After letting a 16-0 lead slip from their grasp, Saturday’s 28-22 loss to North Queensland in Townsville will sting the Canberra Raiders.
But they did enough to suggest they can bounce back from their nightmare 2013 under coach Ricky Stuart – provided they rid the costly mental errors from their game.
With his team in dire straits, it was Johnathan Thurston’s brilliance, Antonio Winterstein’s acrobatics and Jason Taumalolo’s brutality which brought the hosts back from the brink.
The Raiders looked set for a huge upset with their new-look halves pairing in halfback Terry Campese and five-eighth Jack Wighton showing positive signs in the first half.
However the Stuart era began how now-Cowboys assistant David Furner’s ended – flashes of brilliance, but costly defensive lapses proved costly.
A spectacular try to Winterstein proved the difference, the Cowboys winger planting the ball in the corner when airborne over the sideline to get the hosts out of jail.
Canberra circa-2014 looked an inspired unit early, scoring the first three tries of the game to put itself in the frame for a first win in Townsville since 2007.
Wighton had some promising touches in his first NRL game in the number six jersey, but it was opposite number Thurston’s sheer brilliance and opportunism which proved the difference.
With his team reeling, Thurston was involved in everything.
The Cowboys scored 22 straight points to lead 22-16 ten minutes into the second half, but the Raiders found their second wind.
With 12 minutes remaining the Raiders got back into the match when winger Reece Robinson scooped up a loose Thurston pass, running 90 metres to score in the corner.
And when Milford slotted a penalty goal from close range, scores were locked at 22-all with 11 minutes left.
However Winterstein’s heroics ensured Canberra has now won just three of its last 22 games in Queensland.
It took just ten minutes for Milford to prove he’s fully committed to the Raiders cause, despite his pending move to Brisbane next year.
The livewire 19-year-old dummied out of dummy half and scooted down the blindside to set up the first try for winger Edrick Lee.
Three minutes later Milford was in the action again, his try off a Glen Buttriss dummy controversially denied by the video referees who ruled fullback Michael Morgan had grounded the ball first.
Midway through the first half the Raiders lead doubled to 12-0 when centre Jarrod Croker scooped up a stray pass from Cowboys hooker Ray Thompson, running 60 metres to score.
And when Kangaroos back rower Josh Papalii steamed onto a Terry Campese face pass from close range just minutes later, an upset was on the cards.
But the mental lapses which have cruelled the Raiders soon came back to haunt them.
North Queensland centre Kane Linnett busted through frail defence to burst 60 metres downfield, leading to a try to Cowboys winger Kyle Feldt.
And Stuart would have been furious when Cowboys halfback Johnathan Thurston took a quick tap from a penalty, running 60 metres to score and reduce the half-time deficit to 16-10.
A try to North Queensland back rower Gavin Cooper squared the ledger with 30 minutes left, Thurston heavily involved in the lead-up again.
And when bench hooker Rory Kostjasyn burrowed over close to the line, the Cowboys led for the first time 22-16.
NORTH QUEENSLAND COWBOYS 28 (Kyle Feldt, Johnathan Thurston, Gavin Cooper, Rory Kostjasyn, Antonio Winterstein tries; Thurston 4 goals)
CANBERRA RAIDERS 22 (Edrick Lee, Jarrod Croker, Josh Papalii, Reece Robinson tries; Croker, Reece Robinson, Anthony Milford goals)
at 1300SMILES Stadium
Referees: Gavin Badger and Brett Suttor. Crowd: 12,121