Everyone's eyes were on Lachlan McCaffrey's return from injury, but another back-rower making a comeback and an English recruit stole the show as the Queanbeyan Whites romped to victory on Saturday.
ACT Brumbies star McCaffrey played his first game in five weeks, helping the Whites thump the Uni-Norths Owls 50-12 at ANU to breathe life into their John I Dent Cup campaign.
McCaffrey was impressive in his 50 minutes on the field, forcing turnovers and showing his Super Rugby class as he pushes for a return to the Brumbies side this week.
But the surprise appearance of former Whites skipper Dan Penca and flying English winger Rian Auston were the main act in an all-round dominant victory.
Penca retired at the end of last year, deciding to finish his playing days after 11 years and multiple premiership triumphs.
Whites coach Paul Dillon called the flanker last week to ask him to boost his team, which is missing 10 regular first-graders because of injury and other commitments.
"The club has been suffering a fair bit, especially with injuries," Penca said.
"Missing guys from first grade then affects second grade as well. Paul gave me a quick call and said there's a chance if you're up for a game. I can't stay away. The club's infectious.
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"I'd done 11 years of first grade and wanted to give an opportunity to some younger boys. I thought the club was in a good spot, it's just the injuries this year ... I just got back from a 10-day American trip. I haven't been doing a whole lot at all, but it was good to get out there again."
Auston was the other player who rose to occasion, scoring a hat-trick just weeks after arriving in Australia alongside fellow recruit Kieran Frost.
Auston's try-scoring ability was exactly what the Whites needed to add to their young back-line, which includes former ACT schoolboy duo Will Goddard and Brendan Jimenez.
The 38-point rout was Queanbeyan's second win of the season and has sparked a tense battle between the Whites, Owls and Wests for fourth spot on the ladder.
"We've been playing a bit of musical chairs with our team and injuries, but I feel like that sort of performance has been coming. So I'm not surprised," Dillon said.
"Having Matty Lucas and [McCaffrey] gave the rest of the guys the confidence that the talent's there to go up another gear. We got [Penca] back as insurance and he came on at the end and steadied things. Then you've got Rian, who's a freak."
McCaffrey hasn't played since damaging his medial ligament in the Brumbies' game against the Johannesburg Lions last month.
His successful comeback will give the Brumbies a boost as they target a Super Rugby finals spot. The Brumbies are still at the top of the Australian conference and will play the Japan Sunwolves in Tokyo next weekend.
"It was a frustrating injury and came at a hard time halfway through the season. I've been working hard to get back as soon as possible and I think they've managed me really well," McCaffrey said.
"I'm happy to get through it, the knee feels really good and hopefully I can push on from here."
The Owls have injury troubles of their own and were missing eight regular first-graders in the clash against Queanbeyan.
The Whites scored the first two tries before the Owls could get out of the blocks and coach Sam Rolfe said his side struggled to play catch up. "We started poorly again, our heads weren't in it and we were just lacking our big hitters. There was just too much turnover ball," Rolfe said.
AT A GLANCE
QUEANBEYAN WHITES 50 (Rian Auston 3, Brendan Jimenez 2, James Douglas 2, Ben Michael Godron; Will Goddard 5 conversions) bt UNI-NORTHS OWLS 12 (Ben Love, Dave Bennett tries; Jordan Thompson conversion); GUNGAHLIN EAGLES 32 bt WESTS 22; ROYALS 69 bt EASTS 15.