A gutsy Canberra Raiders have fallen short to the Cowboys in round one, losing 20-16 in golden point extra time at 1300 Smiles Stadium.
A lopsided penalty count, a player in the sin bin and lack of possession should have seen the Raiders out of the contest, but some tenacious defence and willingness to stay in the game allowed them to almost pull off what would have been a famous victory.
Only a piece of luck from the Cowboys at the death stopped the Raiders from snatching victory in what was a high quality match from both sides to start the season.
Despite the loss, Raiders members and fans should be heartened by the team’s performance, as the Green Machine showed once again they mean business in 2017.
The Raiders were dealt a blow before kick-off when star fullback Jack Wighton was a late withdrawal through illness meaning Zac Santo was handed his second ever appearance for the Raiders at NRL level.
Santo looked comfortable early in his time on the field as Thurston and the Cowboys tested him out with some early kicks, but the former Cowboy stood up to the challenge and showed a cool head to prevent some early attacking raids.
His good work was rewarded with the Raiders first try of the season, as he showed pace to run aware and score following some brilliant lead-up work by Josh Papalii. The hulking Raiders forward showed fleet footwork to beat the Cowboys defence and send Santo away for the opening try.
With Jarrod Croker on the sideline with injury Aidan Sezer added the extras and the Raiders had a 6-0 lead after 12 minutes.
The Raiders allowed the Cowboys to get some strong field position with a series of penalties and the pressure finally gave way, as the Cowboys opened their scoring through their fullback Lachlan Coote. Thurston added the extras and it was 6-6 after 28 minutes.
The Cowboys had the bulk of the possession to end the first half as the score remained 6-6 as the teams made their way into the sheds.
The intensity of the first half continued into the second, as both teams came out of the sheds with the same mentality of hard running and harder defence. More penalties to the Cowboys proved costly to the Raiders, as Clay Priest found himself in the sin bin for the Raiders repeated infringements.
If anything the Raiders used the sin binning to their advantage, with some inspired defence helping them to lift in Priests absence. Nic Cotric almost crossed for his debut try when he latched onto a stray Cowboys pass, but he was ran down after an 80m run by Thurston to prevent the try.
Joey Leilua helped the Raiders back into the lead when he barged his way over to score and they were back in front 10-6 after Sezer missed the conversion.
Another penalty gave the Cowboys an opportunity and this time they were able to capitalise, as Cohen Hess scored. Thurston gave the cowboys the 12-10 lead with his conversion.
The Cowboys extended their lead with 20 minutes remaining, when Joey Leilua popped a risky pass out the back, which was intercepted by Javed Bowen who raced away to score and give the Cowboys a six point lead at 16-10.
Just when you thought the game was gone the Raiders rallied, with Joey Leilua pouncing on a Josh Hodgson kick to score his second. Aidan Sezer slotted the conversion and it was locked up again at 16-16.
The Cowboys had one final chance to score in regulation when Thurston attempted a drop goal on the stroke of full time, but the Raiders charged it down and the game headed into golden point.
The Raiders looked like they were going to pull off a remarkable win when Jordan Rapana raced away to score, but he was called back for a forward pass in the lead up and the Cowboys retained possession near halfway.
Then the Raiders were dealt the cruellest of blows, when Thurstons field goal hit the cross bar and stayed inside the in goal for Gavin Cooper to score and steal the win.
COWBOYS 20 (Lachlan Coote, Javed Bowen, Cohen Hess, Gavin Cooper Tries; Jonathan Thurston 2 goals) defeated RAIDERS 16 (Joey Leilua 2, Zac Santo Tries; Aidan Sezer 2 Goals) at 1300 Smiles Stadium