There was speed to burn on Gunnedah’s Rugby Park on Saturday, as the Red Devils overcame a sluggish start to wrap up the Central Northern minor premiership with a 46-17 win over Walcha.
Coming off a loss to the resurgent Tamworth Pirates the week before, the Devils took most of the first half to reproduce their trademark free-wheeling attacking style, eventually piling on eight tries to three. But it wasn’t an entirely convincing display, as the team struggled to gather momentum in a scrappy first half.
The Devils have only lost two games this season, going down to Inverell and Tamworth Pirates after making slow starts – and in matches they have won, against Narrabri and Moree, they have had to come from behind.
There were shades of a slow start again on Saturday.
The Devils scored the first try when the experienced Matt Roseby broke through a maul close to the line in the seventh minute but Walcha hit back with a converted try to lead 7-5. Midway through the first half, it was 12-all with the Devils struggling to develop any momentum, through turnovers and handling errors.
It seemed as if the Devils were too intent on attack, without first securing a steady ball supply. Play was breaking down after only a few phases.
It all started to come together late in the first half, starting with a barge-over try to No. 2 Tim Wilson, followed by dazzling tries to speedy winger Darrell Morrison and the Devils’ express, captain and fullback James Perrett.
The Devils’ fourth try of the half underlined the potency of the team’s backline. From deep in the red zone, centre Elijah Sufia made a charging run through the centre before linking up with the flying Perrett, who ran 50 metres to score under the posts right on-half-time for a 24-12 lead.
Sufia was a handful for the defence nearly every time the Devils were able to clear the rucks and mauls, also pulling off some jarring tackles.
Halves Sam Crane and Marcus Hayne were on song with their long passing game, Hayne breaking open the second half with a brilliant burst of speed down the right edge for a superb try. Hayne has been the unsung hero for the Devils in the last two seasons, with his creativity and ballwork.
Towards the end of the game, his speed was on show again, with a sharp break and a long cut-out pass putting centre Cam Mitchell over the line wide out.
Fullback James Perrett, the most electrifying player in the zone, again proved a key weapon, though he had an off-day with his goal-kicking.
The Devils still had a few flat patches in the second half but the hard-working opposition had no real answer to the Devils’ speed and class. The forwards worked solidly, though needing to show more composure at times, with Wilson and Lachie McArthur scoring tries in the engine room and Ray Spradbrow, Sean Latham, Russell Johnston and Will Burke working effectively in the tight play.
Country representative Tim McDermott dominated the lineouts and has been the lynchpin of the pack all year.
With one round to go, the Devils are on 78 points, eight ahead of second-placed Narrabri, and can’t be beaten for the minor premiership, the second year in a row this has happened. But the Devils’ hopes of a long-awaited premiership in 2021 were dashed by Covid-19, which brought the season to an abrupt end.
In the last round next Saturday, Gunnedah will clash with old rival Narrabri at Narrabri, a match-up which will throw some light on each team’s premiership prospects.
The Red Devils Have sailed along at the top of the table for virtually the whole of the competition, raising hopes that after a break of 52 years their top-grade premiership drought might end.
Scores from Saturday:
First grade: Gunnedah 46 (James Perrett 2, Matt Roseby, Tim Wilson, Darrell Morrison, Marcus Hayne, Lachie McArthur, Cam Mitchell tries, Perrett two conversions, Bev Tuqiri conversion) bt Walcha 17 (Keen 20, Leslie try, Clarke goal).
First grade: Gunnedah Red Devils 78, Narrabri Blue Boars 70, Inverell Highlanders 67, Tamworth Pirates 65, Moree Bulls 55, Quirindi Lions 41, Walcha 33, Scone Brumbies 24.
Second grade: Moree 74, Tamworth 73, Gunnedah 63, Narrabri 51, Barraba/Gwydir 48, Inverell 43, Quirindi 43, Scone 29, Walcha 11.
Women’s 10s: Tamworth 80, Narrabri 72, Gunnedah 54, Quirindi 50, Scone 42, Barraba-Gwydir 40.