Northern delight as Axemen make final
PRAYERS of local footy fans were answered at Coramba Coliseum yesterday when Orara Valley downed Port Macquarie 42-24 in a rugged preliminary final to earn their ticket to the grand final confrontation with Woolgoolga.
Not since the Axemen downed the Comets at Advocate Park in 1997 has there been an all-northern season decider and in this case, the undisputed top pair has gone all the way.
Leading the charge was Orara hooker, Grant 'Gonzo' Douglass, who in other circumstances would never have played.
Forced off last Sunday with a painful groin tear he was only cleared to play after a testing workout half an hour before kick-off.
“To make sure I was fit, a bloody magpie decided to dive bomb me in the warm-up, so I reckon that was an omen,” he laughed.
Both teams began the day by trading tries and more than a few punches.
When tempers settled down the Axemen skipped ahead to lead 16-6.
But when Port centre Joel Asher was sin-binned, instead of lifting, Orara retreated into their shell and allowed the visitors to cross twice and retrieve the lead.
A try to replacement Jarrod Few just before the break lifted the Axemen and with Douglass crossing soon after the resumption, the cogs began falling into place with the wheels turning in favour of the minor premiers.
“I was worried by our discipline at the start, I think we fell into the trap a little bit but we got back to basics,” winning coach Darryl Fisher said.
“Everybody knows the flair we have when we get a platform going and the forwards gave us the roll and set it up to get the points.”
With plenty of sting left in their tail, the Sharks rallied and came rushing back.
Under-rated back rower Michael Bright and busy hooker Joe Cudmore tried to prise apart the Orara stitches but it only encouraged the Axemen to lift higher.
Orara's defence went to another level and they managed to amend their playing style according to the circumstances, the longer the match lasted.
Fisher wasn't totally convinced the lack of a hard workout in recent weeks that had been causing alarm bells to ring, had turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
“Yeah, it's something to think about in hindsight ... we lacked intensity against Woolgoolga and you could say not having the week off this time was an advantage,” he offered.
“Today has given us back our consistent routine and structure.”
With a further three tries on the board at the back end of the game the only time Orara relaxed was in the dying stages and Jeremy Lang took advantage to score his second (and last try) for the visitors.
Last week he was gloomy, this time around Fisher was beaming, especially when reminded of the extra test the swooping magpie had given his star forward.
“Must have had it in for Gonzo,” he laughed.
The match was another superb exhibition in a play-off series that has exceeded all expectations both with the quality of football and the crowds that have responded to the newly-introduced method of allocating venues.
All the minor premiers in each grade have made it through to next Sunday's historic grand finals in Woolgoolga and in all cases, save for the Under 18s where the third-placed Macleay Valley caused the boilover of the series to eject Port Macquarie from the running, the second qualifiers have also progressed.
• ORARA VALLEY AXEMEN 42 (Ricky McGrady, Matt Cheeseman, Hayden Fisher, Jarrod Few, Grant Douglass, Mike Castle, Ryan Walker, Sam Gilchrist tries; Scott Lacey 4, Joel Lacey goals) def PORT MACQUARIE SHARKS 24 (Jeremy Lang 2, Joel Asher, Joe Cudmore tries; Josh Mann 4 goals).
Scrums: Port Macquarie 9-7.
Penalties: Port Macquarie 11-8.
Errors: Port Macquarie 10, Orara Valley 5.
Best Players: Grant Douglass, Ryan Walker, Toa Nikora (Orara Valley). Michael Bright, Joe Cudmore, Matt Blake (Port Macquarie).
Reserve Grade: Orara Valley def Macleay Valley 52-10.
Under 18s: Macleay Valley def Port Macquarie 38-16.