Gunnedah rugby’s top-of-the-table Red Devils came back to earth in the Central Northern premiership race when they went down 25-19 to main rival, the Narrabri Blue Boars, at Narrabri’s Dangar Park on Saturday.
Although the Red Devils had the minor premiership under lock and key before the game, the result was a jolt to the team’s prospects of breaking a 52-year first-grade premiership drought, ahead of the return major-semi-final clash at Gunnedah’s Rugby Park on Saturday, September 3.
The Red Devils trailed by 18 points to five at half-time, the margin stretching to 20 midway through the second half. It was then that the Devils caught fire, running in two tries in two minutes to cut the gap to six. Both sides had chances in a desperate final 12 minutes but there was no addition to the score.
It was an even contest, however, with both side scoring three tries – the margin coming from two penalty goals by Narrabri’s kicker Toby Knight.
A worrying sign for Gunnedah has been the slow start in matches against other premiership contenders in the second round.
It was the same story on Saturday, with turnovers and poor ball control not allowing the Devils to gain any real momentum.
There was no continuity of possession for the Devils, who struggled to bring their fleet-footed backline into play.
Narrabri opened the scoring with a penalty goal to Toby Knight in the fifth minute but the Devils struck back in the 12th minute when centre Cameron Mitchell beat off the Narrabri cover to score a determined try in the left-hand corner.
At 5-3 it was Gunnedah’s only lead in the match and it lasted just six minutes, Narrabri’s No 15 Jydon Hill scoring a try before hard-hitting forward Felix Cobb-Johnston
barged over for a try in the 24th minute.
The conversion and a penalty goal in the 36th minute took Narrabri out to a commanding 18-5 lead at the break.
The margin jumped out to 20 with a try to Daniel Kahl, converted by Knight, midway through the second half but the Devils returned fire
with tries by Tim McDermott, who scored in the 64th minute, and the Devils’ express, James Perrett, who broke the shackles to cross in the 66th minute. He converted both tries.
It was desperation stakes in the last 10 minutes, with Knight failing to land a penalty goal which would have taken his side into safe harbour and Gunnedah stringing together several phases to test the home side’s defence.
Two minutes from time, the Devils broke away and seemed likely to score but Narrabri’s Sam Knight saved the day with a great tackle.
Gunnedah’s best was back-row forward Will Burke, who was tireless all day. The forwards at times dominated but poor discipline allowed Narrabri to “piggyback” upfield, out of the red zone. The
Devils also took a few wrong options and at some points in the match appeared flat in their execution.
It wasn’t a bad performance but several key areas will have to come under scrutiny before the finals series.
The win was vital for Narrabri which clinched the other major semi-final spot and a double chance at the grand final.
If the Red Devils had won Saturday’s game, Narrabri would have finished in fourth place.
Scores: Narrabri 25 (Jydon Hill, Fekix Cobb-Johnson, Daniel Kahl tries, Toby Knight two conversions, two penalty goals) bt Gunnedah 19 (Cam Mitchell, Tim McDermott, James Perrett tries, James Perrett two conversions).
First-grade point score: Gunnedah Red Devils 79, Narrabri 74, Inverell Highlanders 72, Tamworth Pirates 70, Moree Bulls 60, Quirindi Lions 42, Walcha Rams 38, Scone Brumbies 24.
The elimination semi-final will be played at Inverell on Saturday between the home side and Tamworth Pirates, ominously running into top gear.
Gunnedah’s second-grade side wrapped up third place on the ladder with a 26-12 win over Narrabri on Saturday and will play Barraba-Gwydir in the elimination semi-final at Inverell.
Reserve grade point score: Moree Bulls 79, Tamworth Pirates 77, Gunnedah Red Devils 68, Barraba/Gwydir 52, Narrabri Blue Boars 51, Quirindi Lions 46, Inverell Highlanders 45, Scone Brumbies 29, Walcha Rams 10.
Next Saturday’s minor semi-final will be played between the Inverell Highlanders and a resurgent Tamworth Pirates at Inverell.
The Red Devils will also be represented in the women’s 10s minor semi-final after finishing fourth on the table and will play Quirindi at Inverell. Points – Tamworth Pirates 85, Narrabri 77, Quirindi 55, Gunnedah 54, Barraba/Gwydir 45, Scone 42.To order photos from this page click here