North Queensland broke the Vodafone Warriors' hearts winning tonight's 20th-round NRL encounter 24-12 at 1300SMILES Stadium in Townsville.
With the match in its final seconds and 12-18 down, the Vodafone Warriors had one last shot in what had been a tingling contest.
They bombed to the right, David Fusitu'a rose to snare the catch, offloaded and a try looked on - but disastrously the ball went loose and wing Javid Bowen swooped to collect and scorch 90 metres for the match-sealing try.
It was devastating for a Vodafone Warriors side which had thrown everything into this battle, coming to Townsville missing so much experience in the shape of the injured Shaun Johnson, Ryan Hoffman, James Gavet and Albert Vete.
The 12-point margin was an unfair reflection of the nature of the encounter. It was intense throughout as the Vodafone Warriors aimed up to secure a victory at one of the most difficult venues.
In his first NRL outing in almost two years, halfback Mason Lino had some nice early touches, including a superb grubber to force a goal-line dropout.
The Vodafone Warriors fed off it, built some pressure and in the 10th minute banked points.
Kieran Foran, heavily involved from the get-go, held his pass up sweetly, feeding Roger Tuivasa-Sheck on his left who had second rower Bunty Afoa steaming through on a great line to scoot 20 metres untouched for his first try of the season.
With Issac Luke's conversion, the Vodafone Warriors were good value for the early 6-0 lead - and yet again underlining their ability to consistently strike first.
By the 20-minute mark it was 6-6, the Cowboys creating a hole for centre Justin O'Neill to score on the right with Ethan Lowe converting.
Both sides mounted some wonderful goal-line defence in the ensuing stanza, Vodafone Warriors forward Ligi Sao and Lino both held up over the line by the Cowboys.
Then just when the Vodafone Warriors were in sight of going to halftime at 6-6, they erred with errors giving the home side possession at the right end of the field.
Unfortunately points followed, if somewhat luckily when a last tackle angled grubber deflected to gift Bowen his first try. Lowe's conversion had the Cowboys 12-6 ahead, a harsh punishment for a Vodafone Warriors side which had been offering much to admire offensively and defensively.
Then close to the break North Queensland reciprocated, Shaun Fensom spilling the ball near halfway, the Vodafone Warriors packing the scrum quickly and organising another well-executed try through their left side. Again Foran was the key, his pass sending the tireless Simon Mannering to the line for his 62nd career try. Luke tied it up 12-12 with the conversion.
The Vodafone Warriors had a perfect opportunity to take the lead early in the second half. Having declined a likely two points from a penalty, the Vodafone Warriors went at the Cowboys again. Foran hunted down a bouncing kick and was in the process of putting the ball down when a desperate Gavin Cooper arrived to superbly knock the ball loose and save the day.
When North Queensland had a penalty at the other end minutes later, the shot was taken for Lowe to put his side 14-12 ahead.
And just on the 60-minute mark there was more reward for the Cowboys. From a repeat set after a penalty, the Vodafone Warriors just couldn't quite scramble their way out of trouble once more as Lowe went over wide out on the right. He couldn't convert leaving his side 18-12 ahead.
North Queensland threatened again in the 67th minute but Foran produced a wonderful low tackle to grass Lowe and force an error. Danger averted.
Now it was going set for set, as it did to the end but the Vodafone Warriors weren't able to find a way to level it up. It was a cruel outcome for them after the effort they'd put in.
1300SMILES Stadium, Townsville
North Queensland Cowboys 24 (Javid Bowen 2, Justin O'Neill, Ethan Lowe tries; Ethan Lowe 3 conversions, penalty).
Vodafone Warriors 12 (Bunty Afoa, Simon Mannering tries; Issac Luke 2 conversions).
Referees: Henry Perenara and Tim Roby.
Vodafone Warriors | Roger Tuivasa-Sheck (c); David Fusitu'a, Blake Ayshford, Solomone Kata, Ken Maumalo; Kieran Foran, Mason Lino; Jacob Lillyman, Issac Luke, Ben Matulino; Bodene Thompson, Bunty Afoa; Simon Mannering. Interchange: Mafoa'aeata Hingano, Sam Lisone, Ligi Sao, Chris Satae.