Seemingly cruising to victory after a sublime opening half, NZ Warriors have barely survived a North Queensland comeback for a hard-fought 24-20 victory at Gosford.
The result sees the Auckland side claim early bragging rights over Cowboys coach Todd Payten, who took over the Warriors from Stephen Kearney last season, but turned down a fulltime role to return to Townsville this year.
They suffered a setback before kickoff, when stat winger David Fusitu'a was ruled out for the second straight week, unable to return from a bothersome hamstring niggle. He was replaced by debutant Edward Kosi, exposing a young right-side combo with one-cap centre Rocco Berry.
But Kosi featured in his team's first try, carrying early, before Reece Walsh - in just his second game - and captain Roger Tuivasa-sheck stretched the defence, and half Kodi Nikorima crossed near the posts.
Berry was next to score, when Nikorima and Tuivasa-Sheck again combined to create the opportunity, then forward Ben Murdoch-Masila capitalised on lead-up from Nikorima and Walsh to charge over.
The Warriors spine dominated their rivals, but Cowboys hooker Reece Robson got his team on the board, running from dummy half at close range to score untouched.
With halftime looming, centre Adam Pompey ran off foward Josh Curran to extend the advantage to 24-4 at the break.
The Warriors had completed their sets at a high rate throughout the opening 40 minutes, but that effort fell away after the break, as North Queensland rallied.
Murray Taulagi was the first to strike after the restart, as half Scott Drinkwater kicked behind Kosi for the charging winger.
Drinkwater was next, after Taulagi stepped out of a Kosi tackle and make ground up the left touchline, before looking infield for support.
Taulagi had a second try, when he was given a straight run an open goal-line, with the Warriors reduced to 12 men, after Murdoch-Masila left injured.
The Warriors had their chances to put the contest away. Walsh's speed troubled the Cowboys, but his footing was often unsure.
Shifted to the halves, he created an opportunity for winger Ken Maumalo to extend the lead, but replays showed a deflection off Curran went forward. Walsh split the defence late, but stumbled and knocked on, with the line open.
North Queensland's last chance to win fell short, after Bayley Sironen lost possession, gifting them prime position with five minutes remaining, but Tongan international Jason Taumalolo quickly knocked on in a tackle and the Warriors weathered the storm.
In the end, both teams scored four tries, but Nikorima's pinpoint goalkicking - his only miss hit the uprights and deflected out - proved the difference, with Valentine Holmes more wayward with his efforts.
The Warriors victory consolidates seventh spot on the NRL table and playoff contention with a third of the season gone.
Warriors 24 (Nikorima, Pompey, Murdoch-Masila & Berry tries; Nikorima 4 goals) Cowboys 20 (Robson, Drinkwater & Taulagi 2 tries; Holmes 2 goals)
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