Hawks' Jack Middleton certain his improving reserve graders will continue building after disappointing end to 2018 | Photos

“These boys will stick together … I can guarantee you we’ll be back”.

He admitted to being gutted after being bounced out of the Group 10 first division finals in straight sets, but Orange Hawks player-coach Jack Middleton is certain the competition’s yet to see the best of his group.

After dropping just two games on their way to winning the minor premiership Hawks lost both of their finals encounters, they were beaten 14-6 by Bathurst St Pat’s in the major semi-final then eliminated by Panthers in Sunday’s preliminary play-off.

Suffering from a slow start that had them trailing 14-nil at the break on Sunday, Hawks were eventually beaten 22-12 by Panthers, who set up an all-Bathurst decider with the win.

“It’s definitely not ideal,” Middleton, who won coach of the year in reserves, said after the loss.

“The week off I think maybe made us a bit toey I think, but that’s no excuse for our performance. Errors, discipline, we needed to fix those areas and we didn’t, and didn’t get the job done.

“The last two games we’ve started slowly then come out firing in the second half, we dug deep there like we have all year but it just wasn’t our day.”

Middleton has the bigger picture in mind though and, directly after the loss, gathered his troops together to let them know how proud he was of their efforts and how badly he wants them to stick together.

Their efforts were somewhat remarkable in 2018.

They’d finished eighth in 2017 and, in the five years prior to this one had qualified for finals just once, and won just 24 games from 77 starts – that’s a paltry winning percentage of just under 33.

“We’ve been through plenty of tough times in the last few years and now that we’ve seen what we can do, I know for a fact these boys will stick together,” Middleton said.

“I can guarantee you we’ll be back.”

Panthers’ early lead on Sunday came via Braydon Wicks and Jace Hood tries, with Ben Dolan converting both and landing a penalty goal too.

The two blues roared back into the contest after half-time though, scoring back-to-back, converted four pointers through Liam Brodrick and Toby Collins to slash the gap to just two points.

There was still 20 to go at that point and it did seem like the tide was turning in Hawks’ favour, until Panthers stopped it.

The men in black finished with a flourish, Adrian Aveiro scoring before Callum Young dived over as well.

Both kicks were waved away, but it mattered little, Panthers had done enough to qualify for their third grand final in the last five years. They’ll be gunning for their second win in that period, too.

“I’m over the moon,” Panthers halfback and player-coach Jarrod Gafa said.

“It was an unreal effort from the boys, we’d only played Hawks once (during the regular season) but we knew they had a big pack.

“We just had to make sure we kicked early, turned them around and kept turning up in defence.

“We did that and I think our good start certainly helped, we kept the pressure on too and even when they did score a couple of tries we didn’t panic.”

Gaffa said his troops are champing at the bit for another crack at the Saints too, who they blew a 16-point lead against in the qualifying final three weeks ago.

“We had them on the ropes there a few weeks ago, we should’ve put them away and didn’t but we’ve got another crack at them now. Anything can happen,” Gafa said.

  • BATHURST PANTHERS 22 (Braydon Wicks, Jace Hood, Adrian Aveiro, Callum Young tries; Ben Dolan 3 goals) def ORANGE HAWKS 12 (Toby Collins, Liam Brodrick tries; Duncan Young 2 goals)

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