Todd Payten has explained that a mix of Jeremiah Nanai's injury and Jordan McLean's return through short on-field stints was behind the decision to only use 15 players during a narrow win over the Newcastle Knights in Townsville on Saturday evening.

The Cowboys hung on by the skin of their teeth to a much-needed two-point win which snapped a three-game losing streak.

The win is just the third of the year for Payten's side, who have struggled to back up their incredible 2022 run which saw doubters thrown off the back on the way to a third-placed finish and preliminary finals appearance.

"Really brave performance in the end. We played with 12 men again, and we only used 15 on the pitch. We had to grind away a gritty win and it was all effort. Wasn't always pretty, but the effort and sacrifice for each other is still there. Got away with a much-needed win," Payten said.

Saturday's clash against the Knights - which was important for both sides - saw the return of Jordan McLean for the Cowboys, and Kalyn Ponga for the Knights, with Ponga coming off the bench for the visitors.

Payten explained however that the decision to start Jordan McLean was so that the experienced prop could ultimately play his game in four stints of 15 minutes at the start and end of each half, burning into the club's interchanges.

"On medical advice with Jordan coming back from a hamstring, we wanted shorter stints from him. We devised a plan to use him in four 15-minute stints. Start and end of each half," Payten said.

The Cowboys interchange strategy however was then by an injury to Jeremiah Nanai, who had a shoulder and HIA concern, although he ultimately was able to return to the game, burning an extra interchange than planned to get him back onto the park.

Mitchell Dunn then didn't take any part in the game with Payten opting instead to keep his best and most experienced 13 on the field during the dying stages of the tight encounter - a 17 that already included a forward pack missing the likes of Jason Taumalolo, Luciano Leilua and Heilum Luki.

"[Jeremiah Nanai's] injury was a cat amongst the pigeons that upset our plan, so there goes Tom Chester's interchange late in the game, using that one to get him back on the pitch.

"With about seven or eight minutes to go, we had an opportunity to put Dunny [Michael Dunn] on, but we just felt we needed our most experienced players out on the pitch.

"It never sits well with me, but those two blokes when I spoke to them, they understood and took it really well. They understand it's about the team. They are Cowboys."

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Payten confirmed that McLean's return had been a success, while Nanai's issues were cleared in the dressing room.

"Jordan said he is pretty good. Tight [in the hamstring], but he is okay," Payten said.

"His [Nanai] shoulder was giving him a bit of grief. We had to wait till his shoulder settled, then we went through the HIA process and both were okay in the end."

The win moves the Cowboys to 14th on the table with three wins from eight, although they will wind up 15th by the end of the round once bye points are added for the Canberra Raiders.

Things don't get any easier for the Cowboys either, with a trip to the Shire next week to play the Cronulla Sharks, before they face the Sydney Roosters during magic round.