Story from – Illawarra Mercury
THIRROUL made their second bite at the grand final cherry count on Saturday night with two tries in the final nine minutes enough to edge out Dapto 20-12 in a thrilling a preliminary final.
Coming up against a rested Canaries outfit, and fresh off a 20-4 loss to Wests in the major semi-final a week earlier, the Butchers were staring down the the barrel of a straight sets finals exit when they trailed 12-8 at the break.
With their grip on a grand final berth slipping, skipper Joel Johnson proved the key man, putting lock Mick Morris across for the go-ahead try in the 71st minute, before sealing the deal with his second try eight minutes later.
Having admitted his side missed the post-season jump against the Devils last week, coach Jarrod Costello was full of praise for his side’s bounce back effort against a veteran finals outfit.
“We knew we had to another level. Wests went to another level last week and we didn’t,” Costello said.
“We knew there’d be 10-15-minute periods where Dapto would have all the running and, being the side they are, we’d have to hang in there. That’s the way we’ve played all year and it’s what our club’s about.
“We probably didn’t do it all that well in the first half, we went in 12-8 down, but I’m really proud of the way we stuck to it and, when we got a bit of field position we jagged two [tries] late.
“Johnno, Leigh Higgins, Jake Walsh, Payney [Jack Payne], Mick Morris, all the guys who are really important to us, really stepped up when it counted and that’s really pleasing.
“They’re a tight bunch of boys and they deserve to play next week. They’ve been in the top two teams all year and thoroughly deserve to be in a grand final. We set out at the start of the year to win the comp and we’ve given ourselves the opportunity to do it.”
The Canaries gave themselves every chance of reaching a third straight decider, with Lulia Lulia and Dylan McGregor bagging tries in response to Johnson’s third-minute four-pointer, to lead 12-8 at halftime.
It gave them more than a sniff, but captain-coach Michael Henderson was left fuming over calls he felt went against his side – chiefly a try not awarded to back-rower Joel Reddy.
He also felt an obstruction call against young fullback Harry Freebairn 10 metres out from the Butchers line looked very similar Morris’ try six minutes later. Ordinarily loath to talk about refereeing, win or lose, a gutted Henderson didn’t mince words discussing some decisions made by referee Taylor Cleveland.
“I’ve never, not once, whinged about a referee, but there were two different sides out there, it was blatantly obvious,” Henderson said.
“Joel Reddy scored and it got called dead. We got called for an obstruction at one end and they did a blatant obstruction and it was called a try [for Morris].
“If you catch the ball inside a lead runner, regardless of what the defence does, it’s an obstruction. We got called for it at the other end on a similar play so there’s just no consistency.
“I’ve never whinged to anyone and maybe I should’ve. Maybe I should’ve pointed out a few errors in the past because it seems to work if you do. It’s nothing personal but it’s a semi-final, it’s just not good enough.
“I’m not taking anything away from Thirroul, they’re a great team, a gutsy team, and they’re captain and leader [Johnson] had a great game so I wish them all the best.
“We weren’t good enough, but it’s a 12-point turnaround and it kills you. I’m just gutted for the boys.”
Adding to the pain was the fact Saturday’s loss was the end of the road for a number of club veterans, including Henderson, who will hang up the clipboard and take some time decide if he puts the boots on the same shelf.
“It’s just time to take a step back, I’ve got family and things and coaching’s just become too much,”he said.
“I’ve been playing footy for a long time and I’ll just play it by ear and see how I’m feeling. We had some really good times and we’ve had a really good bunch of blokes the whole three years.
“There’s only been one game in that whole time where I doubted our effort and that was this year against Wests when we got touched up. To have one game [like that] in three years, it’s really hard to do.
“Everyone’s been up for us in those few years and it just goes to show the commitment to each other this group has got. I want to thank the club for the opportunity and, in particular, the boys.
“It’s been a privilege and I’ve got nothing but immense pride in the boys and how they’ve carried themselves.”