James Tamou's bid to reclaim the NSW jersey he lost in a drink driving incident kicked off positively in balmy Townsville last night, the Australia prop topping 100 metres with the ball with almost a quarter of the clash against Cronulla to play.
There were reports before kick-off Tamou has already been told he'll be taking on Queensland in Origin III on July 17. That being the case, he was given an indication of the task facing him at ANZ Stadium when his front row partner, Queensland's Matt Scott, picked up where he left off in Origin II with a Herculean performance.
Criticised at times this year, the North Queensland co-captain pummelled a Sharks side without NSW captain Paul Gallen with a series of powerhouse charges.
Despite an inconsistent season and speculation surrounding the future of coach Neil Henry, the Cowboys are now just two points outside the top eight.
They held a six point advantage for much of the second half and secured victory with Johnathan Thurston's 72ndminute penalty goal, with Antonio Winterstein crossing not long afterwards.
It was 4-4 at the end of a frenetic but mistake-marred first half.
North Queensland posted the opening points after their Queensland prop, Matt Scott, made a bumping run through the centre of the Cronulla defence in the sixth minute.
After steamrolling John Morris, Scott handled a gain before Tariq Sims' off-load put fellow NSW South Coast produced Kane Linnett over for a try which Johnathan Thurston was unable to convert.
Cronulla's efforts were stymied when their captain, Wade Graham, was penalised for a shoulder charge in the eight minute but there was a clear scoring opportunity for Shane Flanagan's men when Origin prop Andrew Fifita launched himself at the tryline in the 21st minute.
Fifita provided a very late offload which was dived on by Cowboys hooker Roy Thompson, relieving enormous pressure.
NQ replacement Ashton Sims found himself in the report of referees Adam Devcich and Alan Shortall for kneeing Nathan Stepleton midway through the first half.
And with 13 minutes left in the half, the Sharks managed to equalise. Todd Carney's pass found second rower Luke Lewis running a dangerous angle and after juggling the Steeden he crashed over.
The whistlers were not content the NSW Origin star had grounded the ball cleanly, however, and it was down to eyes in the sky Neil Wharton and Steve Clark to award the try. From just to the right of the posts, Carney missed with his conversion attempt.
The referees came up with the most contentious call of the first half when North Queensland winger Ashley Graham seemed to fumble Todd Carney's spiral bomb 11 minutes before the break but was ruled to have knocked it back, with the home side retaining possession.
The Cowboys had the last clear try-scoring chance of the first session, with Johnathan Thurston, Graham and Clint Greenshields combining on the right side before the fullback came to grief in the 37th minute.
Carney's 30-metre field goal attempt was wide in the final 90 seconds of the first half.
The second half was six minutes old when Cowboys second rower Gavin Cooper crashed over one-off the ruck, off Ray Thompson's pass from dummy-half.
Thurston's conversion from near the sideline sailed between the posts for 10-4. NQ then started to turn the screws, forcing a repeat set almost immediately.
An hour before kick-off, the return from a calf injury of NSW Origin hopeful Michael Gordon was aborted with Stapleton coming into the fullback position.
Ben Ross started in place of Andrew Fifita at prop while the loss of captain Paul Gallen to a foot injury brought Chris Heighington into the starting Sharks pack.
Additionally, Matthew Wright came into the starting side for Beau Ryan who suffered a knee injury at training on match-eve. Wright was in New Zealand and was rushed to Townsville via Sydney in a 10-hour trip.
And Sharks coach Shane Flanagan said in a pre-match interview he was confident.
NORTH QUEENSLAND 24 (K Linnett 2 G Cooper A Winterstein tries J Thurston 4 goals) bt CRONULLA 4 (L Lewis try) at 1300SMILES Stadium. Referee: Alan Shortall, Adam Devcich. Crowd: 14,434.
- Sydney Morning Herald
Who is your pick for international league player of the year?Related story: (See story)