The New Zealand Warriors' quest for a third consecutive under-20s crown must be completed the hard way after the defending champions were stung by a last-play field goal by Raiders five-eighth Anthony Milford at Canberra Stadium.
The playmaker coolly slotted the deadlock-breaker as the golden point loomed in a cliff-hanger qualifying final - the Raiders 39-38 victory has the added advantage of giving them a weekend off while the Warriors must regroup and then return across the Tasman to face a sudden death clash with the Sydney Roosters.
The Warriors twice fought back from 16-point deficits and appeared to have completed a second remarkable comeback when Siliva Havili burrowed over from dummy half to give the champions a six-point buffer with seven minutes to play.
However, a timely Jeremy Hawkins intercept snuffed out a match-sealing try and then the wing rounded close enough to the posts in the 78th to set-up Milford's tying conversion.
The Raiders then pressed down field and, after turning down one field goal opportunity, the classy Milford stood in the clear and hit the target from 12 metres before being enveloped by his teammates.
Warriors' players slumped to the ground as the ball dissected the uprights and they may have to pick themselves up without talented five-eighth Carlos Tuimavave, who appears in doubt with an ankle injury.
The Warriors return to Sydney on Friday to take on the Roosters, who beat South Sydney 24-22 yesterday, in the curtain raiser to the NRL semifinal between the Rabbitohs and Canberra Raiders at ANZ Stadium on Saturday.
Unfortunately the Warriors began the finals series by resembling the club's first grade flops as they gave the Raiders a three-try head start - their worst opening of the season.
Canberra capitalised from a close range scrum when wing Jonathan Reuben dived over in the right hand corner in the fourth minute after Peta Hiku dropped a regulation high ball.
Edrick Lee pushed the lead to double digits when the occasional NRL centre forced a pinpoint Ben Picker nudge to the in-goal and Lee then instigated the Raiders third when a sideline burst saw his pass deflected into the path of fullback Jack Ahern.
Starved of possession and field possession, the Warriors were then given a leg-up into the contest when Hawkins needlessly played a heavy Tuimavave grubber that was destined to go dead.
From the resulting goal line drop out Hiku atoned for his handling lapse with a cross kick that David Fusitua grabbed acrobatically.
The Warriors were destined to score again in the 22nd minute but Lee circumvented a three-on-one overlap by intercepting a Mason Lino pass and loping 98-metres to the line.
Lee's double might have caused irreparable psychological damage but the Warriors, buoyed by a 5:1 penalty count and value from their interchange bench, finished an entertaining opening 40 on a roll.
Toka Likiliki provided much-needed thrust in the second quarter, a bullocking run and offload enabled back-up dummy half Trent Bishop to skirt over after the Warriors made inroads from their second goal-line drop out.
Likiliki then made the Raiders pay the ultimate price when another restart under their posts backfired as he muscled over by the sticks to reduce the Raiders margin to four at the interval.
Although the Warriors had addressed the imbalance on the scoreboard and in the key statistics they were lax again from the kick-off as Ahern and Milford restored a 16-point buffer before the Likiliki-inspired visitors regrouped.
The prop, who drifted to the left wing and centres, was a devastating ball runner and with Bishop sniping around the fringes the Warriors managed to fight back from self-inflicted adversity.
Bishops's jink and offload allowed Mason Lino to stroll over untouched and when Likiliki barrelled over out wide the Warriors they seemed to be in the ascendancy.
Jack Wighton bravely denied Likiliki's hattrick but when top the Warriors' try-scorer Ngani Laumape made a beeline for the same corner early in the third quarter for his 16th of the campaign momentum seemed to have shifted for the last time.
Lino added the difficult conversion and when Havili celebrated his 50th game with the softest of the 14 tries recorded - after an inevitable barge by Likiliki - the Warriors were poised to rest-up this week until Hawkins and Milford stepped up to avenge last Sunday's 26-12 regular season loss at Mt Smart.
Canberra Raiders 39 (Edrick Lee 2, Jack Ahern 2, Jonathan Reuben, Anthony Milford, Jeremy Hawkins tries; Anthony Milford 5 goals, field goal)
NZ Warriors 38 (Toka Likiliki 2, David Fusitua, Trent Bishop, Mason Lino, Ngani Laumape, Siliva Havili tries; Mason Lino 4 goals)
- © Fairfax NZ News