Central North Rugby: Pirates seal minor premiership with thrilling come-from-behind win
Pirates led for less than a quarter of the match, but were in front when it counted as the premiers sealed the minor premiership with a dramatic 28-24 win over Walcha on Saturday.
The Rams almost pulled off the unthinkable from a 45-point drubbing in the first round, but Pirates showed their champion quality and rallied to snatch the points from the visitors.
It was a titanic tussle and played with a real finals intensity, with neither side willing to take a backwards step.
The Rams looked to have the ascendancy when Pat Keen steamed onto a pin-point pass from half-back Angus McTavish to put them ahead 24-14 midway through the second half.
The culmination of a sustained pressure on Pirates line, the home side were dealt a double blow when Andrew Moodie was red-carded for punching.
But as they have done on several occasions this season, Pirates down a man lifted.
Jack Shelton looked to have narrowed the gap but was in the act of planting the ball down ruled to have knocked on. It didn’t matter in the end though with Pirates turning over the scrum and James Trappel scoring.
Trappel added the extras to make it a three-point game with 15 to go.
Eight minutes later Pirates repeated the dose, Doug Biffin this time getting over the chalk after the ball - on Walcha’s feed - spewed out of the side. Conrad Star picked it up, and twisting in the tackle popped the ball back to Biffin.
But the Rams weren’t done with and with just over two minutes to go looked to have created an overlap, but the Pirates defence somehow scrambled to push Simon Newton into touch, and with him Walcha’s hopes.
Pirates coach Mat Kelly had remarked leading in that not many sides boast the wealth of experience that they have, and in the end their experience in the key moments was decisive. Kelly also made testament to the character they showed.
They were challenged like they haven’t really been this season, with the Rams asking them a lot of questions and showing some real starch in their defence.
“To be fair they defended really well,” Kelly said.
“There was a time where we had 16 phases against them.”
Not many sides have been able to hold them out for that many phases, but the Rams did. More than that Pirates really struggled to make metres, the Rams eventually winning a penalty with Pirates holding on.
On the back of a dominant scrum, Pirates had the better of the early exchanges and went ahead 7-nil through who else, but Starr.
Taking the ball off the back of the scrum he twisted his way through the defence.
The Rams could have been excused for having flashbacks to the first round, with Starr one of the main perpetrators of the shellacking, and were not long after reduced to 14 with Ed Blomfield paying the price for their repeated infringements.
They almost hit back a couple of minutes later after a brilliant 70m breakout but the final pass didn’t stick. By then enjoying a more even share of possession, and through Simon Newton’s kicking game, territory, the Rams levelled with just over 20 minutes to go in the first half, fullback Ed Churchill playing forward and picking and driving.
Four minutes later they hit the front, winger Richard Young finishing off a simple backline play.
Newton extended the Rams’ lead to 17-7 with a penalty after the hooter.
Starr cut that back to three early in the second half, sneaking through a gap around the ruck to bag his second and set up an enthralling final 35 minutes.
Kelly conceded they played some “pretty ordinary footy” at times, but they were able to find their A game when it mattered.
“The last 15 minutes was good. Everything else before that was a battle,” he said.
Playing virtually on one leg, Biffin was brilliant, he said.
“He still won a tight head and made a try-saving tackle at the end.”
Sam Collins was also fantastic at 12, as were the “boys up front”.
Rams co-coach Barry Hoy said while his side were gutted, they weren’t disappointed given how far they had come from the first round.
“We put ourselves in a position to win, a couple of simple mistakes probably cost us in the end,” he said.
“The effort was there for the whole game. Across the park they all played well.”
It was as well as they have played this season, and they will learn a lot from it.
As they did from the first round.
“The first half we controlled territory pretty well with our kicking game,” Hoy said.
Their body height into the tackle was also lot better and they went low on the Pirates ball runners.
The set pieces though were a bit of an issue. The scrum was under constant pressure, and their lineout fell away a bit when they lost Blomfield to, what reports later were, a serious hamstring tear.
“We lost a few of our lineouts. That cost us a bit,” Hoy said.
Sandy Cameron topped the points ahead of Newton, and Churchill and Dave Healey.