Orange Emus’ grip on the 2018 Blowes Clothing Cup minor premiership tightened after Saturday’s nail-biting 26-25 victory, but that clench proved a touch delicate late against a Bathurst Bulldogs side steaming home with the wettest of wet sails.
The greens controlled all bar 15 minutes of the round 12 clash against Dean Oxley’s outfit, leading 26-3 nearing the final 10 minutes at Endeavour Oval before the visiting Dogs rode a wave of momentum almost as strong as the gale-force wind at their back in the second stanza.
Replacement fullback Kurt Weekes booted a penalty goal in the 77th minute to pin the margin back to 26-20 and when skipper Peter Fitzsimmons slid over out wide right on full-time, the right boot of Weekes again had the chance to land a telling blow.
But the howling wind, incessant rain and seriously sloppy surface made life tough all day, and nailing that match-winner from the sideline was almost impossible – Weekes’ shot was picked up late by the wind and sailed left of the uprights.
The missed conversion wasn’t the disappointing part for the visitors, though.
A terrible opening half where both Joel Harper and Fitzsimmons were dished yellow cards allowed Emus to score the only two tries of the first period, through Scott McLean and then a penalty try right on half-time, while the prodigious boot of Nigel Staniforth aided in the hosts securing a 21-3 advantage at the break.
That lead was bumped out to 26-3 when prop Michael Graham picked and drove his way over and looked to be enough to land Emus a statement victory over the club’s nearest rivals to the 2018 crown.
But the blue and golds roared back to life, sending a message of their own.
First-place Emus now enjoys a seven-point buffer on the Dogs in second place, with three rounds remaining.
But Emus co-coach Jeremy Wallace gets the feeling Bathurst is already looking forward to its next trip to Endeavour, more than likely in the major semi-final on August 11.
“You make a few mistakes and it opens that door … we made those errors and the Bulldogs knocked the door down and got right back into it,” Wallace said.
“They fought really well to get back in it, but in saying that we let ourselves down.
“As good as our game management was in the opening half, it slipped off in the last 20 minutes on the back of too many of our own errors.”
Bulldogs coach, Oxley was immensely proud of his troops after they were dished up a lesson in territorial rugby in horrible conditions in the first half.
They responded in earnest, though, in the second half, accepting the challenge and proving the Bulldogs will be serious challengers for this year’s major prize.
I’m proud of the boys to be able to respond like they did in the second half.Bulldogs coach Dean Oxley.
There’s a big if to throw in there though – and Oxley knows his side’s discipline, especially at Endeavour Oval, simply has to improve.
The Dogs were pinged by referee Richard Madden multiple times for being off-side, Harper eventually the man given a 10-minute stint on the sidelines as a result of repeat breaches, while Fitzsimmons was marched for dissent a minute before the break.
“We spoke about our off-side line and we spoke about our discipline and unfortunately it worked against us,” Oxley said.
“We take ownership of that. We don’t blame anybody for the decisions, it’s up to us to control that.
“It’s disappointing to lose today, I thought we would win … but I’m proud of the boys to be able to respond like they did in the second half.”
In a sign of how tough the kicking conditions were, the normally reliable Staniforth had two relatively simple shots at conversion sail wide while a penalty from in front, but 43 metres out, also missed.
Lachie Harris was tremendous for the hosts, as were props Nas Havealeta and Graham and fullback Staniforth.
Their counterparts, too, Aaron Booby and Harper laid a monumental foundation at scrum time in a narrowly beaten outfit.
- ORANGE EMUS 26 (Michael Graham, Scott McLean, penalty try tries; Nigel Staniforth conv; Nigel Staniforth 3 pen goals) def BATHURST BULLDOGS 25 (Aaron Booby, Joel Harper, Peter Fitzsimmons tries; Josh Weekes, Kurt Weekes conv; Josh Weekes, Kurt Weekes pen goals).