With a remarkable performance led by inspirational player-coach Willie Heta, Orange Hawks stunned defending Group 10 premier league champions Bathurst Panthers at Wade Park on Sunday afternoon, handing the men in black their first loss of 2019.
As his Hawks completed at almost 90 per cent through the round six clash Heta, typical of his history in big games, was outstanding at five-eighth and had a hand or boot in just about all of the side's 22 points, the two blues keeping the potent Panthers to just 14.
He laid on tries for Jack Aumuller and Duncan Young with pinpoint grubbers and sent Rakai Tukehe over for a four-pointer as well, while Young's 29th minute penalty goal came directly after a Heta 40-20 as well.
In a clash that had all the hallmarks of a potential grand final preview Nathan Potts crashed over for Hawks' other try, and so good were the two blues skipper Kyle Byrnes said it was as good a performance as he can remember from the side.
WATCH: Hawks' five-eighth Willie Heta forces a repeat set on Sunday, one of five for the game
"The challenge now is staying at that level though, and it's a big challenge because that was a really good performance," Byrne said, although he did identify one seven-minute period after half-time when his side conceded twice as a small lapse.
"But if we can do that every week, we'll be a big performing team and we'll go deep into this competition. We talked about our middles doing the job first because they had to against a pack like Panthers', and a big focus was working in numbers as well.
"We did that, the boys in the middle were outstanding and everyone was there for each other for the entire 80 minutes. When we do that, like we saw [on Sunday], the points come.
"And Willie, mate, he's just a freak. He leads us around but it does help having everyone running the right lines, guys like Rakai on those edges, because Willie will always find them. Knowing he will find you does make everyone's job easier though, that confidence."
The challenge now is staying at that level though, and it's a big challenge because that was a really good performance.Hawks skipper Kyle Byrnes
Byrnes' praise of his own side's effort is, in a way, also an indication of just how strong this Panthers side really is too, considering it took a performance of that calibre for Hawks to take them down.
That wasn't lost on Panthers captain-coach Doug Hewitt either, especially considering he was forced to shuffle his side around in the lead-up, and then the men in black lost hooker Nick Loader in the 63rd minute too.
Although the two blues did have injury concerns of their own too, winger Jordan Baker and replacement Dean Vete were both taken from the field and didn't return, the latter at the same time as Loader after the two had a head clash.
"We had a few out and that did force a big reshuffle (and) for the most part I thought we were pretty good, even though we didn't get the result," Hewitt said.
"We made great metres with the ball for most of that game and we did have our chances, although defensively we made a couple of errors, dropped a few balls at crucial times and gave away a couple of silly penalties too.
"We're a side that likes to play quick footy as well and we didn't really get that [on Sunday], Hawks did plenty to try and slow it down and they got away with it the whole game.
"But it's still early in the season and it's only our first loss so it's not the end of the world, we'll just go back and work on what we need to and come back better."
The opening exchanges of the clash were absolutely brutal, physically, and before Hawks' first try 20 minutes in the two sides fought tooth-and-nail for the upper hand.
Hawks had the only real chances of that period too after Heta forced back-to-back repeat sets but their bid for first points was crushed by an untimely penalty, given away by Sam Coyte as he fought to get up and play the ball.
The two blues rallied after that though, keeping Panthers out before Aumuller swooped on a Heta grubber which Mackenzie Atkins fumbled in goal, Young's conversion giving the hosts a 6-nil lead.
Baker was taken from the field in the 24th minute but Heta immediately put his side on the front foot with a 40-20. Panthers gave away a penalty first tackle into the new set and Young gleefully stepped up to add an extra two points.
Panthers' first real chance, or chances, came in the dying minutes of the opening half.
Five-eighth Willie Wright - who was also outstanding, kicking beautifully much like his Hawks counterpart - found some space and although his pass couldn't go to hand and went out, Panthers regained possession when the two blues knocked on from the scrum, then gave away a penalty.
But, 10 metres out from their own line and under serious pressure, Hawks' line held to carry that 8-nil lead into the break.
In what seemed like the blink of an eye Panthers had flipped that and taken a 10-8 lead with a seven-minute blitz early in the second half, which resulted in tries for Atkins - from a Wright kick - and then Hewitt.
But instead of rolling over Hawks lifted, hitting back immediately through Nathan Potts, the workhorse lock jinking his way over from close range.
Young's conversion extended Hawks' lead to 14-10, which then became 18-10 after Heta put Tuheke over in the 56th minute. Although, while Heta threw the last pass Tuheke did still have plenty to do.
WATCH: Hawks' Willie Heta sends Rakai Tuheke over in the 56th minute of Sunday's win
Panthers hit back 11 minutes out from full-time through Kevin Murray, who was also excellent in the centres running off Wright, but with just four to go before the full-time whistle Young dived on a pinpoint Heta grubber to seal Hawks' stunning victory.
The win draws Hawks level with Panthers and Mudgee at the top of the table, in a three-way share for the competition lead.
- ORANGE HAWKS 22 (Jack Aumuller, Nathan Potts, Rakai Tuheke, Duncan Young tries; Young 2 goals, penalty goal) def BATHURST PANTHERS (Mackenzie Atkins, Doug Hewitt, Kevin Murray tries; Willie Wright goal)
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