PANTHERS have set up an all-Bathurst Group 10 first division grand final thanks to their 22-12 win over the Orange Hawks at Wade Park on Sunday.
Panthers’ strong first half took them to a 14-0 lead at the break and ultimately proved the difference. Hawks regained their composure in the second half by Panthers held strong.
After dropping just two games on their way to winning the minor premiership Hawks lost both of their finals encounters, they were beaten 14-6 by St Pat’s in the major semi-final then eliminated by Panthers in Sunday’s preliminary final.
“I’m over the moon,” Panthers halfback and player-coach Jarrod Gafa said.
“It was an unreal effort from the boys, we’d only played Hawks once (during the regular season) but we knew they had a big pack.
“We just had to make sure we kicked early, turned them around and kept turning up in defence.
“We did that and I think our good start certainly helped, we kept the pressure on too and even when they did score a couple of tries we didn’t panic.”
Gafa said his troops are champing at the bit for another crack at the Saints too, who they blew a 16-point lead against in the qualifying final three weeks ago.
“We had them on the ropes there a few weeks ago, we should’ve put them away and didn’t but we’ve got another crack at them now. Anything can happen,” Gafa said.
Hawks player-coach Jack Middleton guaranteed his team will be back with the same intensity next year.
“The week off I think maybe made us a bit toey I think, but that’s no excuse for our performance. Errors, discipline, we needed to fix those areas and we didn’t, and didn’t get the job done,” he said.
“The last two games we’ve started slowly then come out firing in the second half, we dug deep there like we have all year but it just wasn’t our day.”
Middleton has the bigger picture in mind though and, directly after the loss, gathered his troops together to let them know how proud he was of their efforts.
“We’ve been through plenty of tough times in the last few years and now that we’ve seen what we can do, I know for a fact these boys will stick together,” Middleton said.
Panthers’ early lead on Sunday came via Braydon Wicks and Jace Hood tries, with Ben Dolan converting both and landing a penalty goal too.
The two blues roared back into the contest after half-time though, scoring back-to-back, converted four pointers through Liam Brodrick and Toby Collins to slash the gap to just two points.
There was still 20 to go at that point and it did seem like the tide was turning in Hawks’ favour, until Panthers stopped it.
The men in black finished with a flourish, Adrian Aveiro scoring before Callum Young dived over as well.
Both kicks were waved away, but it mattered little, Panthers had done enough to qualify for their third grand final in the last five years. They’ll be gunning for their second win in that period, too.