“This is the one we want (the grand final). We don’t want to be the previous day’s fish and chips wrapping. This is the big one.”

Those were the words this week of Gunnedah Red Devils’ rugby coach Dan Martin, as he prepares his team for the grand final of the Central Northern first-grade competition on Saturday, at Gunnedah’s Rugby Park.

History beckons for the Red Devils as they set out to become the first Gunnedah first-grade team to win the premiership flag in 52 years. 

The Red Devils will play old rival, the Narrabri Blue Boars, in Saturday’s decider, after Narrabri withstood a second-half charge by signature club, the Tamworth Pirates, to win the preliminary final 22-19 at Dangar Park, Narrabri.

It has been a memorable season, so far, for the Red Devils, who won the minor premiership for the second year in a row and produced some spectacular efforts, mixed with a few lapses, in the run-up to the finals.

The Gunnedah side hit top gear in the September 3 major semi-final at Rugby Park, a match played on a saturated ground where the Devils emphatically disposed of the Blue Boars 17-nil. A week before, though, the Blue Boars downed the Red Devils 25-19 in the final round of the competition.

The Devils have developed an ideal template for a grand final, with a non-stop, ball-of-energy forward pack and well-rehearsed set pieces, and a scintillating backline, capable of breaking open a defence from any part of the ground.

Some of the tries the team has scored this year have been right out of the top drawer, none more so than the one from Fijian winger Emori Waqavulagi, who threaded the Blue Boars’ defence in a 45-metre dash to the line in the major semi-final.

Twice during the season, Waqavulagi has notched up a treble of tries, against upper-level sides, Pirates and Narrabri.

The other trump card is fullback and captain James Perrett, who forms a lethal left-side combination with Waqavulagi. Perrett calls the shots from the back of the line with the uncanny knack of running into open space and backs it up with his steady line and goal kicking.

The backline has had outstanding service all year from halves Sam Crane and fly-half Marcus Hayne and some blockbusting efforts in the centre from the Fijian connection.

The team has strike potential but the key is for the Devils to seize control of rucks and mauls and deliver ball supply to the speedsters. Ruck control and ball retention, as well as speed to the break-down, are essential components in the team’s armoury. 

The Devils also have strong back-up from the bench, which coach Dan Martin has been keen to utilise expertly all year. 

Martin is under no illusions over the task ahead of his team in the grand final.

“We have to hit the ground running but we also have to concentrate on our ball retention, as we did in the major semi-final.

“The whole season comes down to the one day, that’s all that matters. The semi-final (win) has no relevance. It doesn’t count in the context of the grand final. 

“We have to be in the right mindset and execute our structures and our game plan (on Saturday).

“We’re playing a very good Narrabri side and we’re going to have to play the game of our lives.

“There’s a mountain to climb, but I know we can do it.”

Winger Waqavulagi went off with a leg injury in the major semi-final and captain Perrett took a heavy facial knock but coach Martin says both will be right for the grand final. The team has yet to be formally announced but the 15 players who took the field a fortnight earlier are expected to form the starting line-up. Martin will also have a nine-man player bench.  

The grand final will also be “unfinished business” for Gunnedah, which had its bid for a breakthrough premiership thwarted when the competition was abandoned in the finals series in 2021, because of the COVID pandemic.

Gunnedah had squeezed Narrabri out of the minor premiership in the final round with an after-the-ball penalty goal to James Perrett. Gunnedah goes into the CN record books as minor premier, not premier, for that year.

Although there was no public criticism of the zone’s decision to abort the finals, there was deep disappointment among the players and coach over the side’s missed opportunity to break the drought.

But that’s water under the bridge. The focus is on 2022.

“The whole club deserves a premiership – everyone has been so patient for so long. But we have to earn it. There’s no other way,” Martin said.

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