John Bateman and Curtis Scott returned in style to inspire the weary Raiders to a nervous 14-12 win against the spirited Cowboys at Queensland Country Bank Stadium on Saturday.
A mammoth fortnight with wins over the Roosters and Rabbitohs seemed to take its toll on injury-hit Canberra as they started the Indigenous Round clash flatly.
And the Cowboys' continued improvement, particularly in effort areas, meant Ricky Stuart's team had to work extremely hard to finish a long Townsville trip with two competition points.
But the inclusions of second-rower Bateman, who hadn't played all season due to a shoulder injury, and Curtis Scott, who overcame an arm infection, proved the difference.
Bateman showed little rust as he ran for 152 metres, made 31 tackles and had a hand in two tries, including throwing the final pass for Scott's second-half game-clincher.
Scott, who has endured a tough season, revelled in the moment after crossing the stripe, pressing a finger to his lips to hush the crowd and perhaps his critics.
Match: Cowboys v Raiders
Round 12 -
Venue: Queensland Country Bank Stadium, Townsville
Ex-Bulldogs second-rower Corey Harawira-Naera was made to wait until the 49th minute to experience his first NRL action of 2020 after signing with Canberra last week.
The Cowboys tried admirably all evening but failed to land the killer blow when they were on the front foot. Their set finishes were again a major concern.
But the side's cohesion may have been thrown off by another change to Jake Clifford's halves partner, with Ben Hampton starting at five-eighth for the first time since 2017 after rookie Daejarn Asi was ruled out with a knee injury.
Cotric breaks away for Williams to score
The return of prop Jordan McLean was a boost, however, and he helped the Cowboys surge upfield from the outset before they scored after just three minutes. Hooker Reece Robson claimed his fifth try of the season with a close-range dummy and dash.
Some questionable early-tackle kicks, including one from a scrum near halfway, stalled North Queensland's momentum despite the Raiders helping them with errors.
Canberra needed to lift and it took halfback George Williams finishing a special 85-metre try created by the strengthened right edge to inject some energy.
Williams initially linked with fellow Englishman Bateman, who fired the ball to Scott before he did the same for Nick Cotric to streak down the wing after arcing from mid-field to receive the ball, fending away from Hampton to set up the try.
Jordan Rapana, who enjoyed a strong performance, had a mixed start at fullback deputising for the sidelined Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad. The 30-year-old managed to skilfully prevent a ball from going into touch but failed to defuse two bouncing kicks.
Asiata sends Taumalolo over on the inside
Fortunately for Rapana, his slippery handling didn't cost the Raiders and they hit the front five minutes from half-time through a Jarrod Croker penalty goal after Feldt sent a dropout sailing over the sideline.
North Queensland had a prime attacking chance early in the second half but Canberra prop Josh Papalii stole the ball with a one-on-one strip to snuff out the danger.
Papalii was in the thick of things for the wrong reasons shortly afterwards, placed on report after accidentally elbowing Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow.
The Cowboys regained the lead in the 51st minute as prop John Asiata, back from a knee injury that kept him sidelined since round four, cut back on an angle and delivered a smart pass for a rampaging Jason Taumalolo to storm over for four points.
Bateman conjures a try for Scott
But the Williams-Bateman-Scott combination came to the fore and catapulted Canberra back into the box seat a few moments later. Bateman bumped away from Justin O'Neill before popping a basketball-style pass to Scott, who held off Murray Taulagi to cross. Croker's sideline conversion was perfect and gave his team a slender advantage.
Asiata was helped from the field with seven minutes remaining with what appeared to be another serious knee injury, leaving North Queensland with 12 men as no interchanges were left.
But he stunningly made it back on the field to give the Cowboys the full complement of troops as they threw everything into an ultimately unsuccessful last-ditch surge.