The Cowboys were desperate to awaken from a nightmare 2020 season which has seen them reduced to also-rans and facing South Sydney Rabbitohs would not make that an easy task.
The opening stages were very tight with Souths coming out slightly on top in terms of territory but offered little else in terms of attack.
In the 12th minute, a touch of class from Adam Reynolds opened the scoring for the Rabbitohs as he chipped over the top of the Cowboys line,
He followed his own kick through and with Scott Drinkwater defending in the line, was under no pressure when grounding the ball in the in-goal area.
The Cowboys hit back almost instantly as just four minutes later, Ben Hampton and Michael Morgan combined to create space on the outside and after the ball was shifted right, Connelly Lemuelu crossed for his first NRL-try.
In the 25th minute, following multiple repeat sets, penalties and set restarts, the Cowboys finally made their pressure count.
Morgan dummied inside, dummied outside, stepped inside Dane Gagai and beat the tackle of Latrell Mitchell to score and give his side the lead.
The Cowboys extended their lead further on the half an hour mark as a kick across to Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow was tapped back to Coen Hess and the second-rower crossed.
However, Tabuai-Fidow was deemed to have knocked the ball on in the air and the try was disallowed.
Moments later, Tabuai-Fidow made up for his small mistake as an attacking kick from Drinkwater was picked off and the winger stepped past Jaxson Paulo and beat the tackle of Latrell Mitchell to slide over and score.
Despite outscoring the Bunnies by three tries to one, the Cowboys still only led by six due to Kely Feldt missing all his conversion attempts.
The lead was soon gone though as Souths attacked down their left edge once more and a huge dummy from Gagai was misjudged by the defence and the centre walked in and dotted down under the posts.
Reynolds converted to level up.
Alex Johnston looked to take the ball away from his own try-line after Mitchell failed to gather a high bomb but was then stripped of the ball by Coen Hess, who won a penalty after the Rabbitohs were scrambling to not concede a try.
Feldt converted to give the Cowboys a slender lead at the break.
HALF-TIME: North Queensland Cowboys 14-12 South Sydney Rabbitohs
It took just 6 minutes for the Rabbitohs to retake the lead.
After a dubious decision not to call a knock-on, Cameron Murray played the ball quickly to allow Cody Walker to push the ball out to Johnston who raced around the back of North Queensland defence to score.
With half an hour to go, Morgan once again hit back to level the scores.
He ran the ball once more, and despite having four players around him, twisted out of the tackle of Damien Cook and retained possession of the ball to score.
Five minutes later, the Rabbitohs took the lead once again as this back and forth battle continued.
Damien Cook threw a short flat pass to Campbell Graham who spun out the tackle of Ben Hampton and dotted down.
Just shy of the hour mark, Johnston failed to gather a ricocheted kick along the ground from Morgan and Mitch Dunn took full advantage of the mistake by scooping up the pill and running away to score beating Gagai to the line.
With ten minutes to go, there was nothing separating the two sides, locked at 24 apiece.
That was until the 74th minute as Tom Opacic out jumped Campbell Graham to collect Drinkwater’s kick and dive in the in-goal to score.
South Sydney weren’t finished though as Mitchell took the ball out the back door, and dragged in Kyle Feldt enough to push Johnston outside his opposite number.
Johnston would go in to score, and Reynolds would have a kick to level the game.
Reynolds dragged his kick wide, but with three minutes left, there was enough time for either team to secure the two points.
The Souths were awarded a penalty on the 30-metre line after a ruck infringement from Morgan.
This gave Reynolds another chance to level up from the tee and duly delivered.
With 90 seconds remaining, the Rabbitohs began their charge up the field in search of victory and after Tatola was tackled 15-metres out, Reynolds struck a quick field-goal under a lot of pressure to make it 31-30 to the visitors.
The Cowboys attempted a short kick-off but Tabuai-Fidow couldn’t keep the ball in play and the Rabbitohs picked up the two-points.
FULL-TIME: North Queensland Cowboys 30-31 South Sydney Rabbitohs
North Queensland Cowboys
Drinkwater, Feldt, Opacic, Lemuelu, Tabuai-Fidow, Hampton, Morgan, McGuire, Robson, McLean, Dunn, Hess, Taumalolo
Interchanges: Granville, Asiata, Pere, Molo
Tries: Lemuelu, Morgan (2), Tabuai-Fidow, Dunn, Opacic
Goals: Feldt (3/7)
South Sydney Rabbitohs
Mitchell, Johnston, Graham, Gagai, Paulo, Walker, Reynolds, Tatola, Cook, Burgess, Su’A, Knight, Murray
Interchanges: Sironen, Nicholls, Mago, Kolomatangi
Tries: Reynolds, Gagai, Johnston (2), Graham
Goals: Reynolds (5/6)
Referee: C. Butler
Touch Judges: T. Smith, P. Gough
Video Referee: B. Norrie
Image Source: @NRL (twitter)