Mustangs gallop back on Seahorses
IN THE most sensational finish of the season, Macleay Valley came back from the dead to edge out Woolgoolga 28-26 in Sunday's major preliminary semi final at the Sports Reserve.
The Mustangs were in front until the 68th minute when Blake Seymour crossed for his third try of the afternoon and gave the Seahorses their first taste of the lead.
With five minutes left on the clock, Macleay was drowning in their own half and seemed to be going nowhere.
But big prop Steve Walker latched on to a flukey pass and went hard and straight for 50 metres up the centre to take play to the home side's quarter.
Following two quick plays to the left, the supercharged team from Kempsey was back in front and ready to claim a memorable victory.
Asked what he was feeling while watching his workaholic front-rower go scampering up field like a gazelle, coach Willie Lockwood showed how tough he can be on his men.
"I wanted to have a go at him for not putting his head down and going all the way on his own," he said.
"Instead he was looking for a little bloke with a bit more speed to pass the ball to."
But finally, Lockwood cracked it for a grin.
"Nah, I thought it was bloody brilliant, actually.
"They worked hard for that and it was so much better by having to fight back when it could easily have gone against us."
The way the Mustangs started they should never have wound up behind the eight-ball.
They ran to 16-0 in the twinkling of an eye after scoring three quick tries off the first three Woolgoolga errors.
Right from the get-go their four mercurial master playmakers - Cowan, Moran, Lardner and Webster - were in the thick of the action.
But it wasn't a just a four ring circus.
Macleay showed football nous in every position as each man combined to cover up their own mistakes and make the Seahorses pay dearly for the ones they made.
Inevitability, Woopi came rushing back into the contest and began making inroads.
"We punished them with speed around the ruck but fell down by not going wide when they tightened up," Lockwood said.
Referee Jason Townley caned the visitors 9-4 in the first half penalties and 8-5 in the second.
Apart from a handful of high tackles by both sides and a 'flop' here and there, the overwhelming majority of whistle blasts came from ruck infringements.
It's been that way all year and if the players haven't woken up to that after 18 competition rounds, no use reminding the coaches.
Mitch Dockrey ran off Matt Cheeseman to score for the home side four minutes before the break and a penalty goal to Ant Cowan in the 39th minute made it 18-6 to the 'Stangs.
They should have gone on with the job.
Instead, Woolgoolga got their groove back and apart from the heartbreaking final moments, claimed the limelight for the last session.
"Clearly not good enough in the first half," coach Greg Shuttleworth admitted.
"The second half?
"We were the best by controlling the football and getting through our sets."
Jeremy Taylor scored off another Woopi fumble soon after the resumption but then, the home side opened up with all guns blazing.
With Cheeseman and Grant Stevens running all over Macleay's little men and the trailing runners cleaning up the inevitable scraps on offer, the tries began to appear.
Seymour scored a brace of them within five minutes and Pledger made an opposing winger look very, very ordinary with his blistering gallop down the left hand side to cross in the corner.
Suddenly it was 'game on' with Woopi two points behind at 24-22.
Disaster almost intervened when Matt Grayson was sin-binned but two minutes later, Townley evened-up the numbers when he sent Tony Duncan to the sideline for a 10 minute cooling off period.
Macleay wanted to argue the toss and were caught off guard badly when Seymour saw his chance and promptly made it a hat trick.
But once equilibrium was restored, Steve Walker decided to make himself hero of the week and crashed up the middle to turn the game around.
With Lockwood likely to return in the major semi against Nambucca Heads next Sunday, he may be able to bring his young stars under control and cut down the errors that could easily upset the campaign.
"They're only kids and sometimes kids get carried away," he said.
"We toughed it out and came back when it counted.
"Don't forget the side carried injuries through this - 'Chicken' McMurray for instance - but we hung in and this is what you play for."
Woolgoolga get one more chance back on home soil next Saturday when it hosts a red hot Sawtell in a sudden death eliminator.
Until then the Seahorses will be sweating on a judiciary finding in the case of Nick Monckton.
The winger was sent off by referee Townley after the full time bell as players were leaving the field and has been charged with single sentence abuse of a match official.
MACLEAY VALLEY MUSTANGS 28 (C Lardner 2 S Moran A Cowan J Taylor tries A Cowan 4 goals) bt WOOLGOOLGA SEAHORSES 26 (B Seymour 3 M Dockrey M Pledger tries W Fernando 3 goals)
Scrums: Macleay Valley 11-4
Penalties: Woolgoolga 17-9
Errors: Woolgoolga 8, Macleay Valley 8
Referee: Jason Townley
At Woolgoolga Sports Reserve, Woolgoolga
Reserve grade: Woolgoolga bt Sawtell 32-16
Under 18s: Macksville bt Nambucca Heads 22-20
Group 2 has delayed making the notification of next weekend's venues and referee appointments until Monday.