Three is the magic number this round, with North Queensland Cowboys’ third-straight win condemning the Canberra Raiders to a third-straight loss at a humid Townsville in a thrilling 26-24 affair.
Ricky Stuart made clear that last week’s capitulation against the Parramatta Eels was unacceptable and a number of big-name stars were dropped or demoted to the bench heading in to this clash.
On top of those team list changes, big-money signing Corey Harawira-Naera was gifted a starting position an hour before kick-off.
The Cowboys, for their part, would have been feeling confident after two wins on the trot.
Whether it was the occasion, the threat of being dropped or the home-side advantage for their opponents, the Raiders looked nervous from the outset.
Fortunately for the Green Machine, the Cowboys themselves struggled to settle into a groove, with both sides feeling out the match in the opening exchanges.
The first ten minutes remained uneventful.
The adjustment period would not remain for long when a cheap penalty from North Queensland saw Canberra gifted a repeat set close to the line.
From close range, the Raiders moved the ball to the right edge, before finding space with short, easy passes to the left.
The slick move saw Rapana stroll over practically untouched in worrying early signs for the Cowboys.
Despite the seeming strong start from Canberra, Emre Guler dropped the ball in the first set after points – his second handling error in the young game.
The Cowboys were quick to capitalise when a renewed Valentine Holmes made multiple nice runs in the lead up to a cut-out ball for hometown hero Kyle Feldt.
The score was locked up 6-6 before the clock struck 20 minutes.
More errors from the Canberra Raiders would continue to invite the Cowboys into the game, particularly a big kick out on the full from Jack Wighton.
As mentioned in the commentary, it would mark 16 “out-on-the-full” kicks for Jack Wighton since his move to 5/8 at the start of 2019.
Confusingly for fans, Wighton appears to have equal claim to the kicking duties as his halves partner George Williams.
This season only continues to prove that the Dally M medallist looks best when he runs the ball and leaves the kicking to his number 7.
Nonetheless, the Raiders were able to weather the storm of their own making and continued to apply pressure to the Cowboys when given the chance.
Josh Papali’i, after being demoted to the bench, came on to the field and quickly proved why he is so dangerous.
Drawing four or five defenders close to the line, the big front-rower managed to pop an offload to Tom Starling, creating enough space for a rampaging Emre Guler.
The barn-storming prop managed to atone for his early mistakes, sending the Raiders ahead in the 25th minute.
With a one-try lead, the Raiders seemed to finally settle into the game, while the Cowboys committed handling errors and gave away penalties.
Quickly, the Raiders were able to establish dominance and Rapana scored his double in an extremely similar fashion to the first – short passes to the left and strolling over untouched.
The defence from the Cowboys would further prove circumspect when replacement rake Tom Starling jinked and stepped through the middle of the field and took off on a sharp run that had more than a hint of Damien Cook to it.
Storming up in support was George Williams, who gratefully received the pass to send Canberra to a three-try lead, less than five minutes from halftime.
Things were starting to look grim for the home side, but Williams undid much of his good work by dropping the ball off the kick-off, inviting the Cowboys to narrow the deficit before half time.
And narrow it they did when Drinkwater delivered a perfect little grubber to try-scoring machine Ben Condon with 30 seconds left on the clock.
While Ricky would have been disappointed with the soft effort just before the break, the Raiders look every bit the rejuvenated team that would go on to seal the deal in the second half.
It was not to be, however, Valentine Holmes taking ownership of the second half with excellent runs and sublime passes.
You could almost be assured of two-plus touches from Holmes every set.
In the very first set, he busted the line and made a long run downfield, eventually forcing the Raiders into an early line drop-out.
The Cowboys targeted Sebastien Kris, who looked lost at times in the unfamiliar wing position.
A couple of errors from Kris would see repeat sets to the Cowboys, eventually capitalised on by Reece Robson who darted over for a try from five metres out.
Very quickly the game seemed to be slipping from the men from the Nation’s Capital.
Their bad run of form would continue, with simple errors letting them down.
First, Caleb Aekins was unknowingly tackled on the fifth in good field position, gifting the ball back to the Cowboys.
This was followed by some hopeless sets in which the team lacked direction.
A lot of sideways movement would see little forward momentum and it wasn’t long before the Cowboys were returning serve close to the line.
In unfortunate circumstances, the Cowboys would eventually make the Raiders pay, when Justin O’Neill managed to grab and put down a kick from an almost inarguably offside position.
Whether he was offside or not, North Queensland had looked the better side for the majority of the game and deserved to be in it with 20 minutes left.
A Valentine Holmes penalty goal 20 minutes later would see the Cowboys lead for the first time in the game with 10 minutes left.
The Raiders tried valiantly to come up with points but, it must be said, Captain Jarrod Croker made several mistakes in the dying minutes that denied his team a chance to stifle the Cowboys comeback.
His initial mistake was declining a Penalty Goal from 40 metres out.
While it may be a big ask kicking from that range, you would think that the specialist would back himself for points with the game on the line and less than 10 minutes to go.
Unfortunately, he would also drop two crucial balls after that and the Raiders were never able to recover.
North Queensland Cowboys 26 (Feldt, Condon, Robson, O’Neill) def Canberra Raiders 24 (Rapana 2, Guler, Williams)
NRL News Player of the Match
3 Points – Valentine Holmes (NQL)
2 Points – Scott Drinkwater (NQL)
1 Point – Tom Starling (CAN)