Central West’s monumental upset of Newcastle-Hunter in a brutal game on Saturday night took its toll on the side as the clearly-fatigued Blue Bulls were run over by Illawarra in the NSW Country Rugby Union Championships’ Caldwell Cup decider on Sunday.
Played at Warren’s Victoria Park, the Blue Bulls’ performance was error-riddled and “one step off the pace” throughout, as coach Dean Oxley said afterward, the Pauli Tuala-led Illawarriors taking advantage and storming to a 37-15 win.
Tuala’s side’s win came 12 months after being beaten by Newcastle-Hunter in the 2017 decider, the Illawarriors earning sweet, sweet redemption on Sunday afternoon.
Oxley also said, once his side had fallen behind, it was “100 per cent” guilty of trying too hard to make up the points.
“We were focused and the boys were up for the game, but we could tell from the line-speed and our execution that we weren’t quite there, and Saturday night had taken its toll. We were one step off the pace,” Oxley said.
“We based our play around sticking to the process and ignoring the scoreboard, but once we fell behind the desire and possibly panic at times meant we put pressure on ourselves.
“But we learned valuable lessons and we took a step forward, because a goal was to make the final and we did. It’s disappointing to lose, but I want this group to stay together now and try to do what Illawarra did.
“To go one step further and win is the goal next year. We’ll face (Richardson Shield champions) Central Coast and they’ll want to stay up in the Caldwell Cup so it won’t be easy, but ours is a special group of guys and I think we can do it. I’d love to do it with these guys.”
It was those errors that killed Central West, although Illawarra still needed to be good enough to capitalise.
The eventual champions did just that, the Illawarriors scored four of their six tries directly following Blue Bulls’ errors.
Two of those four tries were in the opening half, the second of which was a hugely opportunistic play from fullback Jacob Kara.
His side was leading 15-5 in the 38th minute and was awarded a penalty on halfway, Kara took a quick tap and sped away to score, racing straight past most the Blue Bulls who simply weren’t paying attention.
Prior to that Illawarra had opened the scoring with a penalty goal before Tom Green scored for Central West and the eventual champions hit back with two quick tries.
The Illawarriors built on that lead after the break, scoring another 17 points and holding Central West to 10 with some bruising defensive efforts.
This is just... I don’t really know what to say,” Tuala said in his post-game speech.
“We set the goal to come together as a group and win this back and we didn’t really gel until [late in the preparation], which is a good show of character.
“We got it back, I couldn’t be prouder.”
Green was strong for the Blue Bulls, scoring two of the side’s three tries while Central West’s other winger Harry Webber was superb, backing up his super effort from Saturday night.
In fact, Oxley says he thinks the latter “played himself into a NSW Country jersey”.
Mahe Fangupo was magnificent as expected and was deservedly named player of the tournament, while Oxley praised his entire forward pack as well.
“There’s a lot of talent in the west and they’re great footballers. We lost, but I couldn’t have asked for any more from the guys, hats off to Illawarra though,” Oxley added.
“It was a great group, a great campaign and I just love being a part of it.”
Central West scored a stunning, come-from-behind, 36-34 win over Newcastle-Hunter on Saturday night to qualify for the final, while Illawarra had accounted Mid North Coast earlier that day.