With Jason Taumalolo and Coen Hess out for the Cowboys, they looked to overcome a Cronulla Sharks side still looking to pick up their first win of 2020.
The prospect of Valentine Holmes coming up against his former side was nearly thrown up in the air after six Cronulla Sharks players failed their initial temperature check, including Shaun Johnson and Matt Moylan.
However, after they all passed a second inspection the game kicked off in Townsville.
The Cowboys controlled the opening ten minutes of the game and were forcing repeat set after repeat set, pressuring the Sharks defence.
After winning a penalty in front of the posts, North Queensland decided against the easy two points and hunted for the first four-pointer.
Cronulla managed to hold on though, as Moylan’s early hit on Josh McGuire shut down the attacking play and keep the score at 0-0.
After keeping the Cowboys out, the Sharks then set up camp on the North Queensland try-line.
After a grubber kick in behind the line from Matt Moylan, the ball bounced dead without any players near it.
However, Josh Dugan was taken out by Kyle Feldt as they chased after the ball. It was only a penalty though as Dugan was always too far away to reach the ball.
With the resulting penalty, Shaun Johnson attempted to convert from the tee but the ball ricocheted off the upright and into the hands of Mitchell Dunn to stop the half-back regathering and picking up a four-pointer.
The opening points didn’t come until the 21st minute, as Will Kennedy looked to have been caught up in the tackle, but the ball was dropped backwards by the full-back, and Jesse Ramien picked up wonderfully and slid over the line.
Five minutes later the Cowboys picked up a try to bring themselves back within two.
Jake Clifford took the ball to the short side and threw a miss pass out wide to Kyle Feldt who walked in the corner after Sione Katoa drifted infield to Esan Marsters.
Valentine Holmes converted to level at 6-6.
The back and forth between the two sides continued and this time, it was Cronulla’s turn to score.
A kick from Shaun Johnson from the 20-metre line was perfectly weighted and bounced perfectly into Ronaldo Mulitalo’s arms after he outpaced Ben Hampton to the ball to slide over.
The Cowboys lost Mitchell Dunn just after the half-hour mark after the second-rower failed his Head Injury Assessment but that didn’t stop them from staying in the game as it approached the break.
With around three minutes to go in the half, Johnson, Kennedy and Jesse Ramien combined to give Mulitalo the ball on the outside and after throwing the ball around for a bit, Ramien ended up sliding over with ball in hand.
However, the try was disallowed by The Bunker after Scott Drinkwater was obstructed by Briton Nikora in the build-up.
HALF-TIME: North Queensland Cowboys 6-12 Cronulla Sharks
With the game in the balance coming into the second half, the Cowboys made sure it was even tighter after picking up their second try after just three minutes.
A kick over the top from Jake Clifford was gathered up by Justin O’Neill who span past Kennedy after Mulitalo left a huge gap behind him in the defensive structure.
Mulitalo then seemed to make up for this error just two minutes later after Jesse Ramien flicked the ball outside and the peroxide blonde flyer managed to beat the tackle of Ben Hampton to dive over and score.
With the Cowboys pushing to level the scores, Valentine Holmes pass out wide to Ben Hampton going behind the winger, Shaun Johnson picked up and popped the ball onto Jesse Ramien.
The centre then accelerated and raced away for 80 metres to extend the Sharks lead.
Johnson converted to make it 10-22 with just over 25 minutes remaining.
It became the battle of the long-range tries though, as Kyle Feldt was able to block and gather a kick from Sione Katoa 25-metres from his own line and the number two raced away to close the gap once again.
Despite looking to get back into the game, North Queensland couldn’t quite stop the Sharks from scoring try number five.
A kick into the corner from Johnson was knocked back by Mulitalo, which bounced into the grasp of Nikora and the second-rower dummied and ran between O’Neill and Clifford to score to extend the lead back out to ten.
The Cowboys responded in quick fashion as just two minutes later, Jake Clifford kicked across the field and Esan Marsters plucked the ball out of the air to score despite some interference from his own team-mate Shane Wright.
However, it was deemed that Wright made contact with the ball before it travelled forward to Marsters and the try was disallowed.
With less than ten minutes remaining, the door was still open for the Cowboys to pick something up from this game, despite now missing John Asiata to a knee injury.
However, Esan Marsters was deemed to have knocked on in the tackle which eased all the pressure on the Sharks.
A further knock-on from Mitchell Dunn meant Cronulla were in control of the ball in the final minutes, and they managed to close the game out for their first win of the season.
FULL-TIME: North Queensland Cowboys 16-26 Cronulla Sharks
North Queensland Cowboys
Holmes, Feldt, O’Neill, Marsters, Hampton, Drinkwater, Clifford, Molo, Granville, McLean, Dunn, Cooper, McGuire
Interchanges: Robson, Asiata, Gilbert, Wright
Tries: Feldt (2), O’Neill
Goals: Holmes (2/3)
Kennedy, Katoa, Dugan, Ramien, Mulitalo, Moylan, Johnson, Rudolf, Brialey, Woods, Nikora, Graham, Williams
Interchanges: Tracey, Hamlin-Uele, Talakai, Sorensen
Tries: Ramien (2), Mulitalo (2), Nikora
Goals: Johnson (3/7)
Referee: C. Sutton
Touch Judges: B. Sharpe, M. Noyen
Video Referee: B. Norris