This was one of those strange games that you can never quite get a handle on.
With 17 minutes to go at Lismore’s Crozier Field, and everything to play for, for both sides, Northern United had come back at Byron Bay to trail by 22-18. We might have entered heart attack territory, but when the dust had settled the Devils were in the record books as comfortable winners to the tune of 40-18. They’d be the first to concede that the victory was not so cut and dried as the score suggests.
Notwithstanding the final margin, with one round of the NRRRL minor premiership left, the two competition points have cemented a spot for the Bay in the semis.
Leading the way for the Devils was their prop, Simon ‘Canine’ Kelly, who capped a typical day’s robust work by diving over in the setting sun’s golden light to rack up a hat-trick of tries.
Byron, bugged by a number of ‘what-ifs’ threatening to sour a season that began with such promise, kicked off under a cloudless sky. ‘Work, boys! Work!’ was the last cry heard as they charged at the mob contesting fifth position on the ladder.
Three penalties in quick succession gifted United a perfect launching pad and, with their speed and array of steppers, they found a gap out wide and grabbed a 4-0 lead.
When Byron’s turn came to have a load of possession, they responded with a determined try to Bill ‘the Lawman’ Lowrie.
Ex-Rabbitoh Roy Bell then took a towering bomb and dashed 60-metres untouched through the Devils’ statuesque defence to put United in front 10-6.
Chris ‘BB’ King’s resumption found its way over the dead-ball line and from the drop-out Kelly got his first try. Soon after, second-rower Joe ‘DiMaggio’ Gordon delivered a lovely pass for centre Duane ‘Drano’ Cahill, still with the job ahead of him, to cross in the corner.
United jagged one back, but Byron went to the sheds at 18-14 and looking the more likely of the two combatants. Neither side was guilty of showing the utmost respect to the law of possession, but the Devils’ structure was always stronger. It was clear – whoever could hang onto the ball would get the money.
Winger Craig ‘Rio’ Stapleton, known for his fleetness of foot rather than his bobcat bullishness, left a graveyard of would-be tacklers in his wake in an inspiring burst that ultimately led to a try by Gordon.
United at last scored from the chip to the corner that they’d been aiming for and, at 22-18, we were down to the question of ‘who wants it most?’
Running it on the last, captain Ryan ‘the Crab’ O’Connell, back from injury and a steadying hand throughout, shot the pill out to Kelly, then Cahill, then to winger Rex ‘Harrison’ Sheavills who, with Northern asleep on the blind and careless in mopping up, sprinted around behind the sticks to give the Devils the breathing space they craved.
Kelly registered tries two and three in the closing stages and Byron were home and hosed.
Sunday sees the Bay host Ballina, who have assumed, with Murwillumbah, equal favouritism for the grand-final laurel. Get along to Red Devil Park – the boys have earned the town’s support.