Story & photos John Campbell
Byron Bay’s topsy turvy NRRRL season came to a shuddering halt at Grafton’s Frank McGuren Field on Saturday.After imposing prop Chris Coleman had his jaw broken in the very first tackle of their elimination semi-final, the Red Devils never quite got into their stride as the Ghosts’ hard-nosed, percentage football carried them home by 22-6.
On a balmy, blue-sky afternoon, the Devils entered the arena with an air of quiet confidence. They had previously disposed of Marist Brothers with an assured performance that encouraged their supporters to dream the dream. It didn’t take long, however, for us all to realise that the Ghosts were a different kettle of fish. With a huge contingent of locals behind them and a parochial spruiker on the PA, they were going to be a hard nut to crack.
It became apparent in the later rounds that the 2013 NRRRL competition could be divided into two tiers – the serious contenders (Murwillumbah, Ballina, Ghosts), and the also-rans. By their uneven efforts, the Bay settled frustratingly into the no-man’s land between both groups. As likely to fall to a lowly outfit as they were to bring down a high-flyer, it was always a case of them needing to be at full strength and on song to challenge for the title. On Saturday the club was represented by close to its top squad, but the simple truth is that they weren’t quite good enough to overcome an equally determined, rigidly organised opposition. The Ghosts, if never able to fully assert themselves were nonetheless in control for most of the eighty hard-fought minutes.
If the loss of Coleman put the boys on the back foot, they showed no sign of it. Weathering the Ghosts’ initial onslaught, they put Bill Lowrie over in the corner, only to be called back for a forward pass. The Devils appeared confident, well-drilled, and thriving on Tim Foster’s crisp service from dummy-half, they promised much. But a penalty that did not go into touch (they were guilty of two of these, as well as a restart that went out on the full) relieved enough pressure on Grafton for them to get their foot in the door.
Centre Khan Williams ploughed through a few poor attempts at tackle to score the first try and from that moment the Ghosts were never headed.
As the game wore on, Byron’s attention to detail flagged and Grafton were only too happy to increase their lead incrementally by converting penalties when the opportunity arose. People talk about ‘semi-final footy’ being different – it is, and Grafton were producing it at a more intense level.
Winger Rex Sheavels got a try near the death, which was only fair, for the Devils, to a man, never stopped trying and being beaten to nil would have been unjust.
They had a dig but were beaten by a better side, and there’s no shame in that.
Earlier in the day, Mullumbimby’s latest batch of tyros carried their finals campaign into another week with a rousing 26-14 victory over Grafton. Despite losing half their starting pack before the break, when an ugly all-in brawl resulted in the ref marching five offenders (three from Mullum, two from the Ghosts), the Giants would not countenance defeat. Led with aplomb by captain Louis Earl, who landed five goals from as many attempts, and inspired by a lion-hearted effort from second-rower Todd Arthur, the Blue-and-Golds ran out exhausted but deserving winners, with tries to Tai Bowker, Byron Flynn, Aaron Walker and, from the bench, Murphy Salisbury. Next Sunday they travel to Murwillumbah to take on the Mustangs for a spot in the grand-final.
Sunday September 1 – Stan Sercomb Oval Murwillumbah
18s Murwillumbah v Mullumbimby
Reserve Grade Northern United v Ghosts
First Grade Murwillumbah v Ghosts
The 18s kick off at 11.30am. Entry $8, under 16s free. Please note that entry is $8 for all finals games and $12 for the grand final.
The grand final will be at Kingsford Smith Park Ballina on Sunday September 8. Marist Brothers are straight through to the grand final for both 18s and Reserve Grade and Ballina are through to the grand final for First Grade.