Central North preliminary finals: Gunnedah women defeat Pirates

Gunnedah coach John Hickey will dash back from the Gold Coast and forgo the International Triathlon Union World Championships standard distance event after his Red Devils’ women’s side pulled off a stunning preliminary final upset at Moree on Saturday.

Few outside of the Red Devils’ would have given the rugby novices much of a chance of playing for the silverware, especially when they lost their first 12 games, but they will be, after overpowering minor premiers Pirates in the second half.

Fiona Laurie sealed the 20-14 victory with a 50m runaway with 30 seconds remaining.

Hickey was still on a high on Sunday, as he and wife Donna made their way to the Gold Coast where they will compete in the sprint distance triathlon on Thursday.

Both also qualified for the standard distance event.

It will be held on Sunday, which meant they would have missed the grand final, so it was a pretty easy decision to make to withdraw.

“We were hoping we’d miss it (the race),” he said.

Not wanting to tempt fate though they took their time trial bikes up with with them.

Torika Nadruku scores to put Gunnedah ahead in Saturday's women's 7s preliminary final. Photo: Lincoln Stewart

Torika Nadruku scores to put Gunnedah ahead in Saturday's women's 7s preliminary final. Photo: Lincoln Stewart

Pirates were first to put points on the board in the final, Phoebe McLoughlin running a good line and slicing through the Red Devils defence.

The Red Devils were swift to respond. After a strong run from Lana Botrell from the kick-off they managed to release the ball to Bec Smyth, who with little space to work with burst away 70m to score.

Exploiting some space on the short side, captain Sarah Stewart sent Laurie away for her first and to put the Red Devils ahead but a brilliant individual effort from McLoughlin right on half-time saw Pirates take the advantage into the break 14-10.

Right in the contest, Hickey’s message to his side was to ‘stick to the game plan and have faith in it and back each other’.

“They did that really well. They certainly wanted it. They showed that in every action,” he said.

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Torika Nadruku powered her way to the line midway through the second half to put the Red Devils back in front, their superior size proving a big advantage against the lighter and smaller Pirates side.

The Red Devils were able to make good metres through their forwards and draw in Pirates defenders, which then opened up space for their speedsters.

Hickey said they had expected their toughest game of the year and that is what they got.

“Pirates are a great team,” he said, adding that the one thing he told his side was that if they were going to win it they would win it in the last minute.

He has experienced his share of joyous moments over his extensive coaching career and said it was great watching the reaction of the players and supporters when that final whistle blew.

Torika Nadruku lifts up Gunnedah coach John Hickey in the aftermath of Saturday's preliminary final win.

Torika Nadruku lifts up Gunnedah coach John Hickey in the aftermath of Saturday's preliminary final win.

“The players on the bench and the girls on the field, and my wife, I could see how excited they were,” he said.

“They were the thrill for me.”

And while for many the Red Devils might seem somewhat unlikely grand finalists Hickey said he “always planned on being there”.