Spirit prevail in NRC Final cliffhanger
MATCH REPORT: The National Rugby Championship has crowned a new champion as Perth Spirit ran out 20-16 winners over NSW Country Eagles in an enthralling contest at a chilly Scully Park in Tamworth on Saturday.
Fuelled by a stirring defensive effort, the West Australians secured their first title in front of an enthusiastic country crowd which was hoping to see the minor premiers come away with the spoils.
Both sides got away to a strong start but it was Perth Spirit, playing in their second Final in three years, who looked set to claim first points when Richard Hardwick barged over in the 13th minute, only to be denied in a desperate tackle by Eagles wing Reece Robinson to prevent the loose forward from grounding the ball.
Robinson had a chance of his own shortly after when he blazed down the left touchline but couldn't regather a kick with the tryline beckoning.
It took a moment of individual brilliance to see the first points of the day registered when Spirit fullback Luke Morahan shed multiple tackles in a run from inside his own half to streak away, then kick and regather to score ten minutes out from the break. The 30-minute try-scoring drought was the longest such stretch in any NRC match this season.
It didn't take long before another six-pointer was added, when Spirit scrumhalf Ryan Louwrens finished out wide after a neat offload from Onehunga Havili to make it 12-0 to the visitors.
Desperately needing to strike before the half, the Eagles' break came through Sam Figg who barged over to close the gap to four points after Andrew Deegan's conversion.
The second stanza started in the opposite vein to the first, when Louwrens snuck onto the blindside from a Spirit scrum win deep in the Eagles half and combined nicely with No.8 Brynard Stander to go over untouched in the right corner after only four minutes.
A war of attrition ensued, with both sides chancing their arm repeatedly only to be repelled by an equally-committed defensive line on both sides of the field.
The Perth side were tested when first, prop Pek Cowan, and later, Stander were shown yellow cards, but managed to maintain their advantage through some clinical work at the breakdown and remarkable goal line defence.
As the clock ticked down inside the final 10 minutes, the Eagles launched raid after raid at the Spirit line and eventually cracked them when replacement Tom Hill barged over adjacent to the posts.
The successful conversion from Deegan closed the gap to just four points with as many minutes left on the clock, but time proved the home side's biggest enemy. A last minute attacking phase was thwarted and the visitors sent the ball into touch to seal the deal.
For Perth Spirit
Tries: Louwrens 2, Morahan tries
NSW Country Eagles
Tries: Figg, Hill
Cons: Deegan 2
Referee: Nick Berry
Assistant referees: William Houston, Rohan Hoffmann
TMO: George Ayoub