IT won't be a grand final known for its flashy plays or scintillating offence but what the Bathurst Bulldogs will remember most about Saturday afternoon's Blowes Cup first grade decider is the way they played with determination.
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The blue and gold's passion led them to a gritty 15-13 comeback triumph over long-time rivals Orange Emus in front of a jubilant home crowd at Ashwood Park, where a scoreless final 25 minutes of match provided many heart-in-the-mouth moments for supporters of both clubs.
A combination of windy conditions and big game pressure saw both the Bulldogs and Emus commit an uncharacteristically high number of errors and penalties.
Bulldogs found themselves down 13-0 eight minutes before half-time but a much-needed try before the break gave the home side a nice dose of confidence.
After Bulldogs claimed the lead in the second half with a Kurt Weekes penalty the two teams spent plenty of phases close to each other's try lines, though neither could land the decisive blow they craved.
Remarkably, the two point margin somehow proved enough for the Bulldogs to come away with the premiership - their first since the 2019 season, where they also overcome the Emus at home.
Bulldogs coach Dean Oxley said that while many games this season have been won by his side this season on the back of electrifying attack, the grand final success came from their efforts off the ball.
"Emus were coming here today looking for payback for 2019. She was hard work. The defence of both sides stood out," he said.
"There were a few times there where Emus could have taken it away from us, and that would have been heart breaking, and the boys just found another level.
"Credit goes to a young group of fellas who decided to get around something again this year. They worked so hard to get the job done. They've played clinical footy all year but today was just a grind, and that was all about spirit.
"The culture of this club is amazing and the commitment from the players has been outstanding all year. It's great for Bathurst, and it's great to get us out of the COVID haze and enjoying community sport again."
Oxley said the future is bright for a Bulldogs side with plenty of youth and no shortage of spirit.
"There's eight guys out there who haven't played in a first grade grand final before and now they've won one, so they're all the better for that," he said.
"I've spoken to a couple of people about the fact that we're in a position where we can keep rolling forward and keep playing positive footy."
Emus captain Nigel Staniforth said a couple of missed chances across the tense final half hour of the game proved to be costly.
"You've got to convert all your chances. In the first half as well we were probably a little bit off. Then there's two missed tackles and they're in for tries," he said.
"There were a couple of tough calls on our side. I got the ball over the line and then there was another off a forward pass, but that's the way it goes. The refs call that and that's their job.
"It's been a hard slog this year. Everyone knows what's happening on and off the field, so it would have been nice to get the reward for that today. I'm still really proud of all the guys, we just probably left a little bit out there.
"Well done to Bathurst. They're deserved winners."
Emus almost got off to a dream start when an errant Bulldogs pass put the visitors in great scoring position, but a pass to the right wing sailed into touch.
However, Emus got themselves on the board in the fourth minute when a charged down Bulldogs kick saw the ball wind up right in the hands of Simon Uphill.
Angus Roberts nailed the challenging right sideline conversion for an early 7-0 lead.
Bulldogs had a strong run of possession over the following 10 minutes but were thwarted each time they got within their opponents' 22m area thanks to Emus' eagerness at the breakdown.
Roberts rewarded his team for those efforts in the 19th minute when his penalty pushed the lead out to 10.
The Emus flyhalf then made it 13-0 with his second successful penalty kick of the day.
Bulldogs brought the ball immediately upfield and turned up the heat on the Emus defence close to their try line.
When the Emus committed their third straight infraction close to their own line Digby Cooper was shown the yellow card by referee Nathan Pearce.
Justin Mobbs capitalised on the numbers advantage when he scored for the Bulldogs three minutes out from half-time.
Kurt Weekes' conversion made it a 13-7 game at half-time.
Adam Plummer had the home crowd in full voice in the 51st minute thanks to his solo effort, weaving his way around several Emus defenders to score down the right side of the paddock.
Weekes' missed conversion left Bulldogs with a one point deficit, but that quickly turned into a two point advantage less than four minutes later when Weekes made amends with a successful penalty shot.
The Bulldogs kicker showed off his defensive chops soon after when he chased down AJ McNiven, who had broken into the home side's half of the ground with a strong run.
Emus continued to threaten the Bulldogs inside their own territory with a series of positive plays in attack.
Staniforth thought he was across the line in the 65th minute when he was put into space but the pass out to his left wing was called forward.
Another successful chargedown attempt from the Emus just moments later nearly led to another try on the back of desperate defence.
Bulldogs saw through the dangerous period to get the ball back up the other end of the ground and eventually set up a penalty attempt for Weekes with five minutes to go.
However, his shot went left of the mark and it left the Bulldogs with a nervous run towards full-time as they continued to defend a narrow lead - which they managed to do successfully.
Bulldogs centre Plummer was named man of the match.
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