Group 2 get big fright but progress to CRL championship semi
GROUP 2's senior team is into the semi finals of the AAMI Country Rugby League Tier 2 Championships for the first time in four seasons after breaking a six match losing streak.
Hosting today's opening game of the series at BCU International Stadium in Coffs Harbour, the Redbacks survived an extraordinary comeback by title-holder Group 11 to win 26-18, after leading 24-0 at the break.
Captain Danny Russell described the second half as "scary" but for coach Warren Gilkinson and his support staff watching from the sideline, the back end of the game turned into 36 minutes of frustration and sheer terror before a late penalty goal by the skipper put an unlikely upset out of the question.
The home side was almost too perfect in the first period and in hindsight, it may have been a bridge too far to ask for another 40 minutes of flawless football.
Group 11 got underway with a rush and the Redbacks were forced to defend for three sets of six.
Once they did get possession, fullback Scott Street opened the scoring by running off a perfectly-timed Matt Cheeseman pass.
The big prop from Woolgoolga and his front row partner Blake Keeping from Sawtell dominated from the start, setting a platform that gave Group 2's running men plenty of space to manoeuvre.
Not only did the side lift to great heights in defence but with their tails up, even the dodgy passes managed to stick to the fingers.
Three more tries leading up to half time was a fair reward and in his pep talk, Gilkinson simply asked for more of the same.
"Let's try a few more percentages," he suggested.
"We only turned the ball over twice in that half but I want more when we get to their line.
"Don't run one-out but instead, play for the angles and have the ball coming in when we attack in their quarter."
However, the game spun full circle when enigmatic Group 11 coach Dennis Moran came on at the start of the second half.
The bush legend was not supposed to play but he signed the sheet after one of his players up and left camp overnight and headed home to Dubbo.
Moran almost stole the show in the second half, aided and abetted by the lethargy that overcame the Group 2 players.
Prop Moses Manu started the ball rolling when he went over in the 44th minute.
The visitors then bombed two tries - once when the winger took a forward pass on a clear run to the corner and again when a fumble occurred with the line wide open - with both line breaks sparked by Moran.
With Group 2 making heavy weather, Manu scored his second try, minutes before another four-pointer went begging.
Next up Wellington second-rower Justin Toomey-White scored an absolute gem that ranged over 90 metres of the field.
It began when Coffs Harbour replacement fullback Nathan Curry put a huge kick downfield.
It bounced horribly for Group 11 and had winger Aidan Ryan racing back in desperation to clean up near his line.
But instead of pouring through to add more pressure, Group 2 stood and watched as the speedster broke back downfield.
He beat five poor attempts to tackle him before loading up Toomey-White just over the half way line and waving his club mate goodbye as he went sailing downfield.
Now aware they were in trouble, the Redbacks came out of their slumber to muscle up in defence.
Russell's penalty goal in the 76th minute was their saving grace.
Unbelievably, it was a game that almost got away.
"We were nearly perfect at the start but got lethargic and thought we'd done enough," Gilkinson said.
"This is the next level up from club football and the boys will learn and improve 100% for our next start.
"They will know now you can't set up a lead like that and slacken off."
The other alarming statistic was Group 2 only completed two sets in the second half.
"We've got to lift that for sure," the coach added.
"But we'll rebuild now, check the injuries and go ahead to the next one wherever and whenever it may be."
GROUP 2 REDBACKS 26 (Scott Street 2, Andrew Smith, Darren Horne tries; Danny Russell 5 goals) def GROUP 11 18 (Moses Manu 2, Justin Toomey-White tries; Corey Stanley 3 goals)
Penalties: Group 2 10-5
Errors; Group 11 13, Group 2 12