Group 4 got the showpiece match it needed when North Tamworth and Narrabri produced an absorbing first-grade grand final on Sunday that was still alive late into the clash.
But as is their wont in season finales, it was the Bears who emerged victorious 30-22 to claim their fourth consecutive grand final at Jack Woolaston Oval.
As expected, Narrabri gave the Bears a stern examination – refusing to buckle as Norths tried to impose their will.
It wasn’t until young fullback Lynken Dickson fired the pass that sent veteran centre Richard Clegg over in the corner with about 10 minutes to go that you felt Norths had the match won.
Clegg missed the conversion and it was 30-22.
The try resulted in talented 18-year-old prop Jack Cameron being sin binned after he charged in for a square-up with Blues lock Jake Rumsby. The act resulted in both teams coming together in the in-goal area for the most heated exchange of the match.
But luckily, it was defused without a serious incident occurring.
Norths second-rower James Cooper, a member of all four premiership teams, paid tribute to the side’s young brigade and what he described as the team’s special bond.
He said: “We had some kids out there today. Five kids, all eligible for [under] 18s. The 18th man was still eligible for 18s.
“But there’s no stars in this team. We’re all just a real good bunch of blokes that love each others’ company and really play for each other. So it’s a pleasure to do it.”
The Blues had won two of their three matches against the Bears this year ahead of the grand final, but those wins were in Narrabri.
At Jack Woolaston Oval, the Bears went into the match having lost one game at the ground in four years and having won 27 straight there, including two grand finals to go with their 2014 premiership.
On Sunday, the signs were not good for Narrabri early, with Norths racing to a 10-0 lead through tries to winger Dan Boland, who fielded a cross-field kick on about the Blues’ 20 metre line and scored, and left winger Heath Falkenmire, who received a ball from Clegg to cross in the corner.
Narrabri posted their first try immediately after 18-year-old Bears prop Alec Cocking was sin binned for a professional foul, with second-rower Daniel Howe breaking a Falkenmire tackle to score.
Soon after that it was all square when Blues skipper Sean Russ finished off a slick blindside move down the left flank and halfback Justin Knight converted.
But back-to-back tries by replacement Branston Brewer-Charles handed Norths a 20-10 lead at half-time.
The second try came after Bears halfback Kieran Fisher intercepted a pass just inside Narrabri’s half, before Cooper produced a good off-load to Brewer-Charles close to the Blues’ tryline.
The Blues hit back early in the second half when Narrabri centre Brenton Cochrane produced a trademark big step deep in the Blues’ half and carried the ball over halfway and then five-eighth Hayden Bell scored in the corner.
Knight’s successful conversion made it 20-16.
It was 26-16 when Cameron bounced out of a tackle close to Narrabri’s tryline and offloaded to hooker Ryan Ingram, who dived over the line.
Like Cocking and Cameron, Ingram started the season in under-18s and all three made their first-grade debuts this year.
When Blues winger Toby Bentley posted the visitors’ fourth try and Knight converted from touch, it was 26-22.
Bears replacement Shaun Ferguson was named man of the match.
If North Tamworth go on to secure a fifth straight premiership next season, they would do so without their coach Brad McManus.
Following the grand final, McManus announced his retirement after steering the side to the four consecutive titles.
The man affectionately called “Spitter” said he wanted to devote more time to his young family, having decided to call it quits at the start of the year.
“You want to be at your best every week and you’ve gotta keep the boys interested at training,” he said. “When you’re winning by big scores week in week out, it’s hard to do that.”
North Tamworth 30 (B Brewer-Charles 2, Boland, Falkenmire, R Ingram, Clegg tries; Clegg 3 goals) d Narrabri 22 (D Howe, S Russ, H Bell T Bentley tries, J Knight 3 goals)