Dubbo CYMS captain Jarryn Powyer says he'll let other people decide if his side is the one to beat in the Peter McDonald Premiership this year but he couldn't deny the Fishies produced one of their best performances of the season on Sunday.
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In a high-class, physical encounter at Apex Oval, CYMS defeated Mudgee Dragons 16-10 in a much-anticipated top-of-the-table battle that delivered on the hype.
Both sides had only lost once this season heading into the crossover match and possession of the best record in the competition was up for grabs.
The Dragons levelled things up shortly after the break when the hard-running Clay Priest crashed over but with 15 minutes to go barnstorming CYMS centre Jeremy Thurston crashed over for his second try of the day.
It proved to be the match-winner despite both sides throwing everything at each other in the final 10 minutes.
Powyer described the performance as "really, really pleasing" but wouldn't buy into whether the result meant his side was now the one to beat in 2022.
"That's for other people to talk about," he smiled.
"Our whole group, we don't really pay attention to any of that. We're always one week at a time.
"We've got some boys who have been around for awhile and who know what it takes to win a comp. There's never a statement made during the season that guarantees you anything at the end.
"We'll enjoy this one, watch Origin together and then on Monday morning we'll recover and get ready for Forbes. That will be a big one again."
As has been the case for much of the season, the young newcomers to first grade added plenty of energy for CYMS.
While the leadership and go-forward provided by front-rowers Powyer and Ben Marlin, in particular, was vital the likes of Mitchell Cleary and Fletcher Haycock provided real spark off the bench.
Haycock entered the match shortly after Mudgee had levelled it up al 10-all and he did all he could from dummyhalf to keep CYMS moving forward against a powerful Mudgee pack.
"They're a pretty physical side and pretty big across the park. They keep coming," Powyer said of Mudgee.
"They've got a lot of heart and credit to our boys. We've got a lot of young boys and right to the final minute someone like Fletcher Haycock was getting us in front.
"It makes you want to keep coming back and play footy. I'm very proud and love being part of that sort of stuff."
While Powyer was filled with pride at full-time, Mudgee captain Jack Littlejohn was left dejected.
Not for the first time this season the Dragons didn't help themselves at key moments on Sunday and conceded a number of penalties while also coughed up possession under little pressure on numerous occasions.
The result marked the first time the Dragons - who were without lively hooker Jack Beasley on Sunday - had been beaten since a 22-20 loss to Forbes back in round two.
"That was very disappointing, that one," former NRL half Littlejohn said.
"We weren't at our best today. The penalties killed us. I think the penalty count would have been pretty high in their (CYMS') favour and that's no disrespect to them. They earned the right to get them and we just made silly errors.
"It's something we battle with every week. Not so much the penalties, but the silly mistakes and then compounding them with another error or penalty. We've got to be better in that aspect of the game."
Given the intensity of the contest, many in the loud crowd at Apex Oval said at full-time it felt like a finals contest.
The physicality of the contest and ability of big game players like Thurston to stand up when it mattered added to that feeling but Littlejohn said it was too early to say if Sunday's match was a preview of something to come at finals time.
"There's a lot of good teams in both groups. I think we're both in the mix, no-one can deny that but there's a lot of strong teams in Group 10 and a lot of strong teams in Group 11 who will be pushing for a grand final spot," he said.
"It's a bit early to tell. There was a big crowd and there was a lot of hype around it but I definitely don't think we're the favourites to take it out at the moment."
The Dragons started Sunday's match like the best team in the competition and opened the scoring in the third minute when Corin Smith darted out from dummyhalf down the blindside and caught the defence napping.
Nathan Orr's sideline conversion attempt missed and from there CYMS started to dominate possession.
They were rewarded in the ninth minute when winger Jack Allen went over out wide and while the Fishies kept pressing and forced a number of drop-outs, Mudgee's defence held firm.
It wasn't until the final five of the half the pressure finally paid, and Thurston popped up on the right edge from a scrum and sliced through to set-up a 10-4 half-time lead.
After a scrappy start to the second half the Dragons marched downfield after a penalty and prop Priest proved too hard to stop when running onto the ball close to the line.
The match developed into a real arm wrestle before Thurston muscled his way over on 65 minutes and Brad Pickering's successful conversion proved to be the final points of the game.
"We talked at half-time about it maybe being a different game in the second half but they were excellent," Powyer said of Mudgee's consistent high standard.
"They just kept digging in and that's why this competition is so good. We love having games like that."
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