Third placed Byron Bay travelled to fourth placed Ballina on Saturday. And yes, the Bay’s stellar season continued with a rousing 21-17 victory.
Ballina were heavily favoured to avenge their shock 20-10 first round loss to the Bay. Ballina are the only team to defeat competition leaders Lismore this season and they boasted a full strength squad brimming with representative quality.
Byron’s much underestimated forward pack silenced the big crowd, dismantling their rivals in the first half to lead 11-0 at the break. Inspired by captain Pete Shaw, the white wall of Byron Bay defence was so effective it took Ballina close to 40 minutes to make their way into the attacking quarter.
Byron had taken a deserved 6-0 lead from two Will Cox penalty conversions before Ballina lost their prop to the sin bin midway through the half. Star No.8 Michael Armstrong was already unstoppable but against a depleted pack he was rampant. Armstrong scored from the back of the scrum with a familiar burst of acceleration.
The blast from the Ballina coach resonated around the ground at halftime and the home side returned with renewed purpose and venom to narrow the gap to 11-5. End to end rugby was now the order and Ballina were gifted the lead through a 60 metre intercept try. Byron Bay steadied and regained a 14-12 lead from a penalty to set up a grandstand finish.
Ballina took the lead for a second time from a backline play of dazzling quality but minutes later Byron seemed to have stolen victory from their own sweeping play when Cox skirted the touchline, and rounded the fullback to score under the posts. The referee signalled try but the linesman was convinced the winger was out by a blade of grass.
Byron’s belief was unshaken and with less than five minutes to play the visitors produced a stirring brand of ball in hand rugby to completely dominate the end of the game. Camped on the Ballina line with more than 30 phases of possession it was halfback Jack Dickson who found a way through to seal the match. Cue scenes of delirium from the Byron faithful.
In a victory paved by the forwards, Armstrong and Shaw were the clear standouts. Josh Smith was a force of nature close to the ruck, Jamie Blair was at his fearsome best and Dickson was all quality. Mark Ballantyne was outstanding in his first starting appearance in the back row after coming in for Tom Homer who was sidelined by a chainsaw related injury.
The games keep getting bigger for Byron Bay. The team travels this week to Wollongbar-Alstonville who have now moved into fourth place at the expense of Ballina. The Bay remain clear third behind Lennox Head and new frontrunners Lismore. The title race now appears wide open after Lismore stunned the Trojans 35-3 in Lennox on Saturday.