Group 4 grand final: North Tamworth Bears edge Gunnedah Bulldogs 34-28

There are undoubtedly people who would prefer to see any team other than North Tamworth win a grand final.

EMOTION-CHARGED: Mitchell Sheridan, right, is embraced by teammates, including captain-coach Scott Blanch, left, after scoring. Photo: Gareth Gardner

EMOTION-CHARGED: Mitchell Sheridan, right, is embraced by teammates, including captain-coach Scott Blanch, left, after scoring. Photo: Gareth Gardner

The sight of the Bears celebrating a fifth straight premiership at Jack Woolaston Oval on Sunday, as tough man were reduced to tears and the team song was sung as though it were its last rendition, would have been as appealing to some people as the long queue to the toilets at the ground.

But as the old oval soaked up the last rays of a spectacular spring day, the Bears and their supporters were cocooned in a bubble. And in that exclusive space they marked another successful campaign with the exuberance of a team who had broken a grand final hoodoo.

Gunnedah, so gallant in defeat, could only look on and wonder what might have been – their best not quite good enough in a 34-28 loss.

SAVOUR IT: Jack Patterson, who scored the match-winner, won't forget this day in a hurry. Photo: Gareth Gardber

SAVOUR IT: Jack Patterson, who scored the match-winner, won't forget this day in a hurry. Photo: Gareth Gardber

That elusive premiership, the first since 1998, was dangled in front of them and cruelly ripped away when, late in the match, veteran No.7 Kieran Fisher grubbered nine metres out from the Bulldogs’ tryline and young replacement Jack Patterson dived on the ball in the in-goal area, breaking a 28-28 deadlock, in a match where the lead changed hands several times.

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Fisher scored an excellent solo try when he sliced Gunnedah up the centre from a scrum deep inside the Bulldogs’ half. He was not named man of the match. The honour went to another Bears veteran, fullback Chris Hunt, but the rugged No.7 must have come close.

If you could bottle Fisher you would have the distilled essence of what makes this side so special. This was his eighth straight grand final with Norths, and he played as though it were his first. As did the side’s other veterans.

Deep in the match, Fisher was flat on his back as Brad “Spitter” McManus, who had coached the side to three of their titles and now serves as a trainer, tried to work cramps from both his calves. Fisher rose and gingerly re-entered the fray, having given his all, but a bit more was needed.  

“They [the premierships] mean the same every time,” he said. “It doesn’t get any better than winning the comp … [I] couldn’t be happier, couldn’t be prouder of the boys.”

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“That's a grand final,” he added. “I’ve played in a few grand finals where they're lopsided or things go pear-shaped with discipline and stuff like that. But that [Sunday’s grand final] ebbed and flowed, try for try. The lead changed a couple of times – you knew you were in a good contest. We had to dig deep.”

Down 16-12 at halftime, the Bulldogs soon found themselves leading 22-16 after winger Nic Altmann gathered, at speed, a down-field kick from five-eighth DJ Smith and then grubbered, regathered the ball close to the tryline and scored. Centre Aaron Donnelly then pounced on a dropped ball to score under the posts.

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Norths responded when captain-coach Scott Blanch provided an inside ball to prop Shane Wadwell, who like Fisher was playing in his eighth consecutive grand final, and the big-match performer crashed over. Jake McManus’s converted and it was 22-22.

Five minutes later Hunt charged on to a ball close to the Bulldogs’ tryline and offloaded to replacement Mitchewll Sheridan, who scored.

It was 28-28 when regular No.7 Matt Brady, who started at fullback for the injured Dylan Lake, breached the Bears’ defences close to the tryline.

NORTH TAMWORTH 34 (Mitch Sheridan, Jack Patterson, Kieran Fisher, James Cooper, Shane Wadwell, Zac Nigro tries; Jake McManus 5 goals) d GUNNEDAH 28 (Callum Hayne, Hayden Jaeger, Nic Altmann, Aaron Donnelly, Matt Brady tries; Reece Jaeger 4 goals)