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SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 09:  James Tamou of the Cowboys runs the ball
 during the round six NRL match between the Penrith Panthers and the North Queensland Cowboys at Pepper Stadium on April 9, 2016 in Sydney, Australia.  (Photo by Brett Hemmings/Getty Images)

The Cowboys had too much class in the end against a gallant Penrith side, running out 23-18 winners, with a former Panther returning to sink the boot in late.

See the match highlights here:

Trent Merrin delivers best Penrith performance 

After a solid first month in new colours, Trent Merrin produced his best game for the Panthers in the five-point loss against North Queensland.

The Penrith lock forward was involved in everything, running for 107 metres, producing a season-high 39 tackles and crossing for his second try of the year.

He also came up three offloads which provided the impetus for Penrith's go-forward, especially in the first half. 

"He was strong tonight...he's doing a great job for us," Panthers coach Anthony Griffin said.

"He's come here and he's been one of our better performers every week and that's what you want from your marquee purchases." 

Merrin was forced from the field late in the game, but Griffin says it was simply precautionary. 

"He's OK. It was in a tackle that was put on report so we took the interchange."

Plenty of positives for the Panthers 

Saturday night's five-point loss continued Penrith's heart-stopping start to 2016, with all six of their games being decided in the final three minutes.

Despite the narrow loss, Anthony Griffin found several positives, particularly their ability to compete with arguably the two best teams in the competition in Brisbane and the Cowboys. 

"We went within two minutes of beating the two grand final teams from last year in the past month," the Panthers coach said. 

"They're not the premiers for no reason. Their key people came to the game when they were needed late in the game.

"In the short term the results aren't coming, but I thought it was a very strong performance."

Panthers forward Leilani Latu echoed Griffin's words, saying the playing group could take a lot out of Saturday night's tough loss against the 2015 premiers. 

"It's definitely a confidence boost for the team, but at the end of the day, it's still a loss," he said. 

"It's a bitter pill to swallow but we just have to go back to the drawing board, find the positives out of this game and take it for what it is."

Acknowledgement of Country

Penrith Panthers players and staff respect and honour the traditional custodians of the land and pay our respects to their elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.