The combination of an Aidan Sezer 40-20 and a try to Elliott Whitehead has handed the Canberra Raiders a heart-stopping 18-14 golden-point victory over the St George Illawarra Dragons at GIO Stadium on Saturday night.
Sezer unearthed his sublime 2016 form off the boot to blast a 40-20 in the first period of extra-time, before Whitehead collected a Dave Taylor offload to cross under the posts in the ensuing set.
The epic passage of play arrested the Raiders’ four-game losing streak – and in so doing kept their finals hopes alive on another Arctic Canberra night – as a euphoric Ricky Stuart leapt into the arms of Shannon Boyd in front of a 10,977-strong crowd.
The Raiders were forced onto the back foot just minutes into the contest when the Dragons – first through the flamboyance of Jason Nightingale, then through captain Gareth Widdop – poked two grubbers into the in-goal to force back-to-back repeat sets.
But Stuart’s men – tenacious in staring down the barrel of finals expulsion – would turn the tables.
Gun rookie winger Nick Cotric bagged his 11th try of the season when he collected a Blake Austin cut-out to cross on the left edge in the sixth minute before captain Jarrod Croker made no mistake from touch as the Raiders pocketed a 6-0 lead.
St George struck back through winger Nene Macdonald, the Papua New Guinean speedster splitting Canberra up the middle from 60 metres out before finding Widdop on his inside in the 14th minute.
The English international would convert his own try as the Dragons drew things level at six-apiece, before they blew another breath of fire when Nightingale dotted down on the left edge 21 minutes in to hand his side a 10-6 buffer.
The Raiders looked sure to have locked scores up when Croker latched on to an Austin grubber just inside the dead-ball line, but the Bunker deemed him to have fumbled the ball as an eruption of boos and jeers flooded the GIO Stadium furnace.
Canberra would head into the half-time break trailing 10-6 after a half in which Sia Soliola was monumental at lock in making 30 tackles.
Widdop plotted over a 46th-minute penalty goal from in front to extend the Red V’s lead to 12-6, but the brute forces of big men Taylor and Joey Leilua would combine immediately to ragdoll Dragons centre Tim Lafai into touch.
The Green Machine would also be next to impact on the scoreboard when Sezer put on the afterburners to intercept a Widdop pass on the Raiders’ line and leave every chaser in his wake on the stroke of the hour mark.
Croker then nailed two kicks from the tee – the first to convert Sezer’s length-of-the-field try and the second a penalty goal from just inside the left touch line – as the men in green propelled to a 14-12 lead.
St George went tantalisingly close to reclaiming the ascendancy moments later when Macdonald steamed through in pursuit of a Widdop grubber on Canberra’s line, but Croker would scramble to knock the Steeden dead.
Nonetheless, the possibility of a golden-point thriller suddenly became a likely outcome when Widdop slotted a penalty goal to locks things up at 14-apiece nine minutes from full-time.
Austin tried his luck at breaking the deadlock when he attempted to boot a field goal from 40 metres out, but it started right and stayed right.
Sezer made an attempt of his own moments later and missed to the right as well, before Widdop failed to put a one-pointer over the black dot in the following set when he sliced it to the left of the uprights.
Austin would then hook another attempt with less than two minutes on the clock, before Widdop – the hearts of Raiders fans beating out of their chests – wrapped the woodwork in the shadows of full-time.
Golden-point would follow as the Raiders snatched a season-saving victory.
All eyes will now turn to a crucial clash against the Melbourne Storm at GIO Stadium next Saturday night, in which the Green Machine will look to again keep the door ajar for a highly anticipated 2017 finals berth.