Penrith 23 North Queensland 22
Starring role: Jamie Soward was the most valuable player for Penrith in their win over North Queensland. Photo: Getty Images
The Panthers might have went after Johnathan Thurston as their priority recruit, but on Monday night Jamie Soward proved that he was more than just a second prize, leading the Panthers to a nail-biting one point victory.
It was a Matt Moylan field goal in the 79th minute that proved the difference between the two teams in the end, but it was Soward who was the real star of the show in the 23-22 win.
Premature celebration: North Queensland centre Kane Linnett rejoices after his early try but the Panthers had the last laugh. Photo: Getty Images
The Penrith halfback won the battle of the two No.7s at a cold, wet and windy Sportingbet Stadium, outshining Thurston to press his claims as the NRL's buy of the season.
There were genuine fears Penrith's promising season would spiral out of control following a season-ending injury to halfback Peter Wallace against Cronulla in Bathurst three weeks ago.
But with the responsibility of running his football team, Soward has gone to another level in Wallace's absence, revelling in the pressure to lead his side to three straight wins and to stay in the hunt for the minor premiership just two points behind Manly in equal second position with South Sydney.
In front of a crowd of just 7276, Soward scored two tries, set up another two and layed on the switch pass that allowed Moylan to sink his second match-winning field goal of the season.
However the win has come at a huge price for the already injury ravaged Panthers, losing dynamic hooker James Segeyaro to an ankle injury late in the second half, getting caught awkwardly under a tackle from Ashton Sims in the 67th minute.
The Panthers are already without Wallace, Brent Kite, Elijah Taylor, Bryce Cartwright and Tyrone Peachey, so they can ill-afford to lose their star hooker.
Segeyaro has developed into an 80-minute hooker and has been one of their best players over the past three months, however coach Ivan Cleary could be forced to bring veteran Kevin Kingston back from the NSW Cup before he retires at the end of the season.
It was a knock-on from Josh Mansour off a Robert Lui bomb gave the Cowboys first crack at points, with Kane Linnett crossing from a Thurston short ball for an early 6-0 lead.
The Panthers hit back when Soward and Dallin Watene-Zelezniak combined to produce some magic and reduce the deficit to two points.
A penalty goal soon after levelled the score, before Soward stepped his way past some soft Cowboys defence to plant it down on the line and give Penrith a 10-6 lead after 27 minutes.
You couldn't keep Soward out of the game, with the former Dragons five-eighth putting up a bomb that led to more Panthers points as Jamal Idris' tap back fell into the waiting arms of Jeremy Latimore.
The Panthers let the Cowboys off the hook on the stroke of half-time when Gavin Cooper poked his head through the defensive line, offloading to Glenn Hall to send the visitors into the sheds trailing 16-12.
The Cowboys started the second half like they did the first - shooting out of the blocks to score through Robert Lui, again courtesy of a Thurston pass.
Trailing 18-16, Soward stepped up to turn the tide when he dashed 80 metres after taking an intercept from a Thurston pass, before Cowboys centre Matthew Wright was sent to the sin bin for a professional foul at the ensuing play-the-ball.
Playing against 12 men, Soward capitalised on the extra man with a 25-metre cut out pass to put Josh Mansour over in the corner and give his side a 22-18 advantage.
Another swirling bomb caused problems for Penrith, with Antonio Winterstein latching on to a Cooper tap-back to score, however Thurston was unable to break the deadlock with a conversion attempt from the sideline, allowing Moylan the chance to snatch the win.