There was a changing of the guard in Byron Bay’s thrilling 22–20 win against Ballina in the opening round of Far North Coast Rugby on Saturday.
After helping guide Byron Bay’s renaissance, coach for the past decade Warren Fisher has taken a year off to improve his golf swing.
The Bay has secured the best-credentialled coach in the zone, Paul Jeffery, who has won six consecutive First Grade titles with Lennox and Lismore City.
It was seven years ago that Byron seemed likely to disappear in a cloud of mediocrity after winning a solitary game in third grade but the Bay has not missed the Finals since, winning a memorable Grand Final in 2012 before returning to First Grade last season.
Byron surprised the established order by finishing third in the top flight, ending the long reign of Lennox Trojans along the way.
After losing home and away to Byron Bay last season Ballina were expected to come out blazing against a team by depleted injury and unavailability. But it was Byron’s pack that dominated the point of contact early through captain Matt Larsson, flanker-front rower Craig Wallace, stylish lock Ryan Betts, and Rob Lynch who seems to be relishing a return to the forwards.
Ballina gained ascendancy through scrum dominance but spurned the advantage with two early missed penalties.
In their first foray downfield Byron typically ramped up the intensity before Wallace tucked the ball under his arm and charged face first through the middle of the ruck and over the line. The pattern continued and it was that man Wallace who powered through a half gap to score a brace and double the Bay’s lead.
In the last play of the half Byron failed to deal with a bouncing ball at the lineout and Ballina’s scrum half stepped over the line, narrowing the gap to 14–5.
Byron Bay have become masters of down-to-the-wire rugby but even the sturdiest pacemaker was to be tested by the second-half action.
With both packs tiring and play opening up the Ballina backline finally chanced their arm to counterattack with depth, width and pace.
In a period that should have ended the contest Ballina scored twice to lead 15–14 but poor goal kicking and a calamitous dropped ball over the line opened the door for the visitors.
Byron’s most penetrating back James Hawley was a revelation in the centres and he was richly rewarded with a try to regain the lead.
Cue more drama as Byron conceded an intercept try next to the posts for Ballina to lead 20–19 with three minutes remaining.
The home side missed their sixth shot at goal and conceded possession from the restart to a more committed Byron.
The visitors sustained a dozen phases of tense, mistake-free rugby before receiving a penalty in the final seconds.
Byron’s AJ Gilbert had sprinkled enough class and composure in his cameo at five-eighth and the star player calmly slotted the winner from 35-metres on an angle.
Gilbert was quality but the day belonged to Craig Wallace who delivered a master class in passion, purpose and precision.
The modest Irishman has shed many kilos with his West Indies diet but Byron’s player of the year in 2013 seems to have returned in even better fettle.
The Bay will enjoy a two-week rest before hosting the champions Lismore on April 26.
Byron train every Tuesday and Thursday at the Rec Fields next to the tennis courts. New players are most welcome.
Go the Bay!