ORANGE Hawks have continued to press its Group 10 premiership credentials after knocking off the ladder-leading Mudgee Dragons on Saturday.
Against a Dragons team that looked nigh on invincible for 10 rounds but is now showing cracks after dropping a second consecutive game, the two blues ran in five tries to four in an impressive 26-18 victory at Mudgee's Glen Willow.
Sitting fifth on this year's ladder, Hawks' eight-point win is the two blues third triumph over a top four side since the end of May.
It looked as if Mudgee were back to their best when they led 8-6 after 20 minutes but the two blues fought back to lead 14-8 at half-time.
They blew their lead out to 12 points early in the second half before Mudgee came back to make the scores 20-18.
But a try five minutes from full-time to Lawrence Fogg sealed a sixth consecutive win for Hawks.
“Coming to Mudgee and playing Mudgee is always a hard one. The boys did a great effort,” stand-in player-coach Sandon Gibbs-O’Neill said at full-time.
“We stuck to the game plan. We went off our game plan for a while but we came back to it.
“We completed our sets and the boys dug deep like they do every week; and it is all about the grind.”
Afamasaga, who was stood down by Country Rugby League for withdrawing from the NSW Country Bulls side due to work commitments, wasn’t happy in the change rooms after the match.
“The boys just didn’t do what they do best, which is going through the middle and having a shot,” Afamasaga said.
“One, two, three, four and have a shot on the edge then go back to the middle. They didn’t do anything like that. We pretty much spread the ball and have a run.”
Without Orr and their try-scoring machine Smith, who injured his medial ligament in his knee last week and is expected to miss at least three weeks, Camden Sutton and Curtis Solomon were given their shot on the right side.
But it was the visitors who scored first through Travis Bubb and Brock McGarity added the extras to make it 6-0.
Shortly after, Mudgee hit back thanks to five-eighth Jeremy Lang who scored in the corner.
On the 19th minute mark, Mudgee were in again when Ben Thompson sliced his way through a gap to lay the ball down over the line and give his team an 8-6 lead.
But that was to be the only time they would find themselves in front as things started to unravel for the home side.
James O’Connell was denied a certain try when it was brought back for a forward pass before Hawks’ winger Stephen Khatter scored in the corner to make it 10-8.
But just when it looked like Mudgee were going to expose Hawks’ defence on the right side, Sutton spilled a Tim Condon pass into McGarity and the Hawks five-eighth raced 80 metres to score just before half-time.
Both sides struggled at the start of the second half as the wind caused havoc with kicks and passes.
Hawks fullback Joe Lasagavibau finished off a clever move, which started with a cross-field chip-kick by halfback Keegan Harting to Jared Brodrick who handed it off to the custodian for a 20-8 lead.
“We completed our sets and the boys dug deep like they do every week; and it is all about the grind"
However, from the kick-off the ball went into touch and from Mudgee’s scrum win, second-rower Demitrius Ainuu did his best five-eighth impersonation and broke through to score.
Three minutes later, Chris Ward scored in the corner to make it 20-18.
Mudgee had the momentum but could not break last year’s grand finalists’ defence, partly due to their own mistakes.
With the clock ticking down, Hawks’ Justin Howarth went down the blind side and regathered his chip kick and passed it off to Fogg to cap off an incredible day.
“Six from six is great, we just have to keep going,” Gibbs-O’Neill said.
“We’ve got a good finish to the year. We have four home games out of five and it makes a difference. But then again we are still sitting in fifth and for us to creep up the ladder it will be bit better.”
After back-to-back losses, Afamasaga said it was far from panic stations.
“We will be right. We will get back to training and do what we do best,” the former NRL hardman said.
“Tommy Lewsley did really well today, I asked him after last week’s game ‘to hold his own’ and he did that and then some today.”
ORANGE HAWKS 26 (Joe Lasagivbau, Stephen Khatter, Brock McGarity, Lawrence Fogg, Travis Bubb tries; McGarity 3 goals) def MUDGEE DRAGONS 18 (Ben Thompson, Jeremy Lang, Chris Ward, Demitrius Ainuu tries; Tom Lewsley goal).