The Forster Tuncurry Dolphins will recharge batteries for their fifth successive Lower Mid North Coast rugby union grand final while the Wallamba Bulls and Manning River Ratz strive to end their wandering in the desert in next Saturday’s sudden-death premiership final at Nabiac.
An engrossing, brutally hard major semifinal saw the Dolphins defeat the Bulls, two tries to nil and 17-9, after the Ratz eclipsed the Myall Coast Mudcrabs, 60-5, before a merciful ending to the minor semifinal of the double-header at Peter Barclay Field, Tuncurry.
An impressed spectator was Angus Anderson, coach of the MNC representative team, who guided the Axemen from their own wilderness after an eternity in the Richardson Shield into the upper tier of NSW Country championship rugby at Port Macquarie earlier this winter.
Three Dolphins chosen by Anderson as his best and fairest from the major semifinal were players who have been among the finest in the competition all year, playmaker Matt Nuku, open-side flanker Tom Homer and his breakaway partner, Troy Haines.
Play-off games at this time of year are rarely exhibitions of purity, rather bone-rattling displays of physicality and courage.
So it was at Barclay Field, although some of the running of Manning River’s wingers, Jack Chapman and Luke Bartlett, was enthralling stuff.
The Bulls opened with a barrage of crashing runs by their big men in an attempt to carve a pathway for their backs only to find the strong-tackling Dolphins willing and able to confront and cope with the strategy.
It ended any perception the Dolphins were “soft”.
But it required the experience and strength of almost 200 games of the Dolphins’ MNC representative prop, Ben Manning, to counter the weight and technique of Chris Phieffer, a newcomer to this region’s rugby, described by Manning as “probably the best loose-head I’ve scrummed against in my 10 years.”
If the Bulls had superiority in some scrums with personnel changes, it said much for the Dolphins’ replacement hooker Haines and then Jeremy Innes that they should steal a tight-head strike from their rivals with Homer and Lachlan Daczko edging their opponents in the line-outs.
Nuku’s long-range 40-metre penalty goal opened proceedings in the sixth minute to which the Bulls’ marksman, fullback Steven Curnow, responded with the first of three successful strikes.
It was the Dolphins’ traditional wing-to-wing rugby which broke down the Bulls’ defences in the 24th minute, five-eighth Nuku moving the ball to the right flank and then wheeling it back to link with invaluable utility, Tom Harris, for the final pass for No 8 Daczko’s try.
Just three minutes later, the Dolphins drove deep into Bulls’ territory for the armour-plated Haines to barrel through for the critical second try and 17-3 lead.
The Bulls lacked nothing in courage, Rhys Hessing tackling fiercely, No 8 Daniel Aldridge crunching the ball forward on numerous punishing occasions, centres James Dinnan and Lee MacDonald proving tough and resourceful.
But the tackling of Nuku and Mark Hagarty contributed frequently to nullifying their attacks and though Chris Tout gradually came into proceedings in midfield, his long, dangerous runs were missing.
The Bulls battled to the end, failing to capitalise on the yellow carding of centre Kurt Forester and then hooker Scott Walmsley, their forwards’ most concerted attack in the second half ending with the ball knocked on in the Dolphins’ in-goal area.
FORSTER TUNCURRY 17 (L Daczko T Haines tries; M Nuku 2 goals pen goal) beat WALLAMBA 9 (S Curnow 3 pen goals). MANNING RIVER 60 (J Chapman 2 Brodie Howard 2 J Grainger L Bartlett W Gahan Blake Howard J Farrawell I Solomon tries; Bartlett 5 goals) beat MYALL COAST 5 (A Rushby try).
Forster qualify for grand final at Tuncurry on Saturday week. Wallamba to play Manning River in preliminary final at Nabiac on Saturday.