ONE was tipped to finish in the top four, the other in the bottom four, but you’d be hard-pressed to gauge which team was which watching the Raiders 18-14 golden-point victory over the Dragons on Friday night.
It followed a frenzied final 10 minutes that saw six attempts at field goal waved away before Elliot Whitehead’s 83rd minute try broke a 14-all deadlock, and the Dragons’ hearts.
It was the Raiders first taste of extra-time jubilation this season, having dropped three games in golden-point in 2017, and snapped a four-game losing streak to breathe life into their finals charge.
They certainly aren’t capable achieving the top-four finish most tipped them to achieve this season, but it keeps them in the finals hunt.
The Dragons were also looking to right their suddenly wayward finals ship but instead sunk to their seventh defeat in their past 10 games and ended up with some injury concerns to boot.
They welcomed back Paul Vaughan from a calf injury but spent 74 minutes of the match down a front-rower after Russell Packer hobbled from the field with a hip injury after just six minutes.
It puts the Kiwi Test prop at long odds to return for Sunday’s home clash with Manly in Wollongong. It means coach Paul McGregor will no doubt be sweating on the return of Tyson Frizell, who was rested from Friday’s clash to allow his injury-riddled body some respite.
It wasn’t the only test of depth for the visitors, who lost Josh Dugan with 15 minutes remaining after he was leveled by a blatant shoulder charge from Josh Papalii, with the Maroons Origin forward perhaps lucky to remain on the field.
Dugan failed the ensuing HIA which came just minutes after Kurt Mann was also replaced following a head knock, though Mann did return to play out the rest of the match.
Both sides came into the match battling for form and it was apparent in the chaotic final moments as both struggled to land the killer blow.
Blake Austin shaved the outside of the right upright with a 73rd minute shot beffore Jack de Belin managed to charge down Sezar’s attempt a minute later to keep his side in the game.
The Dragons had their opportunities to close the show with Widdop shanking a left-footed attempt at a one-pointer and Mann spilling the ball the next time they were in range.
Austin missed again with his second shot before Widdop’s second attempt inside the final 60 seconds was also waved away sending the match beyond the distance.
Both sides traded sets in the first period of extra time before Sezar’s brilliant 40-20 set up the chance for Whitehead’s 83rd minute go ahead try that ended an agonising run of outs in tight games this season.
The hosts were on the board after just six minutes with young-gun Nick Cotric the beneficiary of a lofted long-ball from Austin to open the scoring. Croker knocked over the extras for a 6-0 lead as Packer left the field nursing groin injury.
The Dragons hit back seven minutes later when Nene MacDonald split the Raiders through the middle with Widdop backing up on the inside to bag his side’s first four-pointer and level-up at 6 apiece.
The visitors extended their lead in the 21st minute with the ever-reliable Jason Nightingale finishing in the corner after reeling in a deft cut-out ball from Widdop.
Croker fumbling a Josh Hodgson grubber in the Dragons in-goal was as close as the Raiders came to leveling the scores, with the visitors taking a slender four-point buffer into the break.
Widdop kicked a penalty goal six minutes after the resumption for a converted try cushion but Aiden Sezar’s 90-metre intercept effort, well against the run of play, saw the scores level again at the 60-minute mark.
Croker landed a long-range penalty goal to take the lead minutes later as the Dragons depth was tested with Mann and Dugan both leaving the field for HIA.
Widdop kicked his second penalty goal with nine minutes remaining to level the scores and set up a chaotic final stretch.