With their trip to face Bathurst Panthers in a monumental, top-of-the-table clash looming large Orange Hawks escaped from Wade Park on Sunday with a narrow Group 10 premier league win over the fast-finishing Oberon Tigers.
The two blues were forced to stifle two big fightbacks from the Tigers to pick up their 28-24 victory and with Panthers edging out Mudgee the two sides remains in a share for the competition lead, next weekend's clash of the titans looks likely to all but decide the minor premiership as a result.
Hawks shot to a 16-nil lead on Sunday but from there the two blues' effort was a somewhat tired one, their brutal win over third-placed Mudgee the week before clearly taking its toll as Oberon roared back into the clash.
We've had a tough few weeks playing some good sides, and even though it wasn't the prettiest of performances we're still heading in the right direction.Hawks captain-coach Willie Heta
They cut to gap to 12 before half-time and then stormed to an 18-16 lead just after the break and while Hawks wrestled momentum back to lead by 10 with just seven minutes to go, the Tigers weren't quite done yet.
Jackson Brien, who was typically outstanding for the visitors, scored with 90 seconds to go to set up a grandstand finish, but the Tigers' last-ditch effort amounted to nothing as Hawks fullback Duncan Young diffused the last-play kick to secure his side's win.
"That game against Mudgee definitely took its toll. We knew they'd come here and come hard, Oberon too, but it was really tough and even though we had a couple out [on Sunday] as well I definitely think it had an impact," Hawks captain-coach Willie Heta said.
"They're not excuses, I'll never look for excuses, because we were still really scrappy and we only really showed glimpses of the consistent football we want to be playing, but good sides tend to win in those situations so I'm glad we got through.
"We've had a tough few weeks playing some good sides, and even though it wasn't the prettiest of performances we're still heading in the right direction."
The game's frenetic finish wasn't without its controversy though, certainly not in suspended Oberon captain-coach Josh Starling's eyes.
With Hawks leading 22-18 Brien made a sensational break down the right edge before being cut down one-on-one by Young 15 metres into the two blues' half.
With the rest of the two blues scrambling to get back into an onside position a second Hawks defender entered the fray as Brien looked to play the ball, and while the obvious penalty for holding down came the expected sin-binning didn't.
"In that position at that time of the game they give that penalty away but no one gets sin-binned, it is (frustrating) ... but you can't help that I guess," Starling said.
"But you can start that poorly against any side, let alone Hawks, letting in 16 points from easy tries like that we made it hard for ourselves."
Hawks' early lead came through Lawrence Fogg, Duncan Young and Talon Hodge's quick-fire tries and, at 16-nil with 25 minutes gone, you'd have forgiven for expecting the two blues to go on to score an easy win.
As they looked to tire though Oberon lifted and Matt Ranse dived over on the stroke of half-time to give the Tigers some confidence as they went into the sheds, in which you'd think they'd have liked to stay considering how bitterly cold it was at Wade Park.
Ranse laid on the Tigers' second four-pointer five minutes after the break too. Farren Lamb regathered his own chip before dishing off to Ranse, who nudged a neat little grubber in behind the line for Elias Dukes to dive on in the right corner.
Lamb nailed the sideline conversion to cut the gap to four and kicked his next chance four minutes later too after Jake Dawe barged his way over, the extras giving the visitors a two-point lead.
Hawks hit back straight away when Fogg crashed over for his second before Brien split the two blues' line open to find space. The holding down penalty gave the Tigers a chance, but the fifth-tackle kick from Ranse - a good one - was knocked dead by the chasing Abel Lefaoseu, giving Hawks a seven-tackle set.
They used just three before getting a penalty and Alex Prout burrowed over from dummy-half two tackles into the new set, Young's conversion extending Hawks' lead to 28-18.
That looked to be the final nail in the coffin but once again Oberon roared back, they weren't able to score again after Brien's 78th minute try though.
"We finished strong which I was happy with that, we played some up-tempo footy in the second half and that's what we wanted, but we're going to be relying on a few others results to go our way now I think if we want to play semi-final footy," Starling said.
Hawks and Panthers have moved six points clear at the top now, while Oberon remain in seventh but thanks to Orange CYMS' loss to Lithgow, they're still just two points adrift of the top five.
- ORANGE HAWKS 28 (Lawrence Fogg 2, Alex Prout, Talon Hodge, Duncan Young tries; Young 4 goals) def OBERON TIGERS 24 (Jackson Brien, Matt Ranse, Elias Dukes, Jake Dawe tries; Farren Lamb 4 goals)
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