RELATED STORY: Pirates crowned champions again
It was a grand finish to another grand season.
Pirates confirmed their status as the premier side in the zone with a heart-stopping 40-39 win over Walcha at Ken Chillingworth Oval on Saturday to complete a perfect season.
Much like when they faced the Rams in the 2012 decider, they were pushed to their limits.
“I knew coming here it would take a hell of a side to beat us,” Pirates coach Mat Kelly said.
“Walcha true to their word almost did.”
He admittedly couldn’t watch the conversion attempt that would have given the Rams a one-point lead with around two minutes remaining. But the crowd gave him his answer.
As they did in the major semi the Rams struck first, Simon Newton giving them a 3-nil lead five minutes in.
Pirates hit straight back, Sam Collins scoring off a lineout drive. They repeated the dose a couple of minutes later, Doug Biffin this time on the end of it.
Able to generate the forward momentum that makes them so potent, Ben Goodman crashed over not long after. When Conrad Starr Starr then wrestled his way over to make it 26-6 with 12 to go in the first half Pirates looked to have the game well in hand.
But with the best backline in the zone at their disposal the Rams were always going to be a threat and in an instant they were back within six points, an undermanned Pirates defence, with inside centre Brendan Rixon in the sin-bin, unable to thwart the Rams attack.
Pirates extended their lead early in the second half, their scrum dominance leading to a penalty try, but the Rams’ reply was swift.
Churchill was again the man, running onto a good inside ball from Newton.
They then hit the front with just over 15 to go. Putting it through the hands, Dom Bower finished and Newton added the extras from the sidelines to make it 34-33.
But Pirates didn’t panic, and after being awarded a penalty virtually straight out in front turned to their biggest weapon – their scrum - to reclaim the lead.
Often remarking about their big game experience, Kelly at the time wasn’t quite sure about the decision.
“I was calling for the points,” he said.
“I’m glad they ignored me now.”
It took them three attempts but they got there, marching over the line to push out to 40-34 with just over five minutes on the clock.
It turned out to be a match-winning play. The penalty would have put them only two ahead and their lead would have been wiped out when a few minutes later Pat Keen got on the outside of his man to put Churchill away for his third try.
“We knew there would be momentum swings and we knew it would come down to who could steal those clinch moments,” Kelly said.
Trailing at half-time in both their recent outings against the Rams, one of the things Pirates had spoken about was starting well, which they did.
“We started like a house on fire,” Kelly said.
They knew though the Rams wouldn’t stop coming at them and had also spoken about going on with it.
They weren’t really able to do that, but that was in part down to the Rams waking up after that 20 minute onslaught.
Sensing what a spectacular contest it was, Kelly was full of praise for the Rams, especially their defence in the second half.
“We had a lot of penalties down their end,” he said.
“They defended like no other team I’ve seen.”
Learning from the major semi-final, he did make a couple of tactical adjustments.
“We refused to kick to them,” Kelly said.
“That was my big change from the major semi.”
He also on set plays in defence, shifted player of the grand final Andrew Moodie out to 13.
Kelly again couldn’t speak highly enough of his sides character.
“There were a few mistakes but there boys are a tight knit group,” he said.
The fourth time they have defended their title (they won four straight between 2009 and 2012), he said it was just reward for the all the hard work they had put in. They started back in January.
He added that it was a real club effort to produce the result they did, not just the 16 that played. He only made the one change, Chad Lambert coming on early in the second half for Mitch Bath after he suffered a calf injury.
It was a good day for the club with the U19’s earlier prevailing 36-19 over Moree to also complete an undefeated season. The Bulls won the other two deciders with their U17’s getting up 39-15 over Tamworth and second grade hanging on for a 22-18 win over arch-rivals Narrabri.