Orange Emus got their grand final redemption at Endeavour Oval on Saturday, downing Bathurst Bulldogs 30-18 in the 2018 Blowes Clothing Cup grand final.
Second-half tries to Scott McLean and Lachie Harris helped the hosts storm to a 23-11 lead midway through the last half, after trailing by two at the break, before the Dogs hit back through Harry Peacock to edge to within a try of the minor premiers and ensure a grandstand finish.
But a Tom Green five-pointer inside the final 10 minutes of the decider, and a wonderful sideline conversion from skipper Nigel Staniforth in the clutch, sealed Emus the premiership.
There’s an old saying that dances around the theory you have to lose a grand final before you can win one, and given Emus won the 2015 and 2016 Blowes Clothing Cup premierships it’s probably not all that applicable in this case.
But last year’s 28-20 loss to Forbes in the 2017 decider at Endeavour Oval stung.
It hurt a lot of Emus’ players. It drove them through this season, arguably one of the toughest in the last decade following the structural changes to the Central West Rugby Union competitions.
And on Saturday those boys got their premiership, a third in four seasons – a feat that cements Staniforth’s side as one of the best in the region’s rich history.
Be it the pain of grand final defeat 12 months earlier or the fact coach Paul Ringland announced he’d be finishing up at the end of 2018, Emus weren’t short of motivation.
“We didn’t want to go through what we did last year again,” winger Tom Green said.
“I don’t think I would have been able to handle it. It would have been too much.”
Ringland was overwhelmed at full-time.
“Very emotional. It’s pride to be honest,” the retiring coach said.
“So much work has gone in to this from so many people. This is why you do it, for this feeling.”
With success everyone comes to get you and you don’t get many breaks … you have to earn everything. We’ve had an up and down year, this is amazing.- Emus coach Paul Ringland.
Ringland said this triumph, the 12-point victory over the Bulldogs, usurps the 2015 derby grand final glory over Orange City in 2015 and the 2016 decider win over Forbes.
“By a million,” he added.
“Especially after last year, and knowing it’s probably the last one.
“With success everyone comes to get you and you don’t get many breaks … you have to earn everything. We’ve had an up and down year, this is amazing.”
Emus had to weather a blue and gold storm early with the visitors firing out of the blocks.
That run was on the back of the first four penalties of the game, and despite peppering the hosts line the best the Bulldogs could come up with was a couple of penalty goals and a 6-0 lead by the 19-minute mark.
It’s a missed opportunity Bathurst coach Dean Oxley laments.
Emus landed their first penalty in the 23rd minute and Staniforth didn’t hesitate to have a crack at the sticks, nudging the penalty goal home to climb the greens to within three.
The veteran sharp-shooter had a second penalty goal by the 28th minute and then a third on the half-hour to shoot Emus to a 9-6 lead, but that was short lived when an error off the next kick-off gave the Dogs another chance to attack.
It was an invitation the visitors took this time, scoring their first try a couple of phases later through winger Ben Sheppeard, the speedy Bathurst gun strolling over after the Dogs made the most of the numbers advantage out wide.
Josh Weekes missed the conversion from out wide but the Dogs went into the sheds up 11-9 and after taking back the momentum an upset seemed on the cards.
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Emus has had the wood on the Dogs at Endeavour Oval for the last nine seasons though, winning each of the three games between the two sides at the Orange venue in 2018, too.
And they showed exactly why in the final half of footy in the Central West this season.
Poised and powerful, Emus shifted up a couple of gears in the second stanza, scoring firstly through Lachy Harris nine minutes into the new half before Scott McLean crossed five minutes later to turn a two-point deficit into a 23-11 lead.
McLean’s try was particularly telling, coming off the back of a massive Emus scrum, one that was thoroughly under the microscope thanks to a hulking Dogs pack.
Peacock snuck under Emus’ guard with 15 mintues to go to score a converted try and ensure a close finish, but Green dove over out wide soon after to put an end to the Dogs’ late charge.
Winning big moments in big games is key and the hosts did that on Saturday, with aplomb.
Flanker Jayden Norris was tremendous, earning man of the match honours, while Harris enjoyed his best game of 2018 and the entire Emus pack stood up to be counted in the big dance.
“Oh man, they came so hard. Pauly told us at half-time we’ve got to work, work, work and it’ll come. I’m speechless,” Emus prop Nas Havealeta said.
“They’re a young side and they’re fitter than us and quicker than us and we’ve got to give credit to them, but we held them off and came away with the win and that’s the most important thing.”
Staniforth was similarly overjoyed, his goal-kicking terrific in the clutch, again.
CHECK OUT THE FINAL 15 MINUTES OF THE GRAND FINAL HERE:
“It is weird. I think in the tougher games you concentrate more, I’ve been hitting them pretty well,” he said.
“We just had to stick to it. Even in the first half, we thought we had them we just had to hang on to the ball.
“It’s always that way in the semis, it’s an arm wrestle for the first 10 to 20 minutes. We had it over them we just had to believe in our systems.”
Scoring the try that sealed his club a third title since 2015, Green said the success he and Emus are enjoying comes down to desire.
A hunger they lacked in 2017, but one on show throughout the second half of Saturday’s thrilling Blowes Clothing Cup decider.
“We just wanted it more,” Green said.
“We’ve been here before and know how much you have to step up. How much you need to want it.
“To fall short last year because we didn’t want it enough, to come back this year and redeem ourselves is exactly what we needed to do.”
- ORANGE EMUS 30 (Tom Green, Lachy Harris, Scott McLean tries; Nigel Staniforth 3 conv; Nigel Staniforth 3 pen goals) def BATHURST BULLDOGS 18 (Harry Peacock, Ben Sheppeard tries; Kurt Weekes conv; Josh Weekes 2 pen goals)