Gunnedah Red Devils first grade rugby side squared the ledger with the Inverell Highlanders and tightened its grip on the minor premiership in the Central Northern competition with a 34-24 win at Rugby Park on Saturday.

Even though it wasn’t the Red Devils’ most impressive performance of the season, the home side ran in six tries to four, dominating a scrappy match almost from the opening whistle against the second-placed Highlanders.

After the loss, the Highlanders have slipped to third on the ladder.

The Red Devils have been on fire this season, sitting at the top of the table and opening up a 12-point gap on Narrabri, which has now moved to second spot with three rounds remaining before the finals series.

Saturday’s result was never really in doubt, the Devils leading by nearly 30 points at one stage, but Inverell stuck to the task and in the final five minutes scored two tries, both converted, which restored some respectability to the final score.

The home forwards showed plenty of “devil” with NSW Country squad member Tim McDermott a tower in the lineout and a non-stop worker in the tight exchanges. McDermott has been a stand-out all season.

The pack showed its strength by pushing the Inverell eight off the ball in several exchanges but the visitors’ hard work also forced turnovers at times, disrupting the Devils’ momentum. 

The Devils’ talented No. 9, Sam Crane, put his stamp on Saturday’s game in the first few minutes, with a 30-metre blindside dash from the scrumbase to score.

Not long after, the side’s magic man, winger Emori Waqavulagi, came into the game with a classy try, scored after he drifted from the left wing to the right edge to polish off a slick backline movement.

The conversion by James Perrett gave Gunnedah a 12-nil lead.

The Highlanders struck back with a try after several minutes’ pressure on the Devils’ line but the 12-point margin was restored in the 27th minute with another backline sweep, which saw the speed express, James Perrett, slip through for a try. Surprisingly, he missed the conversion.

Whenever the backline cleared the congested ruck area, the Devils were able to create pressure, though a few opportunities were let slip by poor handling and kick control.

The forwards have excelled in the tight work all year and prop Lachie McArthur was rewarded for a non-stop effort with a barging try which brought up the bonus point.

It took 20 minutes or more for the Devils’ attacking machine to hit top gear in the second half but it eventually came from a high-speed interplay between Wagavulagi and Perrett, which covered 70 metres and saw Perrett streak away for his second try. 

The Devils’ scoring was rounded off by livewire winger Darrell Morrison, who underlined his finishing qualities with a try in the right corner late in the game.

Facing a growing scoreline, the Highlanders fought back late in the day as the Devils appeared to go off the boil.

Apart from a few sloppy passages, the team’s speedy backline called the tune for most of the match with centre Elijah Sufia producing some characteristic jarring tackles and bruising runs.

But Waqavulagi and Perrett showed why they are the two best attacking weapons in the zone and No. 9 Sam Crane was a constant worry to the Inverell defence, as well as sending his speedy backline away at fairly regular intervals.

Coach Dan Martin brought burly No. 8 Nimo Navatu into the fray midway through the first half and he had an immediate impact with robust tackling and some clever touches with the ball.

The best aspect of the day was that it was not the Devils’ best effort this season and yet it was a comfortable win over one of the stronger contenders. 

Scores: Gunnedah Red Devils 34 (James Perrett 2, Sam Crane, Emori Waqavulagi, Lachie McArthur, Darrell Morrison tries, Perrett two conversions) bt Inverell Highlanders 24.

With three rounds to play, the first-grade points table is: Gunnedah Red Devils 72, Narrabri 60, Inverell Highlanders 57, Tamworth Pirates 55, Moree Bulls 50, Walcha Rams 33, Quirindi Lions 31, Scone Brumbies 24.

Gunnedah’s opponents in the remaining round matches are Pirates (away), Walcha (home) and Narrabri (away). During the season the Red Devils have amassed a 291-point surplus after winning 10 of their 11 matches, twice as much as the next team, Narrabri, with 146. Gunnedah’s average winning margin for the season so far is close to 27.

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