Byron Bay rugby remain on course for the First Grade semifinals after a professional 26–7 win against Southern Cross University on Wednesday. With four rounds to play the Bay has a five-point advantage over fifth-placed Ballina, who meet top four candidates Lismore and Lennox Head on the bounce.
The day was not without drama as Byron travelled with only 16 players following a match-day injury to prop Wal Andrews. Captain and expectant father Pete Shaw was sidelined along with a further six players who were either injured or interstate. With their season on the line, Byron’s stocks were given a last-minute boost when Josh Smith returned to the team. The versatile Smith took a needle to mask the pain of a ruptured shoulder and came in to fill the jersey of the unavailable Tom Homer.
Just as courageous was Harry Nutall. The star Englishman is probably the best open side flanker in the competition but he has put the team first to play most of the year in the centres. Against the student’s massive pack he put his hand up to play prop, conceding more than 30 kilos to his opposite number.
Byron Bay players seem to relish night-time activities and on a crisp, cool night the visitors turned up the heat from the first whistle. Not able to rely on their set piece for possession, Byron created a dozen turnovers in the opening twenty minutes with brutal clinical defence. The students were left to kick away possession and dashing fullback George Kitching made them pay. Fielding the ball on the left side of halfway, Kitching rounded the entire opposition before putting winger Nathan Nicholls over in the right corner.
Nicholls converted from the sideline and with three penalty goals already on the board the Bay took a decisive 16–0 lead to the break. Kitching added a try of his own but the match highlight was still to come. Michael Armstrong took the ball from the back of a centre-field scrum and, like the proverbial thief in the night, was bearing down on the winger before the students had stopped pushing. With a trademark swerve and fend the Kiwi sliced back inside before sending Sam Stanfield powering past the fullback and over the line.
Byron’s efforts to secure a bonus point fourth try were frustrated by the students, who were rewarded with a consolation try in the final play of the game.
The performance may not have been as polished as some previous efforts but, given the pressure of injuries, unavailability and expectation, the result was priceless. Usual suspects Nutall, Kitching and Robert Lynch were the dominant trio. Matt Larsson was simply a beast in the second half while Jack Dickson, Mitch Loane, Armstrong and Stanfield all delivered.
The Bay will be looking to secure more points this Saturday at home against Casino on Saturday. Splendour at the Rec Fields kicks off at 3.30pm.