Penrith grit repels Cowboys, To'o has blinder in 100th

Penrith have again shown the incredible defensive resolve for which they are famous to beat North Queensland 26-20 in an NRL thriller.

The Panthers led 24-4 early in the second half in Townsville on Saturday night, the Cowboys displaying guts and skill to at one stage being within four points.

The visitors and defending three-peat premiers set up the victory on the back of repelling the Cowboys on multiple occasions in the opening half.

They did it again at the death after the hosts stormed home to almost snatch it.

"(The tenacity) is something we are happy with and proud of but we don't want to be opening the door, like we did tonight, to that too often," Panthers coach Ivan Cleary said.

Cowboys coach Todd Payten wasn't happy that the Panthers got away early in the match.

"It was a great effort but still not good enough," Cowboys coach Todd Payten said.

"We are not happy. We lost three of the last four and can't be happy with being close."

Nathan Cleary, rusty in his return from a month's absence with a hamstring injury, stopped centre Valentine Holmes with a desperate effort in the final seconds.

Brian To'o
Brian To'o (centre) had a big impact in his 100th game for the Panthers. (Scott Radford-Chisholm/AAP PHOTOS)

Panthers winger Brian To'o, in his 100th NRL game, was enormous on his way to 17 tackle busts, a try and running for 194m.

Fullback Dylan Edwards, another star for the Panthers,  saved a try on rampaging Cowboys second-rower Jeremiah Nanai, then scored one at the other end with two crucial plays in the first half.

Cowboys winger Semi Valemei dropped a Cleary bomb after the break, Liam Martin swooped to score and the Panthers went out to 24-4.

The Cowboys weren't done, however.

Holmes crashed over from a scrum move in the 49th minute. Fullback  Scott Drinkwater then put charging back-rower Kulikefu Finefeuiaki in for a try, before half Chad Townsend unleashed rampaging Nanai to score next to the sticks.

A 20-point lead was cut to four in the space of 12 minutes, but the Panthers found another gear at the end despite making 320 tackles to 268.

To'o scored a cracker in the corner after a floating Jarome Luai cut-out pass in just the third minute.

Penrith finished the first half with an intercept try to Paul Alamoti, who swooped on an errant Drinkwater pass.

Alamoti was a late call-up after regular winger Sunia Turuva had been ruled out due to the contract negotiations surrounding his move to Wests Tigers next year on a three-season deal.

"Sunia didn't play mainly because he was going through his contract decision and still negotiating," Cleary said.

"It is something that has been going on for a few weeks and I think people don't quite understand what that can take out of someone ... not just professionally but emotionally. That's why we gave him the night off but he will be back next week."

Alamoti had an outstanding match, running for 241m and coming up with a crucial intercept play.

The Panthers were also without forwards Moses Leota (shoulder) and Scott Sorensen (knee), but found a way to win and stay in the top four.

The Cowboys lost centre Tom Chester to a hamstring injury during the match and he is expected to miss several weeks.