PIRATES’ fourth straight Central North premiership was arguably their most satisfying.
It was the hardest to achieve on several counts.
They were hammered in the first round, were labouring in sixth at the halfway point of the season, had to win two sudden-death encounters just to make the grand final and, for the first time in their five grand final appearances, were away from home.
Then there was the obstacle of Walcha to contend with.
The Rams threw everything at them and led for most of the game but, like the champion sides do, Pirates found something when they needed it to snatch a 23-19 win and break the sea of red hearts.
They are unequivocally the best side in the competition and join the great Barraba and Moree sides as four-time consecutive premiership winners.
The Rams did it in the ’80s and the Bulls from 1998 to 2001, and now Pirates.
It completed an amazing turnaround. They couldn’t have finished the season in bigger contrast to the way they started it.
“Who would have thought that after the first round and getting beaten 63-17 we’d win a grand final 23-19,” a delighted Pirates coach Garry Walsh said.
At times they even doubted it.
“It’s been different. Last year every time they went onto the paddock they thought they were going to win,” Walsh said.
This year that belief has taken a while to foster, and was tested on Saturday.
After starting strongly and scoring the first points and try of the match – both through five-eighth Brendan Rixon – to be up 8-3 after 15 minutes, Pirates found themselves on the back foot.
It took them nearly 40 minutes to score again, with the Rams making most of the play and looking the better side.
They hit the front with around 14 minutes remaining in the first half with fullback Ed Churchill chiming into a backline play and having too much pace for Pirates to cover him.
Simon Newton’s conversion put the Rams ahead 13-8 after two earlier penalties.
The momentum was very much with them, and a third penalty to Newton saw them take a 16-8 lead into half-time.
Pirates had the first chance for points in the second half after the Rams had tried to run the ball out of their 22 but just got caught.
But they weren’t able to make anything of it, with the Rams showing plenty of grit in defence.
They just caught half-back Amos Ioasa short and then turned breakaway Josh Stewart on his back to hold him up.
From the ensuing scrum they managed to tie Pirates up off the ground and win the scrum feed.
Their reward for that came a few minutes later, with Newton kicking his fourth penalty to push them out to 19-8 with just under half an hour remaining.
Pirates replied with a penalty of their own a few minutes later and began chipping away at Walcha’s hold on the game.
They started to get their forward game going and using their lineout and rolling maul to good effect.
It’s been one of their real weapons over their premiership reign and led to their second try.
After rolling forward 10 or so metres, they peeled off the back.
The Rams defence was up to the task though and held them up but from the ensuing scrum Ioasa found a hole and scampered through to get them within one with 11 minutes to go.
The momentum was with them and, as they started to wear the Rams down, the penalties started coming.
That pressure eventually told, with Jake Douglas stepping inside of Rams prop Sam Lisle defending out wide and racing away to put Pirates up 23-19.
The Rams had one final roll of the dice and were on the attack in the final seconds but Pirates managed to force a penalty and held on for a win that at times looked unlikely the way they were playing.
“I don’t think we’ve played as badly as that in the last 10 weeks,” Walsh said.
All the things he and co-coach Barry Everingham had spoken about not doing they did.
Their execution was the main issue. They didn’t play the percentage plays and struggled for a lot of the game to build the phases.
That was partly credit to the Rams defence, he said, which forced them into mistakes.
“We were rushing passes and weren’t playing the way we wanted to,” Walsh said.
“15 minutes into the second half we started to put a couple of phases together and were looking like a football team.”
He felt Walcha was the best side for the first 60 minutes.
“But we worked at and worked at it,” he said.
“Barry and I both knew if we could put some phases together and control the ball and build some pressure, that pressure would equal points.”
There was further cause for celebration for Walsh being named the coach of the year.