Seahorses power to the FNC rugby union premiership
By STEVE SPINKS
A CASE of jelly legs wasn't enough to stop Ballina powering to a 28-19 Coopers Far North Coast rugby union grand final over Grafton at Lismore Rugby Park on Saturday.
The Seahorses led from start to finish but struggled to put away the minor premiers in a willing, physical encounter in front of a good crowd.
"I'm ecstatic with the win but disappointed with the way we played," Ballina coach Andrew Grant-Frost said.
"We had serious jelly legs from the start.
"We didn't advance the line in defence or attack and we didn't tackle around the legs."
With the match poised at 25-19 after a late fightback from the Redmen, it was left to Seahorses captain Andrew Gordon to seal the match in the final minute with a penalty goal.
His successful kick and referee Steve Williamson's whistle brought rapturous scenes from the Ballina contingent, who had earlier seen their club win third grade and reserve grade.
Grafton broke the streak in Under-19s by defeating Wollongbar-Alstonville.
"I thought our defence won us the game," a delighted Gordon told The Northern Star.
"We only have a small backline, but we had a lot of patience today."
The Seahorses started the match full of vigour with a try in only the second minute.
After receiving a penalty, Gordon opted to go for a line-out and the try rather than taking a shot at goal.
The bold decision worked with second-rower Dru Baggaley barging over amid a sea of bodies.
Gordon converted for a 7-0 lead.
However, from the restart the Redmen forced a turnover and rampaging No 8 Bart McGrath made a bust down a short blindside with only desperate defence stopping a try.
But from the next play, Grafton charged down Ballina five-eighth Tony Buchanan's kick to score through centre Scott Lloyd. Fullback Aaron Taylor converted for a 7-all scoreline after a frenetic five minutes.
The scoring continued shortly after with Gordon kicking a long-range penalty goal and then Ballina were in for their second try through NSW Country representative Ben Sattler.
After a wonky cross-field kick by Buchanan, Grafton fumbled and winger Trent Gasnier regathered possession with some neat work. He then set off downfield, drew the defence and found Sattler in support.
Gordon kicked his third for the match and the Seahorses led 17-7 after 15 minutes.
That's how the score remained until half-time, with both sides missing opportunities.
One highlight in the final minutes before the break was a bell-ringer of a tackle from Ballina hooker Andrew Rowlands on a flying Taylor.
It would have warmed the hearts of frontrowers everywhere.
The second half brought no respite from the big hits.
In the 44th minute Baggaley caught Grafton centre Ken Mercy high. While Mercy received attention Grafton captain-coach Garry Powell made three changes, bringing on big backs Jon Chevalley, Ray Mercy and Steve Gallagher.
The trio made an immediate impact, making inroads into the Ballina defence.
However, last-minute covering tackles by Gasnier, Sattler and backrowers Liam Preston, Michael Lord and Danny Lickiss repelled the danger.
Gordon edged Ballina further in front with a penalty goal at the 50th minute for 20-17.
Ten minutes later Gordon had another shot at goal but missed from long range.
From the ensuing drop-out, Ballina made a break down the short side, the pass went to ground, Gasnier toed through and fullback Luke Watling regathered to force his way over for an opportunists try.
At 25-7, the Seahorses had the premiership in the bag, but the Redmen surged back into contention in the final 10 minutes.
Firstly, second-rower Jono Speechley crashed over from short range to cut the lead to 25-12.
Not long after, Lickiss was sin-binned for a professional foul, leaving Ballina with 14 men.
From the penalty, Ken Mercy scored a converted try after finding himself in space after a neat pass from his brother Ray.
At 25-19 it looked like Grafton may snatch their second premiership in a row, but from the restart Ballina forced a penalty and Gordon slotted the goal for the final scoreline.
Gasnier was the pick of a courageous Seahorses backline, with Sattler and Buchanan not far behind.
In the forwards, Rowlands, Lickiss and Preston shone.
BALLINA 28 (Dru Baggaley, Ben Sattler, Luke Watling tries; Andrew Gordon 2 Conversions, 3 penalty goals) d GRAFTON 19 (Scott Lloyd, Jono Speechley, Ken Mercy tries; Aaron Taylor 2 conversions). Half-time: Ballina 17-7. Referee: Steve Williamson. What they said:
Ballina coach Andrew Grant-Frost:
On the match: When they (Grafton) came home in the last 10 minutes I was worried. They beat us in the first round in the last few minutes so it felt a little like de ja vu. I'm very happy that the club won three grades.'
On Ballina: It's been a pleasure to coach the club this year. I had to make some tough decisions earlier with selections and fitness issues but I believe we've created the platforms of a good first-grade side for the next five years.'
On his players: I thought Gasnier played well, as did Luke Watling (fullback). For a 75kg fullback he keeps popping up under pressure. Lickiss at No 8 was outstanding.'
Ballina captain Andrew Gordon:
On the match: I was definitely concerned when Ken scored that second try at the end. I told the boys we had to fight hard because we had trained so hard for this premiership all year. I don't think I've trained harder in any sport than we did this year. As Andrew Grant-Frost says, we had a mental, physical team.'
On his players: I thought Liam Preston was outstanding. He's only young but he has a big all-round game. He's a pest. Dru Baggaley was strong and Tony Buchanan is just an extraordinary player with great footwork.'