Some desperate defence in the final seconds saved Inverell as the Highlanders held on to become the first-ever Central North women’s 7s grand finalists.
Trailing by only three points after Phoebe McLoughlin had scored off a quick tap with two minutes remaining, Pirates were awarded a penalty with a minute on the clock, and had one final crack.
They looked away, but the Highlanders scrambled to shut the play down, eventually earning a penalty to sneak home 20-17.
“That was pleasing, our urgency there in the last 30 seconds,” Highlanders coach Dale Beattie said.
“I thought they had the game to be honest.”
Beattie described the game as “a game of two halves”.
The Highlanders controlled the game for much of the first half, Pirates barely touching the ball in the opening few minutes as they skipped out to a 10-nil lead.
The home side got on the board with just under two minutes to play in the first half after the Highlanders made a mess of the kick-off but Rhiannon Byers scorched the Pirates defence after the half-time siren to give Inverell a 15-7 lead at the break.
The kick-off fumble was a rare blemish in the first half.
“I thought our ball movement was exceptional,” Beattie said.
He particularly noted the sharp work of Crisp twins Mykayla and Hannah.
When Byers streaked away to score her third virtually from the kick-off of the second half, the Highlanders looked on their way to the decider.
“I thought the game was ours for the taking quite comfortably,” Beattie said.
“I think we perhaps took the foot of the pedal a bit.”
That wasn’t to take anything away from Pirates, who were “very spirited” in the second half, he said, and played some great football.
Miah O’Sullivan got them back in it with a brilliant individual effort, standing up the Highlanders defence and running away 70m to make it 20-12 and set up a thrilling final four minutes.
Beattie felt the Highlanders probably didn’t manage the game as well as they should have in the closing stages, and put themselves under pressure.
They now enjoy a week off, or some of the players anyway, with Byers, Lauren Nott and Leah Wilson heading to Canberra with the UNE Lions for the second leg of the Uni 7’s Series.
Pirates now tackle Gunnedah in Moree on Saturday for the right to play the Highlanders for the silverware.