to get their side on the front foot. The Panthers had no option but to try and hold on early as Taumalolo in particular created havoc up the middle and the visitors grew in confidence off the back of the Tongan International's charging runs.
The Cowboys scored first, when hooker Jake Granville put the under pressure Michael Morgan over close to the line with a terrific pass from dummy half for Morgan to score the first try of the night.
North Queensland then put the foot down, charging up the field, with skipper Jonathan Thurston combining with Lachlan Coote to put Ben Hampton into space down the right edge. The former Storm utility then split between Panthers defenders James Maloney and Tyrone Phillips to score under the post to make it 12-0 after 20 minutes.
The Cowboys continued their dominance when Panthers fullback Dallin Watene-Zelezniak spilt a Thurston cross field bomb on his own line and then gave away a penalty in the next set to give Thurston the chance to extend the lead to 14 points, which he duly accepted.
Watene-Zelezniak was in the thick of the action minutes later, when the Panthers #1 accidently collected opposite number Coote in the air when attepting to take a bomb close to the line. Cowboys winger Kyle Feldt took exception and Watene-Zelezniak threw a punch which did not connect, however referee Ashley Klein deemed it serious enough to send him to the Sin Bin for 10 minutes.
With the Panthers down a man, the Cowboys made them pay minutes later, when Thurston found his old faithful Gavin Cooper who hit a hole and did remarkably well to carry two players to reach over to score and when Thurston converted the Cowboys were flying at 20-0 just before the break.
The Panthers were desperate to hit back before halftime and despite being down a man, Issah Yeo got a great ball from Tyrone Peachey, and the makeshift centre attracted two defenders before throwing an incredible offload to Tyrone Phillips who beat two cover defenders to score a crucial try on his club debut.
The second half looked as though the players had swapped jerseys, with momentum switching immediately, with the Panthers firing out of the blocks to have the Cowboys under pressure.
Then all of the sudden it was the Cowboys who found themselves down to 12 men, when interchange forward Shaun Fensom found himself marched for interfering with a quick tap from Panthers danger man Tyrone Peachey. The Panthers took advantage almost immediately when Panthers hooker Peter Wallace scored the first double of his career and all within 4 minutes.
The first was after a strong run from James Fisher-Harris, where Wallace crashed over from dummy half. Then minutes later the veteran #9 made it a brace, when James Maloney kicked for Watene-Zelezniak, who batted the ball back, which then bounced up for Wallace to score and all of the sudden the Cowboys lead was cut to just four points.
Wallace however went from hero to villain very quickly, when he was penalised for a high tackle on Lachlan Coote and off the ensuing play, Justin O'Neil batted back a Coote kick into the path of skipper Jonathan Thurston, who crashed over for his first try of the season and extend the visitors lead to 24-16.
After pulling off a miracle victory over the Raiders on their last visit to Bathurst in 2017, the Panthers were not giving up and when bench hooker Sione Katoa bust the line, a cool and calm Maloney saw numbers to the left, where the NSW half kicked across field for an unmarked Tyrone Phillips to score his second try on his club debut.
A second epic comeback in as many years was finally shut down, with a Thurston penalty extending the lead to 6 points and the Cowboys held on to a very valuable win and just their third for 2018.
It is now imperative that North Queensland now get on a run if they are to revive their season and it starts next Thursday night, when they face the in-form Tigers at Leichardt Oval next Thursday night.
Penrith meanwhile travel up the M1 to Newcastle, where they face a dangerous Knights outfit, lead by Kalyn Ponga next Friday at Hunter Stadium.