The Gunnedah Reds Devils pulled off a stunning fight-back to overhaul the Moree Bulls 28-27 and confirm their top standing on the Central Northern rugby points ladder at Moree on Saturday.
Trailing 7-27 at the 18-minute mark in the second half, the Devils caught fire to run in three tries, each converted by James Perrett, with the last try and conversion coming less than two minutes from the bell.
It was a case of the Devils snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.
The team was on the back foot for most of the match, lacking its normal fluency and continuity against the energetic Bulls, who forced several turnovers with their vigorous foraging and clearly had the better of the first half.
The Devils’ clearance was also poor at times, allowing the Bulls to maintain their pressure, and it was only some sturdy defence in the red zone that kept the visitors in the game.
Gunnedah’s only try in the first half came from blockbusting No. 8 Nemo Navatu, from a pick-and-drive close to the line, but Moree had opened up a sizeable lead 27-7 at the break.
The Bulls’ pressure continued early in the second half but couldn’t breach the Devils’ defence.
The tide started to turn midway through the second half when inside centre Elijah Sufia scattered the Bulls’ defence in a bruising 30-metre run to the line.
This was followed by a length-of-the-field try after Perrett fielded an attacking kick near the line and sent winger Emori Wagavulagi on a weaving run. Perrett and half Sam Crane chimed in to carry the ball deep into the Bulls’ territory.
After a few phases, hard-working Sean Latham scored the try. Perrett’s conversion brought the Devils to within striking distance of the Bulls.
By then, the Red Devils had regained their attacking mojo but, with time on the wing, the Bulls still looked like hanging on for the points.
With less than two minutes left, however, bench player Cameron Mitchell saved the day, cutting inside from 15 metres out and carrying three defenders over the line with him.
Cool-as-ice Perrett potted the conversion for the Devils to pull off a last-gasp victory.
It wasn’t the Devils’ best effort this season but the team was eventually able to return to its winning template – a solid platform in tight and flowing, speedy combination in the backs.
The Devils’ backline is the fastest in the zone with Perrett and Wagavulagi a threat to opposing defences along the line and in broken play.
No. 15 Perrett has the knack of hitting holes in the defence at high speed and ranks as the most electrifying player in the zone.
The halves, Crane and Marcus Hayne, bring time and space to their outside men with their slick service.
Once again, the dependable Tim McDermott brought stability and strength to the pack as the Devils became more dominant in the scrum.
No. 8 Nemo Navatu was a handful for the opposition with his bumping runs and rugged tackling and flankers Ray Spradbrow and Sean Latham gave excellent back-up with their on-the-ball play and
Will Burke worked tirelessly.
Coach Dan Martin admitted it was a “close call” for the Devils.
“We had very little ball in the first half, which put us under the pump, but even so, we were confident that we could run them down. Our defence was good and our patience and control grew through the game. Once we picked up our rhythm, we came home really well.”
Martin was pleased with the contribution of bench players Jono Madden, Cameron Mitchell and Sean Latham.
“I’m lucky that we have such a good bench, I’m able to draw on back-up that is up to first-grade standard.”
Gunnedah has extended its lead on the points table after Saturday’s round, which saw second-placed Narrabri Blue Boars go down, 40-14, to the Inverell Highlanders.
The result pushes Narrabri back to equal third with Tamworth Pirates, which eclipsed Walcha 50-12.
Points: Gunnedah Red Devils 67, Inverell Highlanders 56, Tamworth Pirates, Narrabri Blue Boars 55, Moree Bulls 45, Walcha 28, Quirindi Lions 26, Scone Brumbies 24.
The Red Devils face a challenging run into the play-offs, playing Inverell (home), Pirates (away), Walcha (home) and Narrabri (away) in the last four rounds.
The Devils’ next big test will come on Saturday against Inverell, the only team to have lowered the team’s colours this season, 31-29 at Inverell.