Story & photo John Campbell
It was not the sort of afternoon to have a delayed kick-off. But after an ugly incident in which the referee of reserve grade suffered intolerable abuse, to the shameful discredit of the hosts, the Northern United v Byron Bay NRRRL clash started twenty minutes late at a chilly Crozier Oval in Lismore on Sunday.
Byron won the two competition points, but it was only by the hair on their chinny-chin-chin. Or, more accurately, it was by the boot of stylishly coiffed fullback William ‘Peppi’ Goldsmith. Having already scored a runaway try in the last minute of the Under-18s victory, Goldsmith’s conversions trumped United’s five tries to four advantage to help get the Devils home by 26–22.
After crashing in their previous outing against Ballina, it was crucial that the Red Devils quickly return to the winner’s circle. They are finals-bound, but there is a huge psychological difference between limping into the play-offs in fifth place and striding in as feared contenders. Their effort against the Dirawongs was less fearsome than efficient, but it’s a good side that can win away from home when not on song.
A long dummy-half break by Tyler ‘Blackie’ Blanch took Byron into United’s twenty in the sixth minute. Probing cross-field, Ben ‘Spider’ Webber shot a pass to phlegmatic centre Chris ‘BB’ King, who took on the defence. Reaching out across the tryline like Mister Gadget, he opened the scoring for the Devils, but Northern struck back immediately. It was like that for the duration. Byron just could not shake themselves free of the persistent Dirawongs’ pursuit.
Though never headed – and never looking likely to be – Byron were unable to dispel a nagging sense that, at the death, they might snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
Chris King registered his second four-pointer and shortly after, with United pressing, his fellow centre, Bill ‘the Lion’ King, took an intercept and sprinted 80 metres untouched to the line. Ahead 18–4, the result was inevitable. Wasn’t it?
On the back of the metres gained by their monster props, United dragged it back to 18–12 and the spring was in their step as the red defensive line began to show signs of tiring.
Possession is nine-tenths of the law in footy. The other tenth says when you’ve got it you must make the most of it. With a bit more of the pill coming their way, Chris King put up a towering bomb, United faltered, Byron earned the scrum feed and in the ensuing set Webber went over.
Trailing 24–12, it was, however, premature to think that United had been delivered the last rites, especially with Byron’s penchant for taking their foot off the pedal.
Goldsmith, who has grown in stature with every appearance since being promoted to the seniors, coolly converted a penalty to make it 26–18, but the eight-point buffer was whittled away when, not unexpectedly, United made one last surge to score a try with four to go.
It was a nail-biting finish that should never have been.
The Red Devils outplayed United, but they only sporadically out-enthused them. If they want to be champions they will need to do that to their opponents for eighty minutes.
Sunday’s return derby, at home to Mullum, should tell us much.
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