North Queensland were written off as a 2018 NRL premiership threat after winning just two of their first eight games. But a crucial victory over high-flying Penrith may be the turning point for a familiar Cowboys rally.

The Cowboys came into the season as the hot tip to win the premiership at $6.

The Michael Morgan and Jason Taumalolo-led charge to the 2017 grand final, the return of injured greats Johnathan Thurston and Matt Scott, and the addition of Test front-rower Jordan McLean pointed to a second title for the Townsville-based club.

But after winning their season opener, the Cowboys lost five straight – including heavy defeats to Penrith and Canterbury at their usually-formidable 1300SMILES Stadium fortress.

A scratchy 26-14 victory over Gold Coast in Round 7 eased some pressure before taking a step back with an 18-8 home loss to Canberra. But a 26-20 upset of the second-placed Panthers in Bathurst last Friday – going in as $2 outsiders – shapes as the ideal platform to revive the North Queensland’s campaign.

The Cowboys raced out to a 20-0 lead and calmly held off a surging Panthers outfit to bank a valuable two points.

Retiring champion Johnathan Thurston’s sub-par start to 2018 may have mirrored that of his side, but he is still second in the NRL for try assists with 10 and trumped in-form Panthers halfback James Maloney last weekend.

Meanwhile, back-row juggernaut Jason Taumalolo rocketed back to top form with an explosive man of the match performance against Penrith. Punters immediately took note, backing him in to eighth favourite at $19 to win his second Dally M Medal in three seasons.

Scott was also superb, rediscovering his enforcer qualities.

Despite still sitting 12th with a 3-6 record, the Cowboys have firmed to $1.80 to make the top 8 and eased to $1.95 to miss the finals for the first time since 2010.

While a top-four finish ($4.80) may be beyond them after giving their rivals a big head-start, their prices to make a second straight grand final ($6.50) and win hoist the NRL trophy ($13) are certainly worth keeping safe as the Cowboys look to send Thurston out with a fairytale ending.

The Cowboys boast a remarkable record of recovering from slow starts to reach the finals.

In 2013, they won just four of their first 13 games – which resulted in coach Neil Henry’s contract not getting renewed – but won their last six games to scrape into eighth spot.

The following season under Paul Green North Queensland started 2-5 but rallied to finish fifth after another late-season charge.

Then in 2015, the northerners defied an 0-3 start to land third before going on to win their maiden premiership.

And you don’t need to delve too far into the memory banks to recall the North Queensland’s courageous run to the 2017 grand final from eighth despite a raft of injury problems. It’s that ability to finish strong that has seen the club qualify for seven consecutive post-seasons.

The Cowboys get an ideal opportunity to build some genuine momentum when they face Wests Tigers at Leichhardt Oval on Thursday night.

The fast-starting Tigers have hit a rough patch, losing their last three games – and no player is more adept at exploiting a team’s vulnerabilities than Thurston.

The Scott Bolton incident is an unwelcome distraction, but a convincing display against the Tigers will catapult the Cowboys right back into the finals conversation.