The winning streak might be over, but North Queensland coach Paul Green remains confident his young charges can steer the club through the last hurdle in the gruelling State of Origin period.
After leading 18-0, the Cowboys fell 24-18 to Cronulla on Saturday night and faced the tough assignment of next playing third-placed St George Illawarra next week in Wollongong.
The Cowboys will go into the match without co-captains Johnathan Thurston and Matt Scott as well as NSW prop James Tamou. Michael Morgan is also expected to retain his place on the Queensland bench.
In contrast, the Dragons will only lose Trent Merrin, although Tyson Frizell might earn a Blues call-up if Newcastle’s Beau Scott cannot recover from injury.
The Dragons boast an England/New Zealand halves pairing in Gareth Widdop and Benji Marshall, while the Cowboys will be without both first-choice playmakers.
Against the Sharks, the Cowboys elevated three young players in Cameron King, John Asiata and Patrick Kaufusi.
Despite the loss, Green said the players would be better for the run and ready to lift against the Dragons to keep the Cowboys’ top-two hopes alive.
“Patty, I thought he did pretty well for his debut,” he said.
“It was certainly a good learning curve for him about what playing NRL is like.
“The Saints are tough – all the games are tough.
“We’ll have a look at the game, dust ourselves off and get back into it.”
Scott said seeing young players like Sam Hoare coming through the ranks gave the club confidence.
“It’s great to see these guys come through the system,” he said.
“Patty has been there for a while now, so has Hoarey.
“It’s great to see that they get a bit of an opportunity and I think they have all played really well.”
The Cowboys could have another headache, though, with in-form hooker Jake Granville on report for a crusher tackle on Sharks back Sosaia Feki.
He will learn his fate on Monday when the Match Review Committee releases its charge sheet.
“It was a bit of an awkward looking tackle, but I don’t think there was anything in it,” Green said.