Byron Bay rugby has climbed to third on the First Grade table after a brave 28–19 win in Grafton on Saturday. It was the Bay’s tenth win from 14 outings in an already stellar season.
The Bay started brightly despite the marathon road trip and were soon camped in opposition territory. From a scrum close to the line the formidable front row trio of Craig Wallace, Josh Smith and Dan Richards laid the platform for Michael Armstrong to score his ninth try of the season.
Fullback George Kitching is an immense talent but a reluctant goal-kicker. In the absence of point-scoring machine Nathan Nicholls, the Englishman stepped up to the tee and piloted the conversion and three penalties in quick succession. Down 16–0 and with the natives growing restless, Grafton responded with an expansive style of play and were rewarded with a scintillating length of the field try on the left wing. Byron responded in kind when centre Rob Lynch broke the line in his own half and used his newfound deft passing skills to send his centre partner racing away.
In the final play of the half Grafton rocked the visitors with another converted try. When hostilities resumed Byron’s mettle was thoroughly tested. Wallace had left the field with a stinger to the shoulder, Smith was soon after sin-binned along with flanker Tom Homer and all the momentum now shifted to the home side. The Bay were missing captain Pete Shaw (proud new father to the beautiful Lilly) and called on rugby immortal Mick ‘Wombat’ Leece. The veteran relished the old-fashioned stoush and was soon in the thick of the action.
With a place in the finals at stake Byron defended their line for more than 20 minutes. Both scrum and lineout were now in disarray, and under immense pressure the Bay lacked the necessary composure to control what little possession they had. Character and grim defence was the answer. Wallace returned to the fray and with the set piece now functioning Byron had weathered the storm. Ryan Betts won a series of important lineouts and back to back penalties gave the visitors field position. Evoking memories of his match winner against Lennox Head, playmaker Jash Saeck stepped inside tired defenders to finally seal the match. Grafton rallied with a last minute try but the sound of the siren put an end to the tension.
Armstrong and second rower Matt Larsson were the best of the forwards on a day marked by courage rather than flair. Halfback Jack Dickson played despite severe injury and his assured delivery and astute reading of the play were central to the victory.
Wallace and Smith were brave but the story of the day was captain Harry Nuttall. The star flanker was left writhing from a fair but brutal collision late in the first half. He went on to lead his team to victory in the most courageous fashion. His tears at the end of the game were part joy, part relief and partly the rising pain of his injured shoulder. Nuttall never once looked at the sideline and played most of the game with a suspected cracked collarbone. It is a measure of the man and a measure of Byron Bay rugby’s season.
The Bay travel to Lismore on Saturday to meet the competition leaders before playing the final round at home against reigning champions Lennox Head.