RUGBY UNION: Gunnedah Red Devils produced a game for the ages to shut out old rivals, the Narrabri Blue Boars, and grab the home grand final with a 17-nil victory in the Central Northern rugby major semi-final at Gunnedah’s Rugby Park on Saturday.
In wet and gloomy conditions – it didn’t stop raining for the whole match – the Devils came up with a near-perfect game strategy, a high-octane effort which kept Narrabri scoreless and snuffed out any momentum the Blue Boars tried to find.
It was a great boost for the Devils’ prospects of breaking a 52-year first-grade premiership drought – the last crown came in 1970 when the team scored a hard-fought 14-12 win over Quirindi in the grand final at Kitchener Oval.
Saturday’s win was built on a superb defensive effort, with players hurling themselves into tackles, rucks and mauls and the free-wheeling backline putting the Blue Boars under pressure all match.
The home side’s forwards were relentless all day, calling the tune over a willing Blue Boars pack in both the set pieces and in foraging for the ball on the ground.
The mobility of the back five – No. 8 Will Burke, Sean Latham, Ray Spradbrow, Tim McDermott and Matt Roseby – to the breakdown was a stand-out, backed up by the non-stop work of the engine room, props Lachie McArthur and Kyle Newcombe and grizzled veteran Matt Hannay.
The day’s highlight, however, came from the Devils’ attacking dynamo, left wing Emori Waqavulagi, who opened the scoring in the 15th minute with the try of the season and one of the best individual efforts ever seen at Rugby Park.
Fijian-born Waqavulagi fielded a charge-down in the 15th minute and although hemmed in close to the touchline, and from a standing start, he accelerated, swerved and
sidestepped the defence on a 45-metre run, leaving at least six defenders sprawled in his wake. It gave the Devils a tremendous boost.
Wagavulagi, however, suffered a knee strain in the first half and went off before the break.
The Devils held a clear territorial advantage in the first half with fullback James Perrett relieving whatever pressure Narrabri was able to mount with raking kicks for touch.
It wasn’t a day for goalkicking but Perrett found the sweet spot after missing three early goal attempts, landing penalty goals in the 34th and 39th minutes to take the Devils’ lead to 11-nil at the break.
Two more penalties in the 45th and 53rd minutes to Perrett extended the lead to 17-nil and that was where the score stayed as both teams went into the grind late in the day.
Coach Daniel Martin was “very pleased” with his team’s wholehearted effort.
“Our line speed and our defence didn’t waver for the whole game. Our first-up tackles were right on the mark and I think that was a big factor in the way we able to dominate. There was a big improvement in our ball control and that helped us to shut Narrabri out of the match.
“I couldn’t be happier. We’ll just have to do it again in the grand final, whoever we play.”
Martin was also pleased with the contribution of the bench.
“Our bench players kept the momentum going when they went on. I was pleased with Kyle Newcombe, who has been out with injury.”
It would be unfair to single out any player from the game, as all 15 played their part in the result, supported by bench players Tim Wilson, Russell Johnston, Ron Hobden, Ben Torrance, Jono Madden, Zac Newcombe and Junior Nasilivata.
Captain James Perrett paid tribute to the forwards for their non-stop effort.
“It was a tough, physical encounter, it always is against Narrabri, and our defensive effort was superb,” he said.
“Our forward rotations also worked really well – our bench players kept our momentum going all match.
“We were in the right mindset all day, we knew where we needed to adjust, and it all fell into place for us.”
Perrett said the Devils’ first-half try was a “shot in the arm.”
“Emori is a brilliant individualist, he can score a try out of nothing. He’s a real weapon for us.”
Coach Daniel Martin worked his bench rotations at exactly the right time and the Red Devils never lost control of the match.
The backline was given trademark service from halves Sam Crane and Marcus Hayne, who had a clear edge in speed on their opposition and centres Elijah Sufia and Cam Mitchell put up a solid defensive wall in the middle of the park.
Winger Darrell Morrison had only a few chances to show his speed but tested the Boars’ defence on a few occasions in the second half.
The line kicking and positional sense of Perrett, another of the Devils’ attacking forces, rounded off a great team effort by the starting 15.
Off the bench, Junior Nasilivata had an impact when he came on, making some jarring tackles, as well as a few blockbusting runs, and Zac Newcombe slotted in well when he replaced Elijah Sufia.
The Red Devils will now have to wait until next Saturday to find out who they will play in the grand final at Rugby Park. Tamworth Pirates will play Narrabri Blue Boars at Dangar Park in Narrabri for the other grand-final berth.
Scores: Gunnedah Red Devils 17 (Emora Wagavulagi try, James Perrett 4 penalty goals) bt Narrabri Blue Boars nil.
Moree entered the second-grade final with a hard-fought 8-5 win over Tamworth Pirates, who will play Barraba/Gwydir at Narrabri on Saturday. The women’s 10s major semi-final was won by Tamworth Piates, 24-10, over Narrabri.
Narrabri will play Gunnedah Red Devils in the preliminary final on Saturday.