GUNNEDAH’S long premiership drought in Central Northern rugby will continue for another year, after the Red Devils’ bid for a breakthrough triumph was dashed by the Narrabri Blue Boars in the grand final at Rugby Park on Saturday.
In front of a huge crowd, the Red Devils failed to fire, tackled out of the match by a focused Blue Boars side, which doused the hopes of local supporters for an end to a 52-year span since the team’s last premiership success in 1970.
The Blue Boars scored three tries to one in their 25-8 shut-out of the home side, in a match in which nothing seemed to go right for the Red Devils.
It was a mirror reversal of the major semi-final a fortnight earlier, when the Red Devils downed the Blue Boars 17-nil.
Narrabri hit the ground running, clearly intent on ball control in the rucks and mauls and on closing down the strike potential of the Devils’ potent backline, in much the same way as Gunnedah had done in the major semi-final.
It worked, as the Red Devils seemed to be on the wrong leg for most of the day.
There were a few attacking sorties, coming from No. 9 Sam Crane and fly-half Marcus Hayne in the early exchanges, but the Devils found it hard to develop their free-flowing rhythm against the fast-moving Boars’ defence.
There was no continuity in ball supply either, as the home side coughed up possession too often and conceded ground through penalties.
The Devils’ cause wasn’t helped, however, by the loss inside the first 10 minutes of the team’s lineout tower, Tim McDermott, who broke his ankle and was carried off the field. The team’s lineout was disrupted, Narrabri winning several lineouts against the throw at critical stages.
Gunnedah just couldn’t bring their attacking weapons into play, because of the Boars’ swarming defence, although there were a few promising glimpses.
James Perrett made one burst which looked like producing a try in the first half but his pass to the vacant wing space went into touch and for the rest of the match, he had very few attacking opportunities.
Winger Emori Waqavulagi, who had scored some spectacular tries this season, wasn’t a factor in the match, restricted by a quad injury sustained in the semi-final two weeks earlier. He hardly touched the ball before going off before half-time.
The battle between the two sets of forwards was a willing contest but the clear-out rate was better from the Blue Boars, who were able to create more space in the backline.
Gunnedah opened the scoring with a penalty goal to fullback and captain James Perrett in the 12th minute. matched six minutes later by Narrabri’s kicker Toby Knight.
The Blue Boars then jumped out to a 10-3 lead when left wing Felix Johnson polished off a sweeping backline movement in the 27th minute.
The Devils had been pressing the Boars’ line but lost field position through piggyback penalties leading to the Johnson try.
Gunnedah’s best moment came in the 32nd minute when winger
Darrell Morrison scored a determined try from a slick right-side passing rush to reduce the margin to two but a penalty goal to Toby Knight gave Narrabri a 13-8 lead at the break.
The pattern was much the same in the second half with the Devils unable to break the tight defence.
Narrabri’s captain, centre Will McDonnell was the best player on the ground, putting pressure on the Devils’ defence, but there was an element of luck in the Boars’ try in the 62nd minute, a chip kick bouncing off the arm of a Gunnedah defender into the arms of winger Toby Knight who raced 30 metres to score, taking the Boars’ lead to 20-8. Then, seven minutes from time, second-row forward
Sam Knight dived over the line in a pick-and-drive which sealed Gunnedah’s fate.
The result deflated Gunnedah supporters, who turned out in large numbers to support the Devils in their quest to write club history but Narrabri held the edge most of the way, with a better ball-retention rate and strong defensive work whenever the Red Devils showed signs of breaking the line.
Gunnedah’s best were probably Crane and Hayne, with a few good touches also coming in the first half by centres Elijah Sufia and Cam Mitchell and replacement Junior Nasilivata.
Forwards Ray Spradbrow, Sean Latham and Will Burke produced their trademark wholehearted efforts in the pack.
As the match started to slip away in the second half, penalties made it harder for the Red Devils to maintain field position.
Although falling at the final hurdle, it was a good season for the Red Devils, who clinched the minor premiership for the second year in a row.
The record crowd for Rugby Park was also a huge advertisement for rugby, with the crowd estimated at around 2000.
Scores: Narrabri Blue Boars 25 (Felix Johnson, Toby Knight, Sam Knight tries, Toby Knight 2 conversions, 2 penalties) bt Gunnedah Red Devils 8 (Darrell Morrison try, James Perrett penalty).
The second-grade grand final was won by Tamworth Pirates, overturning minor premier Moree Bulls.
The Bulls led 15-7 at the break but Pirates hit back with four tries in 10 minutes after resumption to take control.
The women’s 10s grand final was won 31-24 by Tamworth Pirates over Narrabri. Pirates’ points came from five tries and three conversions to Narrabri’s four tries and two conversions in an entertaining match.To order photos from this page click here