The Toyota Cowboys clawed back from a 16-0 deficit to down the Canberra Raiders 28-22 in an action-packed NRL season opener at 1300SMILES Stadium.
In a match full of brilliant attacking rugby league, co-captain Johnathan Thurston and back-rower Jason Taumalolo were outstanding with JT scoring a try and figuring in two others as he continued his brilliant end-of-season form from 2013.
The champion five-eighth’s points haul took him into the top 20 scorers in the history of elite first grade rugby league in Australia.
“The win showed a lot of self-belief in the squad,” Thurston said.
Taumalolo rumbled for 195 metres in attack, showcasing what could turn into a fantastic left-edge partnership with Thurston.
The win was sealed by a brilliant Antonio Winterstein try with five minutes on the clock.
The Cowboys left Ashton Sims and Zac Santo off their six-man bench named on Tuesday. Michael Morgan played his first match as the Cowboys’ No.1 with Jason Taumalolo getting a rare chance in the starting pack. The Raiders were 1-17 with Matthew Allwood on debut in the starting backline and a new halves pairing in Terry Campese and Jack Wighton.
After a five-minute delay caused by the golden point finish in the Melbourne v Manly clash in Sydney, the Cowboys kicked off their 2014 season against a Raiders team that hadn’t won in Townsville for seven years.
New fullback Michael Morgan continued Matthew Bowen’s long tradition of running out last in the line in the No.1 jersey and made an early impact, linking with Brent Tate to go close to scoring in the opening 10.
Jason Taumalolo went even closer a couple of plays later, with only superb Raiders covering defence denying him from marking his first round one start with a try.
Within five minutes, North Queensland’s great start had been forgotten.
Anthony Milford set up Edrick Lee on a blindside raid to put the Raiders on the board and he then could have had his own four-pointer had the video referees not overturned a decision by ref Gavin Badger.
The upstairs men judged that Michael Morgan had gotten his hand to a Glen Buttriss grubber before the Raiders number one.
However, the lead eventually went to 12-0 thanks to the speed of Jarrod Croker who raced 75 metres following a handling malfunction in the Cowboys backline just after the midway point of the half.
After NQ had a possible four-pointer to Johnathan Thurston ruled a no try in another close grounding decision that went to the video refs’ box, the Raiders added a third four-pointer via the Terry Campese-Josh Papalii combination with 11 left until the break.
Down 16-0, it was long run by centre Kane Linnett that finally kick-started the Auckland Nines champs.
He sped nearly 80 metres before Milford was able to stop him and not long after, a Morgan pass sent Kyle Feldt diving in beside the right corner post.
Within a blink, it was 16-10 – a quick-thinking Thurston taking advantage of the quick tap rule, setting off through the heart of the stagnant Raiders defence before bamboozling Milford and a couple of covering Raiders defenders with a dummy just before stepping off his right foot to the try line.
The video refs overturned another on-field try call nine minutes after the restart to deny Cowboys centre Kane Linnett, who lost control of the ball as he tried to get across the line after climbing highest when snaring a JT crosskick.
However the home team’s third try wasn’t long in coming, the always dangerous Thurston handling twice before Gavin Cooper made it across.
The co-captain’s conversion wiped out the remainder of the Raiders’ lead with 28 left.
It was all Cowboys by this point, with a couple of Raiders errors not helping their cause, and interchange hooker Rory Kostjasyn came up with the play to put his team in front, darting from dummy-half to dot down under the crossbar.
But even though everything looked against them, the Raiders weren’t done and thanks to a 90-metre intercept try by winger Reece Robinson, they were back to only 22-20 down.
Canberra almost went back-to-back with only a covering tackle from Thurston preventing Allwood from marking his debut with a try.
However the Raiders did pick up two points from a penalty in front of the posts a tackle later to again bring the scores level.
It was an amazing winger’s finish by Antonio Winterstein that finally put Canberra away.
He took a long cutout ball from Thurston, stayed in the field of play, rode the substantial bump of the defender and managed a one-hand put down for a 2014 highlights reel four-pointer.
Once again it was the video refs who had the final say after ref Gavin Badger had gone with a no-try call as he asked for a review.
Thurston’s conversion from the sideline put the home team six up with five minutes left.
COWBOYS: 1. Michael Morgan 2. Kyle Feldt 3. Brent Tate 4. Kane Linnett 5. Antonio Winterstein 6. Johnathan Thurston 7. Robert Lui 8. Matthew Scott 9. Ray Thompson 10. James Tamou 11. Gavin Cooper 12. Jason Taumalolo 13. Joel Riethmuller. Interchange: 14. Rory Kostjasyn 15. Tariq Sims 16. Glenn Hall 17. Scott Bolton
RAIDERS: 1. Anthony Milford 2. Reece Robinson 3. Jarrod Croker 4. Matthew Allwood 5. Edrick Lee 6. Jack Wighton 7. Terry Campese 8. Dane Tilse 9. Glen Buttriss 10. Brett White 11. Josh Papalii 12. Joel Edwards 13. Shaun Fensom. Interchange: 14. Josh McCrone 15. Jarrad Kennedy 16. Paul Vaughan 17. Shannon Boyd 18. Mark Nicholls.
Cowboys 28 (Feldt, Thurston, Cooper, Kostjasyn, Winterstein tries; Thurston 4 goals)
Raiders 22 (Lee, Croker, Papalii, Robinson tries; Robinson, Croker goals)