South Tamworth’s protracted grand final nightmare is over. And it was their two NSW Country representatives, Tom O’Neill and Tom Groth, who conjured stirring individual performances to propel the side to victory over Old Boys at No.1 Oval on Sunday, thus denying the vanquished a fifth straight title.
After enduring five consecutive grand final losses – the past four to Old Boys – Souths dominated most of the match, and then survived a batting collapse to claim their first premiership since 2011-12. This was their seventh straight grand final appearance.
On day one of the match on Saturday, the puzzlement over O’Neill’s failure to get a bag of wickets this season dissipated like Old Boys’ batting lineup as the tall quick took six wickets to rout the reigning premiers for 123.
In reply, Souths were 3-85 at stumps. Veterans Blake Fitzgerald (44 not out) and Tom Groth (25 out out) were still at the crease. Out were Brock Morley (2), Josh Crowe (1) and Jack Massey (6).
Groth and Fitzgerald’s 44-run partnership on day one was pivotal. Had one or both of them got out, it may have been a different result.
Resuming on Sunday morning, Fitzgerald and Groth took the score to 103 before the former was dismissed for 54, caught Simon Norvill off Aaron Hazlewood’s bowling. Hazlewood would go on to take 6-88 off 39.2 overs. The combined over tally of the other seven Old Boys bowlers used was 49.
Fitzgerald’s departure signalled the almost inevitable wobble. From 4-103, Souths slumped to 8-117 after the losses of Chris Massey (4), Smith (0), Troy Osborne (0) and Conrad George (0).
But as his partners came and went, Groth, a silky smooth gloveman with an agreeable demeanour, summoned all his considerable experience to score one of Tamworth cricket’s finest centuries, given the circumstances, after earlier securing the first-innings win – the match win, as it turned out – with a lustily struck boundary off his pads.
Our goal was to go one better [and win the title] and we’ve done it.- Mitch Smith
With Souths 8-125, Groth hit out superbly to effectively execute Old Boys’ notions of a fightback. O’Neill (28) combined with Groth for a crucial 56-run ninth-wicket partnership.
When Groth was the last man out for 137, the underdogs had reached 259 – a 136-run lead. He blasted 18 fours and two sixes in his innings.
With 52 overs left in the match, Old Boys’ second innings commenced with opener Simon Norvill, the scorer of a 35-ball ton in the major semi-final, swinging wildly and missing at quick Angus McNeill.
Norvill and his opening partner Abel Carney fell for 19 and seven. And Old Boys’ virtual mission impossible never gained traction, as Souths and their supporters savoured every wicket and the pending victory celebration.
That victory came when James Hammond removed Troy Sands in the 25th over – Old Boys gone for 148.
O’Neill finished with nine wickets for the match, while Hammond claimed six.
Smith, whom Groth handed the captaincy to this season, praised the “two Toms”: “They really stood up when we needed them to. Yeah, we did have a bit of a wobble … [But] with the two Toms out there, it was great to see.”
Smith described the premiership win as “huge” for both Souths and himself. “I got the honour to captain them. But they’re a quality bunch of blokes. Like I said all year, on paper we looked the goods. Our goal was to go one better [and win the title] and we’ve done it.”
Old Boys captain Ben Middlebrook bemoaned lost chances. “It’s just disappointing. I thought 123 was enough if we were good enough, and I thought we created enough chances [but] we let it slip. And then Grothy batted really well at the end.”
It was O’Neill’s best return in his three seasons at Souths, bettering the 4-25 he took in the 2016-17 season.
As a decent crowd looked on from beneath the plane trees along Kable Avenue, on a warm and sunny autumn day, O’Neill was thrown the ball after Osborne and McNeill had removed Old Boys openers Carney (15) and Norvill (13), to leave the minor premiers at 2-28 after winning the toss.
Old Boys were 3-44 when O’Neill removed Chris Dobson for 13, caught by Groth, whom the fast bowler played with when NSW Country won the national country championship in January.
Hammond then removed No.3 Adam Lole for two, to leave Old Boys at 4-55. They were 5-55 when O’Neill removed danger man Hazlewood for 10, caught by George.
O’Neill then claimed he next four wickets – Jack Richards (0), Middlebrook (29), Tyson Rennie (5) and Amit Kumar (0).
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