Derby rugby is back.
After a 71-7 loss to the eventual premiers in the final all-Orange Blowes Clothing Cup clash last season, a victory that stretched Emus' run of derby wins to nine, Orange City rose to the challenge at Endeavour Oval on Saturday and squeezed a 22-all draw out of the greens, the closest derby clash since Emus won a hard-fought 17-12 encounter in round 17 of the 2016 season.
Played in front of a healthy crowd on Emus' ladies' day, the Lions refused to go away and on the back of a brilliant outing from Keegan Harding and a downright tenacious pack of forwards City fought back from a 17-11 deficit at the break to ultimately earn a chance at victory on the bell.
The defending premiers gave away a litany of penalties in the second term and their seventh of the half came well within the kicking range of Lions gun Keegan Harding.
But the potential game-winner, 35 metres out and right in front with the score locked at 22-all, was hooked and the round five points were shared.
"It came off the inside (of my boot) and straight away I thought 'there it goes'," Harding said.
The Lions five-eighth was outstanding all game though.
He had a hand, or a boot, in all of the Lions' points, laying on the first try of the game with a clever little kick in behind the Emus defensive line for a flying Tom Westcott to score.
At that point you knew Emus weren't going to have it all their own way.
We came here with the mentality they weren't going to get on top of us through the middle and the forwards led that.Lions gun Keegan Harding on his forward pack's performance.
He booted four penalty goals and scored a try of his own to effectively put the winless Lions on his own back and carry them to within a whisker of what would have been a famous victory.
Harding had to, really, with a swag of young players in the backs - and minus skipper Cameron Cole - and an unheralded pack of forwards, the Lions need a leader.
But that's a tag Harding won't carry.
"I don't try and be a leader I just want to do my job," the evasive five-eighth said.
"And I've worked hard to be able to do that. I did a bit of fitness stuff through the off-season so I could. I just want to come out and play.
"We came here with the mentality they weren't going to get on top of us through the middle and the forwards led that.
"I was hoping I could knock it over for them."
Emus stand-in skipper Scott McLean lamented his side's poor discipline, with and without the ball.
The premiers looked a shadow of the side that has set the benchmark in the Blowes Clothing Cup for the last four seasons, giving up ball with poor mistakes and then compounding those errors with penalties.
Emus finished the game on the wrong side of a 13-8 penalty count and didn't receive a penalty in the second half until after the 70th minute.
First half tries to new hooker Charlie Henley, centre Lachie Harris and five-eighth Jamil Khalfan papered over the cracks in the opening 40 minutes, Emus heading into the sheds up 17-11.
But the Lions starved Emus of the ball in the second half and led 22-17 inside the final 10 minutes before Harry Cummins raced in out wide to gift the hosts a chance at victory.
I thought we were good against Bulldogs and then today we took a step back.Emus stand-in skipper Scott McLean
Matt Findlay's conversion hit the post and then later Harding had his shot at stealing the win, too, but his kick sailed wide.
"We just killed ourselves," McLean said, Emus now on a run of two losses and a draw in their last three weeks.
"We gave away too many penalties and when we had the ball we didn't settle down and play the way we should have played.
"We panicked, even at the end, we were panicking and it's disappointing."
Not having Nigel Staniforth doesn't help, while the absences of experienced guns like Simon Badgery, Tom Goolagong, Nas Havealeta, Michael Graham and TJ Cunynghame make the premiers appear vulnerable.
McLean doesn't buy into that though.
"I don't think so, no. We've got good footballers here and a lot of guys that have played a lot of footy we've just got to be smarter," he said.
"We're still building. Training has been good and we were disappointing against Cowra and I thought we were good against Bulldogs and then today we took a step back."
- ORANGE CITY LIONS 22 (Keegan Harding, Tom Westcott tries; Keegan Harding 4 pen goals) drew with ORANGE EMUS 22 (Charlie Henley, Lachie Harris, Jamil Khalfan, Harry Cummins tries; Matt Findlay conv)
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