Story Peter Griffin – Photos Peter Moore
Byron Bay rugby had it all to do against Wollongbar Alstonville on Saturday. The Bay had sent an understrength team to Wollongbar last week and was duly punished. In front of the biggest home crowd of the season Byron Bay rebounded in emphatic style, ambushing the Pioneers with a four try 24–22 victory.
Byron has now regained third place at the expense of Wollongbar with seven games to play. The Bay are only three points from the top of the table Lismore and a point behind Lennox Head. Ballina and Grafton are eight points adrift of the four.
The pre-game tension was palpable with Byron Bay still wrestling with selections moments before kick-off. When the dust settled Robert Lynch had moved into the centres alongside the juggernaut Harry Nuttall and the brilliant George Kitching went back to fullback to counter Wollongbar’s lethal kicking game.
The move was a masterstroke with Kitching’s pace and quality diffusing any danger and putting the visitors back on their heels. The Pioneers have been the most lethal attacking force in First Grade, averaging 36 points a match but their potency was blunted by the Bay’s trademark in your face defence.
Lynch and Nuttall cut down the space in midfield and Byron forwards Craig Wallace, Josh Smith and Wal Andrews battered their opposition back. As the game opened up the best broken play runner in First Grade, Michael Armstrong, took charge of the game. The power packed Kiwi scored two scintillating solo tries to give Byron a 12-6 halftime lead.
The Pioneers returned to the basics and ground their way back into the match with clinical goal kicking. Five penalty conversions had the visitors in front 15-12 before Armstrong added a dashing third try to restore the lead. The Bay supporters are nothing if not vocal and Byron seemed to find new levels of energy and purpose in the second half. After a long period of sustained pressure Tom Homer crashed over under the posts to end the contest.
Wollongbar finally scored their first try deep into injury time but the home crowd celebrations were already in full swing. A measure of Craig Wallace’s performance was his man of the match accolade ahead of Armstrong the three try hero. Captain Pete Shaw was as robust as ever and Smith was again a thorn in his opponents’ side. Byron’s backline could not be faulted with Jack Dickson, Nathan Nicholls, Nuttall and Kitching all quality. The result was sweet revenge for Byron’s playmaker and former Pioneer player Jash Saeck.
But it was the inspirational Wal Andrews who underscored the meaning of commitment to Byron Bay rugby. Andrews drove to Byron on Saturday leaving Sydney at 4am. The champion prop stopped off in Mullumbimby for a game at 2.30pm before heading directly to Byron’s Recreation Fields to enter the fray 25 minutes into the game against Wollongbar. Go the Bay indeed!
Byron Bay is away to Southern Cross University on Saturday ahead of their bi-annual stoush with seventh placed Bangalow in a fortnight.