A bushfire burned near Nabiac on Saturday, but it was on the rugby field below the showground where the damage was done in a four-try inferno created by the Wallamba Bulls’ centre, Chris Tout, in the preliminary final elimination of the Manning River Ratz.
Rugby union doesn’t come much better than this: each team running in five tries, hard, technically engrossing football, the lead changing, an all-in heavyweight brawl, three yellow cards, before the Bulls ran down the Ratz, 39-29, decided eventually by the shining boot of fullback Steven Curnow.
Chris Tout’s skills have long been acknowledged.
Fast, powerful, he has had ruby league offers from Sydney and Brisbane.
But he was a home body, enjoying his local football.
If he left, he always came back.
Coach Lee Sullivan moved him into the centres with slick midfielder James Handford still recovering from a torn hamstring muscle and James Dinnan required elsewhere, and in the second minute Tout was responsible for a charge-down, recovering in time for the touchdown.
If the Ratz were disheartened they never showed it.
They trailed for much of the game, and kept fighting back, displaying the courage and spirit for which Taree men are known.
Every time Tout touched the ball, running wide, swerving fast, and scoring, the Ratz responded, often detonated by their lock monster, Blake Howard, bumping off tacklers daft enough to attempt to tackle him high.
But it was the incisive Ratz five-eighth Josh Ross who triggered the Ratz’ initial try, making the break for winger Jack Chapman to slash through to the line.
Slick winger Jake Schumaker was next to score for the Bulls, capitalising on the bullocking run by a streamlined Ben Blanchard, and the Ratz responded with No 8 James Grainger surging through from Howard’s charge.
The Bulls led 24-12 at the interval from Tout’s towering punt which the Ratz failed to mark.
As always, Tout was on hand for the try.
Soon after the resumption, the game erupted when a Ratz player was punched, undetected by officials, the mayhem causing an excellent referee Graham Sonter to deliver yellow cards to rival centres, James Farrawell and Lee McDonald, with Tout already in the sin bin for a head high tackle.
Winger Luke Bartlett was at the end of a Ratz chain launched by lock Tim Rogers and involving Howard’s brother, centre Brody, for the Ratz to trail 17-24, after which the little gem, Josh Ross, flashed through a tardy Bulls defence: 22-24.
Ratz supporters were in raptures when speedster Chapman eluded tacklers and swept along the wing for his team’s lead with a blistering 65-metre try in a fashion which should make him a certainty for coach Angus Anderson’s Mid North Coast Axemen’s squad for next winter’s NSW Country championships.
Smart backs are nothing without strong forwards, and the Bulls had a quality pack, led by Aaron Gordon and Daniel Hessing.
From starting hooker Luke Griffis and then Dan Sawyer, and the line-out work of Dan Barber and Rhys Hessing, they won good ball.
Tout resumed lighting grass fires, snatching back the lead with a superb third try, sealing victory with his fourth in the last minute.
A saddened but inspired Ratz coach, Jake Maurirere, said: “I’m proud of them. They were so brave.
“Wallamba have had a lot of experience. We’ll be back next year, better for the experience.”
It isn’t the Year of the Bulls yet. They are just one game away from making it a reality next Saturday in the grand final. Their Dolphins rivals were wiser spectators at Nabiac.
WALLAMBA 39 (C Tout 4 J Schumaker tries; S Curnow 4 goals 2 pen goals) beat MANNING RIVER 29 (J Chapman 2 J Grainger L Bartlett J Ross tries; L Bartlett 2 goals).
WALLAMBA will meet FORSTER TUNCURRY next Saturday in the grand final at Peter Barclay Field, Tuncurry, 3pm. Entry: $5 per adult.