The Devils fall at last hurdle in bruising grand final

John Campbell

Trailing 17–6 at the break, Byron’s Red Devils stuck doggedly to the task and kept the Ballina Seagulls scoreless in the second half of Sunday’s NRRRL grand final at Kingsford Smith Park. The only trouble was the Seagulls did the same to them.

Byron had earned its spot in the season’s decider the hard way, winning three elimination play-offs. In the championship bout, it wasn’t lack of heart that beat them, it was poor execution at crucial moments and, if we are to be perfectly honest, it was an opponent that was simply too good on the day.

Byron kicked off in summery conditions and were all over Ballina in the opening exchanges, fiercely going into tackles mob-handed and forcing errors from the reigning premiers. Winger Bill King skirted the sideline and with beautiful hands gathered a chip and crossed in the corner. William Goldsmith’s conversion took a coat of paint off the black dot as it dropped like a stone over the right side of the crossbar and the Devils were away to a flyer.

If the boys thought that the footy gods were smiling on them, they were soon made to think again. Ballina’s livewire full-back, Brett Kelly, regathered his own kick and made an electric in-and-out dash through a scrambled defence before setting up centre Clarence Kelly for the equaliser. The Seagulls then took the lead when opting to take a shot at goal after the first of an avalanche of penalties that came their way.

From that moment, the Devils were behind the eight-ball.

It seemed as though the ref was finding fault with everything they did and, to make matters worse, the home side was playing a mean, strangling game, allowing the visitors no room to move.

When in possession – of which they had a glut – Ballina’s changes of direction and wide passing were constantly finding the extra man.

The Bay made a rare sortie, with King again haring for the line after great work from pugnacious second-rower Cale Rowston, who didn’t let up throughout, but Byron were always on the back foot, counter-punching rather than setting the agenda.

Enjoying a landslide of possession and position, it was inevitable that the Seagulls would get another try. They did when winger Liam Anderson was delivered a saloon passage to the line. Their shrewd and influential five-eighth Andrew Battese rubbed salt into Byron’s wounds with a field-goal that didn’t so much put Ballina out of reach as suggest that they had everything under control.

The eleven-point deficit at half-time was discouraging, but it could have been worse. Byron had been outplayed and, if anything, Ballina’s conservative approach in converting penalties instead of forcing the issue might have come back to bite them.

With a mountain to climb, the Devils’ effort in the second forty did the club proud.

Peter Flannery went ever so close when he chased a Bill King chip, but it was an afternoon on which the boys ultimately became their own worst enemy. They took too many panicky last tackle options, they spilt the pill just as a light was appearing at the end of the tunnel and, most frustrating of all, they lost a scrum with the feed in Ballina’s twenty.

As the shadows lengthened, it became painfully apparent that Byron’s mighty tilt at the title would end in tears.

There is no shame in losing when your effort is honest, when you refuse to give up, when you fight to the last minute.

Ballina are worthy champions, but the Devils didn’t let anybody down.

Well played, boys, and thanks for a great season.

See a photo gallery from the match here.

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