Wollongbar wins through to a seventh straight grand final
WOLLONGBAR-Alstonville is one win away from a fifth straight premiership after a hard-fought 43-36 win over Ballina in the Far North Coast rugby union major semi-final at Lyle Park, Wollongbar.
It was not the Pioneers' most polished or dominant performance but it was enough to earn a grand final spot for a seventh straight year.
Centre Matt Nean put them in a winning position when he bagged his second try, giving the home side a 33-17 lead early in the second half.
They skipped ahead by another three points courtesy of a penalty goal to fullback Sam Kerry before Ballina laid on back-to-back tries to set up a close finish.
The Seahorses' forwards led the way with second-rower Ryan Hamilton crashing over while winger Joel Noble scored in the corner to reduce the margin to 36-29.
Ballina gave up valuable field position in the final minutes and it took an individual effort from winger Daniel Damen to streak away and seal the match-winning try for the Pioneers.
"In a major semi-final it doesn't matter if it's a bit ugly, you just want the result and now we're on our way to the big dance," Wollongbar-Alstonville coach Ern Sandral said.
"We also know that we have a bit to work on and we gave Ballina plenty of opportunities to get back into that game.
"There are a lot of dangerous play- ers in our backline but I don't think they played particularly well today.
"There were moments when they did really well and other times where our decision-making was a bit poor.
"But we'll talk about that during the week and the idea is obviously that we'll be better next time."
The Pioneers had scored early points with a try to Kerry before Ballina winger Terry Ferguson laid on consecutive tries.
His second was a long-range intercept where he ran 70m to put Ballina in front 10-7.
However, it was the last time they were ahead with tries to Nean and flankers Hamish Mould and Nick Pennisi taking the Pioneers out to a 26-10 lead at half-time.
It was a big effort from Ballina to fight back after losing hooker Brett Johnston to injury and front-rower Sam Pearce to a blue card for a head knock in the first half.
Centre Anthony Lolohea finished the game with two barnstorming tries including one where he stepped around five-eighth Ben Damen and hooker Bill Johnston.
"They recovered well considering they lost two front-rowers early," Sandral said. "We don't have that sort of experience with our props off the bench but we have faith in them."
In other games, Lennox Head beat Ballina 14-3 in reserve grade while Yamba had a 24-18 win over Evans Head in President's Cup.
In the minor semi-final Lennox Head had a 40-17 win over Byron Bay at Quays Reserve, Ballina today.
Mullumbimby beat Byron Bay 32-10 in reserve grade and Kyogle beat Tenterfield 22-10 in President's Cup.