Coffs Rugby miracle finish
DISBELIEF was in the air when Coffs Rugby pulled off an incredible 28-27 win over Port Macquarie in today's major semi final at Coffs Coast Advocate Rugby Park.
Ten seconds from the end the home side looked gone to Gowings with the Pirates leading 27-21.
But winger Matt Spence managed to squeeze over in the dressing shed corner to bring the minor premiers to one point in arrears.
The pressure then transferred to captain Paul Butcher as he lined up the ball a couple of blades of grass in from the touch line.
That conversion kick after full time would take the game into folklore.
"Straight off the boot I knew it was going through," he said.
"If it feels good, you know you're there.
"You dream of days like this."
Tragically for the Pirates - who almost everybody on the ground admits were marginally the better side on the day - fairytale finishes don't always happen and they have to win next weekend's preliminary final to get another crack at their tormentors.
Winning coach Geoff Mould was almost beside himself with delight.
"You won't see a better game here than that one," he yelled while slapping his skipper on the back.
"They've plucked victory out of certain defeat and almost left me speechless."
The ebbs and flows of the contest made it one of the truly great games of rugby, although that probably didn't become evident until referee Andrew Birch blew his whistle for the last time.
Right from the opening kick-off when Butcher was tackled off the ground and received the first penalty, there were hints this would be no ordinary game.
Coach Mould promised surprises and delivered one by a clear swap of regular fullback Kris Kent with regular fly half Stu McVicar.
By the second stanza, Pirates had adapted to the switch and adopted tactics to rectify the situation but in the interim, Kent caused them awful problems with his constant presence in the attacking line.
Port posted first points through a penalty to star pivot Sam McNeil.
But it was Kent's collusion with Adam Keene close to the line which saw the first try posted and when he linked up with Mika Kama soon after for a second crossing, it seemed like Coffs might race away with the match.
In the period leading up to intermission, it wasn't so much that the home side fell away but more like the visitors found their rhythm.
"That's where Port stepped up in speed and had everything going their way," Mould admitted.
"They had far more pace, were quicker to the breakdown, controlled the tempo of the game and for a while there, we had few answers other than to keep hanging in."
Pirates champion custodian Tim Platt sparked the revival by wrong-footing two defenders, before handing Joel Rabbidge a clear run to the line.
Again they ramped up the speed of the match, taking the lead right on half time with a simple try in the corner.
Not long after the restart, Coffs almost scored when McVicar cruised onto a sublime pass, handed the ball to Spence who was dragged down a fingernail scrape from the line.
Coffs scored with a try to Kama ... and again the Pirates replied to regain a 27-21 lead.
That's where it appeared likely to finish, with Coffs spending long periods down Port's end of the field without being able to get across the stripe.
However, there were still many more thrills to come.
Mould introduced Vile Vatuvili at the same time as former home club star Joel 'Woody' Riddle entered the fray and their next two collisions in centerfield were nothing short of spectacular.
With the sands running out, the scent of desperation - if not panic - hung in the late afternoon air and with less than a minute on the clock and the home side on the wrong side of the half way line, Pirates were almost certain of victory.
But those final seconds turned it all around into what seemed an impossible comeback.
The lead may have changed seven times throughout the afternoon but only one that last 'lead' counted.
The Pirates were shattered.
They were brave and deserving but premium sport can sometimes be so cruel.
"In that last 20 minutes we tried so many things and I thought we'd never be able to score," Mould said.
"Again we had trouble with the line-outs (late in the day) after some luck at the start and we didn't show the same pace as Port.
"We missed a few things but I'll keep those to myself for the next match.
"However we did score some beautiful tries and a draw could have been a fair result.
"But that would have meant extra time and I doubt the old heart would have stood up."
The saying may be a cliche but this was a game for the ages.
The grand final will be played at Coffs Coast Advocate Rugby Park on Saturday week with the opponent still to be determined.
COFFS RUGBY 28 (M Kama 2 A Keene M Spence tries P Butcher 4 conversions) bt PORT MACQUARIE PIRATES 27 (J Rabbidge R Owens L Bassett tries S McNeil 2 penalties and 3 conversions)
Second grade: Coffs Harbour Crabs bt Hastings Valley Vikings 10-7
Under 18s: Port Macquarie Pirates bt Kempsey Cannonballs 22-12