GROUP 2: Crucial clash a see-sawing affair at South Grafton
RUGBY LEAGUE: Sawtell Panthers hung on to secure a crucial 30 to 28 victory over South Grafton Rebels at McKittrick Park yesterday.
Both sides went into the round 14 clash equal on 14 points and desperate for another two points to get some breathing space in the top five.
A minute's silence to honour former Rebels five-eighth Jason Skinner, who died of a heart attack during the week aged 48, preceded kick off.
However, it didn't inspire a positive start with an error in the very first set putting Rebels under immediate pressure and forced to defend their line from the outset.
But it was the Rebels who would open the scoring with the try of the match in just the 3rd minute. An attacking grubber was intercepted by Rebels hooker Izack Smidt who shot into the clear before avoiding the last defenders, proceeding to dance, weave and spin his way through several waves of defenders and eventually linking with left centre Luke French to finish off the play.
Halfback Ant Cowan's first involvement in a Rebels jersey since winning the premiership in 2015 was to convert the try for a 6-0 lead.
Rebels doubled their lead in the 11th minute on the back of a soft mistake from Sawtell coming out of their own endzone. A set play from Cowan set up Luke French, who showed some footwork to slide in towards the posts for his double.
Rebels were asked to defend their own line on several occasions during the first quarter, but it was not until the 18th minute that Damian Dumas found a way through. The five-eighth shaped to pass but instead scooted through untouched, his try converted by Zac O'Brien.
The match was 2018 Panthers recruit Austin Cooper's first return to his former hunting ground and he scored against his former club in the 27th minute on the end of a short grubber in the corner to bring Panthers to within two.
After Rebels failed to capitalise on some gifted opportunities, the visitors took a 16-12 lead when O'Brien brushed off two defenders to reach over and score in the 33rd minute.
Rebels were soon reduced to 12-men when, after a succession of penalties, Cowan was sinbinned for blatantly staying down in the tackle too long.
However, the Rebels showed resolve to keep the Panthers out during a tough final five minutes to the session.
Five minutes into the second half Rebels hit back when Smidt regathered a kick off the post to score. Nick McGrady added the extras with Cowan in the bin to lead 18-16.
Smidt was one of Rebels' most enterprising players during the first half, but he succumbed to injury in the 48th minute of the game.
The injuries mounted and soon French was down clutching at his ankle in back play. But while he waited for attention off the field he refused an interchange, which almost came back to bite his team.
The Panthers predictably found the the Rebels short on the right and centre Jase Long strolled over, but it was called back for a forward pass. A penalty to the Rebels quickly diffused the pressure and then O'Brien was sent to the sinbin to turn the tables back in favour of the red and whites.
On the end of the next set McGrady scored on the right to extend the lead to 22-16.
However, the Panthers were next to score with hooker Tyrone Stephenson diving over. However, Dumas missed the conversion to equalise from 10m to the right of the uprights to ironic cheers from the home crowd.
They took the lead back 24-22 in the 69th through lock Jedd Mitchell after concerted pressure. This time O'Brien hit the post from a regulation conversion attempt.
Sawtell were then marched up field on the back three consecutive penalties, including a questionable call against Rebels veteran Grant Stevens for interference in the play the ball at marker defence.
Inevitably the Panthers scored again through Stevenson who picked up his double and all but sealed the deal at 30-22.
Rebels refused to give in, and with two minutes on the clock Kieron Johnson Heron went through to score, Cowan's quick conversion gave the Rebels one last chance. On the third tackle Cowan attempted a chip and chase but it was collected by fullback Robert Brilley to secure the win for the visitors.
It was a strong showing from the Sawtell club who prevailed 72-30 in Reserve Grade and led 44-2 in Under-18s before the undermanned Rebels forfeited at half-time.
Rebels took the honours in the opening match of the day winning 12-10 in a Women's League Tag thriller. Relle Dononvan and Carmel Walker found the tryline for the Rebels with Jozee Adamson kicking two conversions.
FULLTIME: SAWTELL PANTHERS 30 (Tyran Stevenson 2, Austin Cooper, Damien Dumas, Jase Long, Jedd Mitchell tries; Zac O'Brien4 goals) defeated SOUTH GRAFTON REBELS 28 (Luke French 2, Izack Smidt, Nick McGrady, Kieron Johnson Heron tries; Ant Cowan 3, McGrady conversions) at McKittrick Park.