Byron Bay rugby are one win away from the First Grade Grand Final after ending the season of five-time champions Lennox Head on Saturday.
The 22–10 elimination final victory is the highest-ranked achievement by a Byron Shire rugby union team in living memory. The performance was all the more remarkable as Byron Bay travelled with only 16 players and were without regulars Josh Smith, Michael Armstrong, Jamie Blair, Jash Saeck and Nathan Nicholls.
Byron looked the better, more purposeful team in the early exchanges. Star front rower Craig Wallace had his team on the front foot with an early line break and locks Matt Larsson and Ryan Betts were in perfect concert; the former with physical dominance close to the ruck, the latter with skills and elusive running on the fringes. Inevitably it was Wallace who poached the opening try after a period of sustained pressure.
Vastly experienced Lennox responded with a brand of methodical, error-free rugby. The plan was simple enough: kick for territory and run everything through their powerful inside centre and openside flanker. The only problem with the plan was their opposite numbers. Byron’s Rob Lynch and Harry Nuttall are simply two of the finest footballers on the coast. Lennox came up scoreless after declining three kickable penalties and were punished when playmaker George Kitching released the electrifying Pat Hutchison, who broke the line from 40 metres and left the Trojans’ fullback in his wake.
The Bay went to halftime buoyant at 12–0 but the break seemed to dull their intensity and they conceded a try early in the second term. The period that followed was classic finals rugby between the established order and the relentless underdog. Lennox brought on fresh legs against the undermanned Byron and they reduced the margin to 12–10 after a second try.
Once more Byron found themselves defending deep on their own line. Halfback Jack Dickson was caught behind a tiring scrum but somehow the Bay’s forward back summoned the energy to pick and drive six times to the edge of the quarter line to set up Kitching’s clearing kick. Sporting a magnificent beard for the occasion, winger Tom Sandstrom produced a superb chase and tackle to pin his opposite and win a penalty for the player not releasing.
In an instant the Bay went from holding on to dominating. The mercurial Kitching was decisive, finding space wide on the left for the elusive Will Cox to step, shimmy and offload for his captain Nuttall to score in the corner. Courage is a word that has been liberally sprinkled over this column but it was never more in evidence than on Saturday. The try was rich reward for Nuttall who was in Kyogle Hospital an hour before the game receiving a needle in order to play.
Now up by seven the Byron coach dearly wanted some breathing space as a draw was enough for Lennox who had finished third on the ladder. Leave it to Kitching. The Englishman capped a star performance with a sideline conversion to give the Bay a decisive 19–10 advantage. Byron closed out the game in professional fashion adding a penalty goal late in the play.
It was not a day to single out individuals but George Kitching and the Green Lantern Craig Wallace were surely the best. Flanker Mark Ballantyne was outstanding close to the ball as was Mr 100 per cent Pete Shaw whose joy at the victory was unmatched.
Byron will now play Lismore in the prelims at Crozier Park on Saturday. Minor Premiers Lismore stumbled 38–17 against Wollongbar Alstonville. The Bay’s campaign will be boosted by the return of suspended Josh Smith and the redoubtable Michael Armstrong who finished a close third in the First Grade player of the year poll.
Go the Bay!