With as gutsy a performance as they've produced in 2019 Orange Hawks edged out a gallant Mudgee Dragons side at Wade Park on Sunday afternoon, fighting back from a 12-point deficit to do so despite being down a man for 10 minutes in the dying stages.
Mudgee captain-coach Jack Littlejohn went to work in the opening quarter of the game as his side shot to an early 16-4 lead before Hawks, led by the unquestionable man-of-the-match in Alex Prout, clawed their way back into Group 10 premier league contest.
With their backs to the wall Hawks rallied, first slashing the margin to just two before taking the lead on the stroke of half-time, and pushing the scoreline to 26-16 straight after the break.
That was huge, that win. Against a side like that, with the footy they've been playing and the fact we were down a man, it was a big effort.Hawks prop Ethan McKellar
With all the running and Mudgee under the pump defensively the two blues looked capable of blowing the third-placed Dragons out, until Chanse Burgess crossed against the run of play to cut the gap to just four.
Then Sam Coyte got sin-binned, giving the Dragons a sniff with 18 minutes to go.
In fact it looked as though Hawks' race may have been run after Mudgee winger Nathan Orr plucked a Littlejohn chip out of the air just three minutes later to lock the round 12 clash up again at 26-all.
They turned a massive defensive set into attacking pressure and wrestled momentum back after Coyte returned to the fray, marching up field in the 75th minute after a high shot on Jordan Baker.
They only needed two tackles after that penalty to score what was ultimately the match-winner, with Nathan Potts hitting Ethan McKellar on a beautiful line 10 metres out, the prop barging his way over the score.
That sparked a frenetic finish, but the Dragons' last-ditch efforts fell short.
Making the victory and match-winner all the more special for McKellar, Sunday happened to be his 22nd birthday.
WATCH: Ethan McKellar barges over to score the match-winner for Hawks on Sunday...
"That kind of win is a good way to celebrate, for sure. Unexpected to get that try at the end, but you always love getting a bit of meat," McKellar laughed.
"That was huge, that win. Against a side like that, with the footy they've been playing and the fact we were down a man, it was a big effort.
"The message when were 16-4 down early was pretty simple. We were patchy early and they had a roll on so we just needed to stick to the plan, get in the grind and just keep rolling through the middle and try to wrestle back momentum.
"The boys dug deep and did that, the rest of the forwards did a great job there, and we won that arm wrestle.
"We did lose impact when Coytey went off but there was no thoughts that might be it, the boys stuck their hands up."
Hawks still remain in a share for top spot with Bathurst Panthers, who edged out Orange CYMS in an equally as thrilling clash at Carrington Park on Sunday, but there's little doubt they've officially confirmed their premiership credentials.
Until Sunday Mudgee was the only side in the competition they hadn't beaten, having been hammered in round three's corresponding clash at Glen Willow Sporting Complex.
Hawks coughed up possession in the opening set of the game and from there the early stages were all Mudgee, but it was the home side that opened the scoring at the six-minute mark, completely against the run of play.
Prout found space from dummy-half, as he would a number of times in the game, and two tackles later Willie Heta found centre Corey Brown who crashed over to give the two blues a 4-nil lead.
Then Littlejohn went to work by scoring Mudgee's first, sending a flying Harrison Maynard over in the right corner and crossing again himself not long after, Jack Beasley kicked one conversion and Tom Lawson another to, seemingly in the blink of an eye, give the Dragons a 16-4 lead.
But Prout burrowed over for his first after a string of penalties and did the same against just minutes later, before putting Baker over in the right corner on the stroke of half-time, Duncan Young's pair of goals pushing the Hawks in front.
Brown scored his second after Lawson spilled a Matt Boss bomb in the 43rd minute, before the fantastic finish begun with Burgess' 54th minute try.
"I thought we had it there at the start," Littlejohn lamented.
"We were completing well and we looked really good early but the little efforts areas like kick-chase and defending in and around the ruck just weren't good enough, their hooker tore us to shreds through there.
"Just defensively in general really, I don't think we've leaked that many points all year which isn't pleasing."
The Dragons remain in third despite the loss, but they're now four points adrift of Panthers and Hawks. They face the former side, the defending premiers, next week too.
"I feel like we're there or thereabouts, so it is disappointing," he said.
"We're down a few troops and we've had to reshuffle our [spine] a little bit, but there's no excuses, we've got a lot to work on before Bathurst Panthers next week."
- ORANGE HAWKS 32 (Alex Prout 2, Corey Brown 2, Ethan McKellar, Jordan Baker tries; Young 4 goals) def MUDGEE DRAGONS 26 (Jack Littlejohn 2, Chanse Burgess, Nathan Orr, Harrison Maynard tries; Tom Lawson 2, Jack Beasley goals)
WANT MORE ORANGE NEWS AND SPORT?
- Receive our free newsletters delivered to your inbox, as well as breaking news alerts. Sign up below ...