Not even the absence of their two biggest attacking weapons could halt the North Queensland Cowboys, who scored twice in the final six minutes to seal an entertaining 28-22 trial win over St George Illawarra in Cairns on Saturday night.
Missing in-demand halfback Johnathan Thurston and partner in crime Matt Bowen, the under-strength Cowboys took advantage of Dragons rookie Adam Quinlan spilling a Robert Lui bomb late in the match to re-take the lead for good.
The Cowboys muscled their way to a 14-point lead just prior to half-time in steamy conditions at Barlow Park, only for Steve Price’s Dragons to pile on 18 unanswered points through tries to Matt Cooper, Jamie Soward and recruit Bronson Harrison either side of the break.
Quinlan was instrumental in setting up the Soward and Harrison four-pointers, while Soward won the praise of his coach for steering the inexperienced side around the park in the second period.
But North Queensland responded through winger Javid Bowen before capitalising on an unfortunate Quinlan error with only minutes remaining for Joel Riethmuller to score on the subsequent set.
Price rotated his near full-strength 25-man squad heavily throughout the match with young guns Quinlan, Josh Drinkwater, Charly Runciman and Cameron King all impressing at various stages.
Utility Bronx Goodwin was the only injury concern for the Dragons and will be sent for scans on a shoulder injury this week.
The match was played in front of a healthy crowd of 12,036 people.
St George Illawarra will have their last hitout before a daunting season-opening trip to Melbourne on March 10 when they take on Souths in the annual Charity Shield fixture on Friday night.
North Queensland Cowboys 28 (Clint Greenshields, Michael Morgan, Jason Taumalolo, Javid Bowen, Joel Riethmuller tries; Morgan 3, Kyle Feldt goals) defeated St George Illawarra Dragons 22 (Chase Stanley, Matt Cooper, Jamie Soward, Bronson Harrison tries; Soward 2, Josh Drinkwater goals).