Johnathan Thurston gave the next generation of superstars a private tutorial in what it takes to be the best player in the world, almost single-handedly inspiring the North Queensland Cowboys to a 28-22 win over the Raiders at 1300SMILES Stadium on Saturday night.
After it appeared Canberra young guns Anthony Milford, Jack Wighton, Edrick Lee and Josh Papalii would inspire the biggest upset in a topsy-turvy opening weekend by racing out to a 16-0 lead, Thurston grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck and refused to let go.
First he laid on a short pass for Kane Linnett to bust 60 metres downfield completely against the run of play that led shortly after to a try for Kyle Feldt in the 31st minute, and then with five minutes left in the first half he embarrassed the Raiders defence with a try from a quick tap.
While the penalty to the Cowboys for interference in the ruck was a 50/50 call at best, Thurston's quick wits went straight into fifth gear as he took advantage of the new rule regarding quick taps, raced 50 metres down to the Raiders 10-metre line and then bamboozled three Canberra defenders before diving over left of the uprights.
His successful conversion brought the home side back to within six points just before the break and gave them the impetus to go on and record a victory in the second stanza.
After Linnett was denied a try by the video referee following a Thurston cross-field kick in the 49th minute, the 2013 Golden Boot winner engaged in a sublime piece of interplay with Brent Tate before offloading for Gavin Cooper to crash his way over, the resulting conversion drawing them back level at 16-all after 51 minutes.
Rory Kostjasyn's try under the posts from dummy-half in the 60th minute gave the Cowboys the lead for the first time in the game and despite a 90-metre intercept try to Reece Robinson that brought the Raiders back to within two, it was a looping cut-out pass from Thurston and a spectacular piece of try-scoring contortionism from winger Antonio Winterstein with six minutes to play that finally enabled the home side to secure the two competition points.
Earlier it was tenacious Canberra defence and the precocious talents of Milford that threatened to blow the game wide open and left the Cowboys faithful in stunned silence.
In their first excursion into Cowboys territory Milford laid on a try for Edrick Lee with a smart piece of play down the blind-side in the 10th minute and then three minutes later was denied a try of his own when Cowboys fullback Michael Morgan was ruled to have narrowly beaten him to a Glen Buttriss grubber into the in-goal.
At the defensive end of the field Milford was just as influential, putting his 178-centimetre, 88-kilogram frame on the line to stop a rampaging Jason Taumalolo just short of the line and then got his hand under the ball to prevent Thurston from scoring in the 25th minute.
Leading 6-0 following the try to Lee, Canberra extended their advantage to 10 points when Jarrod Croker pounced on a mistake by Robert Lui to race 65 metres to score and when Terry Campese hit Papalii with a short ball close to the line in the 27th minute, the Raiders had raced out to a 16-0 lead.
Thurston, Taumalolo, Tate and Linnett were outstanding for the home side while the Raiders were best served by Milford, Robinson and Dane Tilse. It was a mixed night for new five-eighth Jack Wighton but there were enough bright showings from Shannon Boyd, Matthew Allwood and Edrick Lee to suggest the Raiders' young stars will have a major influence in 2014.
North Queensland Cowboys 28 (Feldt, Thurston, Cooper, Kostjasyn, Winterstein tries; Thurston 4 goals) def Canberra Raiders 22 (Lee, Croker, Papalii, Robinson tries; Croker, Robinson 2 goals). Half-time: 16-10 Canberra. Crowd: 12,121.