Panthers on prowl
IT WAS not until the final five minutes that they could feel secure but Sawtell moved past Macleay Valley yesterday to seal their place in the VB Gold Group 2 rugby league grand final against Nambucca Heads.
The Panthers won the preliminary final 48-38 after scores were locked at 22-all at half-time at Kempsey's Verge Street Stadium.
Home side Macleay opened the scoring in the second minute and the Panthers struck back to level two minutes later, setting a pattern repeated throughout the match.
The game featured its share of big hits but the tone was set for frenetic attack every time Mustangs halfback Anthony Cowan entered the fray ... and that was very, very often.
His performance was mesmerising and if the game was played over and over, nine times out of 10, Cowan's extraordinary talents might have won the day.
But the Mustangs were unable to seal the match as the Panthers refused to concede.
Panthers coach Rohan Loudon agreed it wasn't as pretty as last week's victory over Coffs Harbour but said the players had maintained their composure and did enough to win.
"I don't want to put any negatives on the match but it's always good to win down here," he said.
"It was terrific to fight it out like we did as it's hard against the Mustangs."
Sawtell delivered the first shock when five-eighth Ryan Prevett was ruled out just before kick-off.
The second near-disaster was losing workaholic lock Darren Horne in the 34th minute which stunned the team momentarily and caused a costly lapse in concentration.
Cowan stole a march with a try off a rebound, only for Damien Irvine to race in seconds later with a carbon copy of the move.
New halves combination Danny Russell and Adam Loudon were causing the Mustangs plenty of headaches and Sawtell were making big metres with rookie hooker Nick English proving a perfect counter to the wiles of Cowan.
"For three weeks in a row I've marked Nick as our best player," Loudon said.
"He gets away cleanly and gets the team rolling forward.
"The kids want to be a footy player and wants to excel.
"He knows when to run, he knows where he has to run and gets us on the front foot."
With Cowan and skipper Willie Lockwood working opposite sides of the ruck, Macleay were dangerous but that momentum was stymied when appeals for two tries were turned down.
With 11 minutes remaining, the scores were locked at 34-all and signs that the home side's condition was failing started to appear.
Danny Russell kicked a penalty to give Sawtell the lead and minutes later English ducked under a swinging arm on the Macleay 20m line, tossed a dummy and darted over next to the posts.
Josh Bryant posted his second try on the bell to wrap up the win and seal the panthers' place in the decider.
Macleay president Mike Spalding was emotional when asked to comment about the best season in the club's 17-year history.
"The best side always wins on the day and Sawtell were terrific," he said graciously.
"Just the same, I'm just so proud of our boys who have shown so much character to come this far.
"It hasn't always been easy and there have been a couple of hurdles along the way but they have been great and showed it here today."