A NSW Country Rugby Union Championships cleansweep, that’s what Central West is gunning for after all three of its outfits produced scintillating efforts on Saturday’s first day at Warren.
Central West’s colts thumped Central Coast to progress to the Rowlands Cup decider, the women’s sevens outfit boasts an unblemished record heading into Sunday’s semi-finals and the Blue Bulls, well, the Blue Bulls only went and caused the most monumental of upsets in their Caldwell Cup opener.
Facing the might of Newcastle-Hunter, a side that brushed past them 58-8 on its way to last year’s title, the Blue Bulls fought back from a 27-14 deficit midway through the second half to ultimately win 36-34.
And in a clash that had all the hallmarks of a final but wasn’t, Central West’s Caldwell Cup hopes – and Newcastle-Hunter’s for that matter – came down a 40-metre attempt at a penalty goal, in the 78th minute.
And incredibly, with the Blue Bulls trailing 34-33 and their first choice kicker in Lloyd Rogers unable to take the shot, those hopes fell on the shoulders of replacement back Jack O’Connor, a Harden Red Devil.
Proving he has ice flowing through his veins, O’Connor slotted the kick with ease to give his side a two-point lead, which it held onto for the 60 seconds remaining afterward.
The Blue Bulls now face Illawarra in Sunday afternoon’s decider, while the Baby Bulls play Newcastle-Hunter for the colts title. Central West’s women will face Mid North Coast in their semi-final, with Newcastle-Hunter playing Central North in the other.
“An unbelievable day, we couldn’t have asked for any more, having three teams still alive is absolutely huge,” Central West CEO Matt Tink enthused, just after full-time in the Caldwell Cup.
“The women were spectacular all day and the colts were just dominant, and that was as gutsy a win as I’ve seen from a Central West side from the Blue Bulls.
“To come from behind like that, just brilliant. Newcastle-Hunter scored just before half-time to go ahead and then kicked a penalty goal early in the second half, after that I thought we might be in some trouble but the response from the side was exactly what was needed.
“Here’s hoping they can all go on and get the job done now.”
Central West’s Caldwell Cup clash with the reigning champions, which finished under lights at Warren’s Victoria Park, was undeniably the game of the day, one that delivered for the bumper crowd on hand.
It was a topsy-turvy clash that Newcastle-Hunter dominated for the better part, the Blue Bulls merely hanging on for a lot of the 80 minutes, before stunning the reigning champions in the decisive moments.
After see-sawing opening stages during which Rogers missed a penalty attempt, Newcastle-Hunter and incumbent NSW Country five-eighth Dane Sherratt sliced through to open the scoring, converting his own try to give his side a 7-0 lead with 22 minutes gone.
The Novocastrians looked likely to score again as they enjoyed a wealth of possession but after a couple of try-saving efforts in defence the Blue Bulls did get some ball, which five-eighth Mahe Fangupo capitalised on, scoring a beautiful solo try under the sticks.
Rogers converted to lock the scores up, but after more sustained pressure Tim Marsh crossed in the corner for the reigning champions right on the stroke of half-time. Sherratt converted to make it 14-7, before adding another three points directly after the break.
Adrian Delore waltzed through a soft Central West would-be tackle just two minutes later too, sprinting 60 metres untouched to score. Sherratt’s conversion gave Newcastle-Hunter a 24-7 lead and at that point, things didn’t look particularly promising for the Blue Bulls.
But it seemed to spur the side on, Feleti Wolgramm barged over in the 50th minute on the back of some great lead-up work from Fangupo and then Dan Ryan. Rogers converted before Sherratt added another penalty to make it 27-14.
But again the Blue Bulls hit back. Every time they entered Newcastle-Hunter’s red zone they seemed to score, this time through skipper Chris Miller, although Rogers missed the side had cut the deficit to eight.
That gap become just one when an opportunistic chip from Fangupo landed perfectly in Harry Webber’s hands – the winger was outstanding throughout – and Rogers nailed the kick.
Fangupo looked for a drop goal in the 64th minute but it was charged down, but then put Zac White over for the go-ahead try with an astonishing, triple cut-out pass after a dominant effort at the scrum. Rogers coolly slotted the conversion, giving the Blue Bulls a narrow 33-27 lead with 12 to go.
Central West held that lead for six minutes, before Marsh scored his second, Sherratt nailing the sideline conversion to push the reigning champions ahead by one with just minutes left.
Then, the pivotal moment. Central West won a penalty, 40 out and straight in front with just two minutes left, O’Connor making no mistake.
Earlier in the day Illawarra ran over a plucky Mid North Coast side, winning 55-22 to qualify for Sunday’s final.
In the second tier Richardson Shield, hometown heroes Western Plains progressed to the decider with a tense 31-26 win over the Northern Bushrangers, while Central Coast defeated Far North Coast 31-21.
Sunday’s games start from 9am, with the Caldwell Cup final the main event at 2.30pm.