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The Warriors have ended a dreadful campaign on a searing high note, staging an unlikely late comeback to stun top-four team Canberra 24-20 at GIO Stadium.

Trailing by eight with time ticking down, the visitors were categorically robbed by an appalling video referee decision – yet they dug deep to produce a try-of-the-season contender to close the gap before Blake Green sliced through for a 76th-minute match-winner.

And if you can’t quite put your finger on why this victory feels a little strange, perhaps it’s because – incredibly – this was the Warriors’ first success after slipping out of finals contention since 2009. After a string of listless performances, it is a tremendous fillip for the club and its tortured fans.

The Raiders were under-strength, resting several key players with little at stake. But so were the Warriors, with Peta Hiku and Chanel Harris-Tavita ruled out, and David Fusitu’a withdrawing late. The decision to bring Taane Milne in on the wing to make his club debut and Josh Curran onto the bench for Bunty Afoa both proved inspired.

Canberra led 16-12 at halftime and looked certain to carve out a convincing victory with a stiff breeze at their back in the second stanza. But some good scrambling defence from the Warriors limited the damage after the break, while some outstanding second-phase play – frustratingly absent for most of the seasons – unsettled the Raiders and ultimately set up the morale-boosting win.

The early signs were ominous.

A freakish, desperate piece of in-goal play from Elliot Whitehead produced the opening try for stand-in winger Sebasitan Kris in the eighth minute (though we would have liked a more judicious look at the replay from the Bunker, with Jarrod Croker suspiciously appearing to get a touch on the ball when he was over the dead-ball line).

But the Warriors rallied impressively with a pair of near-identical tries.

Lachlan Burr ran off a Green short ball to reach out in the 19th minute, before Adam Blair put Adam Pompey over for his second try in as many games with a deft pass close to the line.

While it was missed at the time, an unsavoury incident sent commentator Brett Finch and the Twittersphere into meltdown.

Raiders rookie Hudson Young – who already has a five-match eye-gouging ban on his rap sheet – twice appeared to rake at Pompey’s eyes after he dotted down.

Canberra levelled up eight minutes out from the break as Josh Papali’i capped a monster opening stint by steamrolling Adam Blair and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck to score.

The hosts appeared to land a soul-crushing blow to the Warriors’ hopes of an upset right on the halftime bell.

Agnatius Paasi’s lazy marker defence opened the door for Raiders hooker Josh Hodgson, who strolled over aided by a shockingly inept piece of defence from Isaiah Papali’i.

A second-half blowout loomed when fullback deputy Bailey Simonsson shredded the Warriors’ defence on a 50-metre kick-return.

Tuivasa-Sheck rounded up his opposite number on that occasion, but his valiant try-saving attempt on winger Michael Oldfield couldn’t prevent the Raiders from taking a 20-12 lead with a 65-metre special in the 53rd minute.

The Warriors found some defensive resolve, however, and clawed back into the contest when Milne crossed on the back of a bomb.

But the Bunker farcically overturned the on-field try decision after Curran ran into Jack Wighton, who was blatantly trying to provide protection for his fullback.

In some ways, another refereeing howler in an honourable would have been a fitting way for the Warriors’ 2019 campaign to finish. But they found another gear and an astonishing try that deserves to go down in club folklore.

The ball went through 13 sets of hands – over to one sideline, back to the other and into the middle of the field again – before RTS, with his third touch of the movement, exploded to score one of 2019’s truly great four-pointers.

The deficit cut to two points, the Warriors were forced to defend their own line to keep the game alive.

But a crucial penalty pried the door open for the underdogs and brilliant footwork from Green left Hodgson posted, the halfback darting through to put the Warriors in front with less than four minutes to go.

The Warriors calmly closed out the dying minutes to claim one of their more improbable two points.

Milne staked a huge claim for a backline spot next season in his first NRL appearance since 2017, while Tuivasa-Sheck may have kept his bid for back-to-back Dally Ms alive and Green enjoyed arguably his best game of a difficult campaign. The unsigned Issac Luke and retiring Blake Ayshford enjoyed memorable farewell performances, while Adam Keighran had an eye-catching stint off the bench at hooker and Curran was also impressive.

The success the Warriors had with a more familiar freewheeling style – despite the limitations of their current line-up – hinted at some major tweaking of their attack in the off-season.

This year has been miles off what anyone had hoped the Warriors’ 25th-season milestone would be. There remains a truckload of unanswered questions around their roster, recruitment, staff and ownership ahead of 2020.

But their gutsy, thrilling win in the Australian capital to mark the end of the club’s first quarter-century in the premiership is a timely, heart-warming reminder of the incomparable rollercoaster that is supporting the New Zealand Warriors – and why we’ll always keep coming back for more.

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