Gavin Cooper | Photo: Mark Nolan, nrlphotos.com

The North Queensland Toyota Cowboys have edged the Raiders out 21-20 with zero time on the clock to stake their claim on outright top spot on the NRL ladder.

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The win arrived courtesy of a Johnathan Thurston field goal that came at the end of a crazy final minute of the round 15 encounter.

Thurston had two prior match-winning field goals attempts charged down, but the third time was the charm for the red-hot Cowboys, who weathered chilly Canberra weather and a lineup reshuffle to continue their history-making run of wins.

The team has not lost a game since round three when the Broncos ran roughshod over them in Townsville.

Having travelled to Canberra on Thursday, the Cowboys had as good a preparation as they could have hoped for given the club’s State of Origin quartet – Johnathan Thurston, Matt Scott, James Tamou and Michael Morgan – met the team straight from Melbourne.

Morgan was ruled out on Friday with a shoulder injury, but Tamou, Scott and Thurston took their place in the team, with Rory Kostjasyn starting at five-eighth and Robert Lui coming in from outside the named 17 to provide injury cover for Thurston.

The visitors looked sharp early, and winger Antonio Winterstein crossed in the seventh minute, the grateful recipient of a Thurston cross-field kick.

Thurston missed the conversion but made it 6-0 ten minutes later with a penalty, only for the Raiders winger to score a strong try down the flank.

Jarrod Croker’s conversion made it 6-all, and a second Thurston penalty was the only other score in the half, as the Cowboys went in 8-6 ahead.

In an entertaining contest with few errors, the Raiders were the next to score as Blake Austin  latched on to an infield kick and the ensuing kick had the Raiders four points to the better, 12-8.

Cowboys winger Matt Wright – after brilliant dummy-half running from Jake Granville – and Raiders flyer Jack Wighton traded converted tries as the home side led 18-14 with 13 left on the clock.

The pattern continued as Cowboys veteran Gavin Cooper scored his fourth try in two matches to have the Cowboys leading 20-18 with five left.

Croker slotted a penalty with 120 seconds remaining and the game looked headed to extra time before Thurston’s heroics again saved the day.

After the match, coach Paul Green lauded his charges’ character, discipline and poise under pressure.

The Cowboys return to 1300SMILES Stadium for the first time in three weeks when they host the Sharks on Saturday 27 June.

North Queensland Toyota Cowboys 21 (Antonio Winterstein, Matthew Wright, Gavin Cooper; Johnathan Thurston 2 goals, 2 penalty goals, field goal) def Canberra Raiders 20 (Edrick Lee, Blake Austin, Jack Wighton tries; Jarrod Croker 3 goals, penalty goal).