It wasn’t a case of Phar Lap v Radish, despite what the final score of 44–6 might suggest. What it was was a classic example of one team, Ballina, the reigning premiers, playing with impregnable confidence against another, Byron Bay, that has laboured like Sisyphus all season, only to find that it can never quite get to the top of the mountain.
The Red Devils travelled south to Kingsford Smith Park on Sunday with too many near misses under their belt to feel that they might knock over the NRRRL champions of the past two years. But footy is a funny game – anything is possible when it is thirteen on thirteen, and the Devils have that rare and precious commodity of heart.
They got stuck in with gusto, playing a perfectly executed first set, but unfortunately the Seagulls’ first set was even more perfect. They scored a try that looked rather too easy and the Bay’s 0–6 deficit after fewer than a dozen tackles had been made gave all of us the Edgar Britts. How bad might it get, we feared. The Devils let us know soon enough, for, as a collective, they refused to follow the script. Again with a handful of players backing up from the reggies – including Nathan ‘Photogenic’ Nicholls, who’d racked up a hat-trick of tries in the prelim – the boys got stuck in. Not even falling behind 0–10 was enough to dispirit them. Prop Chris ‘Jawbone’ Coleman bullocked his way over for a typical ‘get that up ya’ try and Joey ‘The General’ Gordon’s immaculate sideline conversion suddenly gave the big-headed hosts pause for thought.
Ballina realised that they had a fight on their hands and the intensity lifted noticeably. If anything, the half-time siren came at the right time for them, for the priceless wind of self-belief had begun to fill the Devils’ sails, and the upset of the season was a distinct possibility.
There was less to write home about in the second stanza. To give credit where it’s due, Ballina took it up a gear and, with their veteran five-eighth Andrew ‘son of Brian’ Battese calling the shots, they produced forty minutes of intensity and high-quality footy that the Devils could simply not go with – despite their lung-busting effort.
Three tries to the Seagulls within ten minutes buried the Bay’s hopes. The Premiers’ running, passing and backing up was of the highest order, whilst the Bay, as has too often been the case, shot themselves in the foot with hurried execution and unforced errors when presented with the opportunity to get back into contention.
None of the boys skived – Coleman and Gordon and, as always, Tom ‘Deano’ Martin – whose distribution from dummy half was flawless, ‘Debonair’ Scott Stapleton and Jason ‘Buddy’ Hackett worked hard in the forwards, while Cameron ‘Jack’ Gibson and Ryan ‘The Crab’ O’Connell were busy organising the backs and tyro full-back Callum ‘Indiana’ Jones was again like a rock at the back.
It’s a bitter truth in sport, but nobody remembers who ran second – the Devils ran second again, but they are too good to be out of the winner’s circle for much longer. Support them at Red Devil Park on Sunday – they are the real deal.