A last-minute try to captain Lachlan Croker saw the Canberra Raiders overcome a lackluster start in their Holden Cup opener against the Penrith Panthers to record a stirring 36-34 victory.
The reigning premiers shot out of the blocks in the early going, before a stunning second-half display saw the hosts walk away with the two competition points at GIO Stadium.
Trailing 34-30 with thirty seconds remaining, Zac Woolford darted out of dummy-half to find himself in open space before linking up with Croker for a try under the posts, Woolford calmly slotted the match-winning conversion after the siren.
It wasn’t all smoot-sailing for the hosts, as they trailed 10-0 in the opening stages before a runaway try to Croker down the right-hand touchline gave the home side hope as the margin was cut back to four.
The visitors wasted no time in striking back, crossing through winger Fuimanu Enese to stretch their lead to ten points at the halfway point of the first stanza.
The Raiders forced their way back into the contest ten minutes later, as leaping winger Jack Hickson swallowed a cross-field kick to score his side’s second try, before a try Penrith’s Robert Jennings saw the visitors edge out to a ten-point lead at the half-time break.
Bone-rattling defence from Man of the Match Daniel Dole gave the hosts some momentum early in the second-half as tempers flared.
A barnstorming run from backrower Kalani Going had Penrith on the back foot, before Jack Williams capitalised to cross for Canberra’s third four-pointer. A successful conversion from Zac Woolford brought the hosts to within four points.
Going was rewarded for his efforts with a try off the ensuing set, after hulking centre Nick Cotric busted through the Panthers’ defensive line to find the backrower looming on his inside. Woolford made light work of the conversion, slotting it over to give the Raiders the lead for the first time in the match.
Penrith fought back to take the lead in the 59th minute, with centre Jack Nelson leaping above a pack to score a converted try, giving his side a 28-24 advantage.
Just as Penrith were looking to put the contest to bed, a brilliant 40/20 from Lachlan Croker gave the Raiders prime field position, before Sione Afemui darted over from dummy-half to level the scores at 28-all. Woolford’s conversion went sailing over the black dot, as Canberra took a 30-28 lead with fifteen minutes remaining.
Panther Robert Jennings crossed for his second try in the 73rd minute to set up a thrilling finale at GIO Stadium, as Penrith held a slender 34-30 lead. A last-minute try to Croker secured a stunning win for the hosts.
The Raiders will now turn their attention to a clash with the Sydney Roosters in Round 2 at GIO Stadium.