Penrith have consolidated their position inside the NRL top eight with a Nathan Cleary-led 24-16 win over an injury-ravaged North Queensland at Pepper Stadium.
Cleary came up with arguably the try-saver of the year and scored two decisive second-half tries to lead his side to victory on Saturday night over a gutsy Cowboys.
The Cowboys, already missing Johnathan Thurston, Matt Scott, Gavin Cooper, Antonio Winterstein and Te Maire Martin, were struck two massive blows when they lost Michael Morgan and Justin O’Neill to injury.
It’s feared O’Neill’s season is over with a suspected dislocated elbow. Halfback Morgan didn’t return in the second half after suffering a concussion.
The Cowboys were brave, playing the entire second stanza with two men on the bench, while fullback Lachlan Coote seemed to be playing through ankle and leg injuries.
After taking a 10-6 lead into halftime, the Cowboys extended their advantage when front-rower-turned-halfback John Asiata threw a short ball for Jason Taumalolo to get over.
After Cleary pulled his side back within four points with a 50th-minute try, he pulled off a memorable try-saver when he held up Cowboys big man Coen Hess to prevent North Queensland taking a 10-point lead.
The Cowboys ran out of gas with Cleary scoring twice in the last 30 minutes to give his side a valuable two points which jumps them into sixth.
After James Tamou crashed over against his old club, the teenage halfback delivered the coup de grace in the 70th minute for his side’s sixth win in a row.
“I’m always proud of this club. We didn’t write ourselves off,” Panthers coach Anthony Griffin said.
“It’s just business as usual. We’re not thinking all of a sudden ‘look what we’ve done’. We worked really hard to get to this point, the season’s on a knife edge and we need to get back and attack it again.”
It was the Cowboys’ third loss on the trot to put them in danger of missing the finals, however coach Paul Green declared they were still in the hunt.
“They didn’t roll over – we kept competing. I was really proud of the character,” Green said.
“While you’ve got that, you’re a chance in any game. We’re not done yet.
“It just feels like there’s a few things going against us the last couple of weeks.”