The North Queensland Cowboys have galloped to a 31-18 victory to put the Canberra Raiders’ final hopes in jeopardy in a GIO Stadium icebox on Saturday night.
A 68th-minute try to Nick Cotric converted by Aidan Sezer reduced the Cowboys’ lead to 25-18, but any sniff the Raiders’ had conjured was put to rest when Te Maire Martin crossed for his second try of the night in his North Queensland debut.
It determined the outcome of a bizarre game in which the Raiders enjoyed virtually no ball in the opening half, before the flames of a promising second-half surge were extinguished by a resilient Cowboys outfit.
It was only fitting that Elliott Whitehead opened the scoring for the Raiders in his 200th NRL/Super League game, the English international doing so when he collected an Aidan Sezer grubber two minutes in to dot down just inside the corner post on the right edge.
A deadeye Jarrod Croker conversion from touch extended the Raiders’ lead to 6-0, but off the back of a wealth possession and penalties and dangerous field territory, the Cowboys struck back.
Martin swooped on a Michael Morgan offload five metres from the Raiders’ line in the 13th minute, before Ethan Lowe added the extras to lock things up at six-apiece.
Lowe handed the visitors an 8-6 lead in the 22nd minute when he banged over a penalty goal from in front, before the men in green again handed the Queenslanders a golden opportunity when Jack Wighton fumbled a high ball.
The visitors weren’t able to pick the lock on the Raiders’ doughty defence, however Ricky Stuart’s men received a devastating blow when Croker copped a bone-crunching hit on his side’s line moments later.
The skipper trudged off clutching at his shoulder, before the Raiders were again pinned to the trenches and forced to resist another Cowboys blitzkrieg.
Unfortunately, the Raiders were not able to resist the visitors’ onslaught, winger Antonio Winterstein icing an improvised play stamped with a right-to-left punt from Morgan and a pair of hot potato offloads 10 minutes out from the break.
Canberra continued to be its own worst enemy throughout the final 10 minutes of the opening stanza, time and again welcoming the Cowboys into its own territory through loose carries and feeble hands under high balls.
The Cowboys had an astonishing 69 per cent possession in the opening term to the Raiders’ 31, meaning the fact Canberra only trailed 13-6 at half-time came as an enormous surprise.
The 2015 premiers pushed out to a 13-6 lead through a Lachlan Coote field goal in the shadows of half-time.
It was the Raiders who drew first blood in the second 40 when forward Joe Tapine capped off a razzle-dazzle passage of passes on the Cowboys’ line, prancing his way through a patchy North Queensland defence to cross under the posts just four minutes in to the half.
Sezer put the ball over the black dot to make it a one-point ball game at 13-12, but the Cowboys would reveal their fangs again.
They barged down the Raiders’ door through a Morgan double in the space of five minutes, the first from close range in the 55th minute before the Maroons playmaker made the hosts pay for a Wighton fumble in the in-goal.
Lowe made no mistake in converting the pair of tries as his side shot to 25-15 lead.
The Raiders were desperate for a dose of inspiration and Junior Paulo provided just that through a bulldozing hit-up just after the hour mark that sent Martin flying through space like a meteorite.
If the bell-ringer ignited the fire in the belly of any of the Raiders players, that man was Cotric.
The 18-year-old split the Cowboys’ defence like the gaping Red Sea from 60 metres out 12 minutes out from full-time, and with the away side’s fullback up in the defensive line Cotric would make the most of open pastures ahead.
Sezer closed the deficit to seven points at 25-18, but the Cowboys would rain on Canberra’s home parade one more when Martin crossed for the try that sealed the game.
The Raiders will enjoy a timely bye next week before squaring off with the St George Illawarra Dragons in Round 19.