FIERCE BATTLE: Luke Gallagher comes to grips with Will Temaari in Saturday’s clash between Thirroul and Wests. Picture: Anna Warr
Story from: Illawarra Mercury
By: Mitch Jennings
In what was just the latest chapter in an enthralling rivalry, the Butchers led 14-2 at halftime but had to dig deep to hold off a 12-man Devils, with a penalty goal to to Luke Gallagher their only points in the second stanza.
The Devils overcame the loss of star fullback Tony Pellow to a hamstring injury and prop Keiran Rankmore to a a 64th minute send-off to make a game of it, grabbing two tries in a second-half onslaught that fell just short.
After making just two errors in a near faultless first half, Butchers coach Jarrod Costello said his side’s first win over a top-two rival since round one will be a major confidence booster with finals just around the corner
“I think that type of performance has been a while coming for us, we’ve been in and out of games and not really doing a job,” Costello said.
“We haven’t been at our best recently but the boys have been working really hard and we’ve been trying to make sure we knock off one of these top teams before we go in [to the finals].
“They’re a really good side, they were a man down and they came at us hard, the tables turned from the first time we played them this year. We had to play 20 minutes with 12 against them at home with two sin-bins so I know how hard that is to do.
“Full credit to them for coming back the way they did, they’re a really committed side, I’m just really pleased we were able to defend our way to it today.”
It sees Thirroul jump to the top of the ladder and, barring what would be a major upset loss to Berkeley next week, will claim the minor premiership on for and against from Collegians even if the Dogs beat Helensburgh in the final round.
The Devils now look set to finish third regardless of the result against Dapto next week unless the final round tosses up a host of upsets, leaving them facing an elimination semi-final in week one of the post-season.
“We’ve still got one more hurdle to go next week with Berkeley, it’s their last game of the year and they’re going to come out firing,” Costello said.
“We’re close but it’s more about how we’re playing. The minor premierships’s great if you get it but for me personally it’s more about the club championship and just making sure we’re playing good footy when we get there.
“Like Pete [McLeod] said this week, there’s pros and cons to finishing first or third, it’s about how you play when you get there and we took a step in the right direction today.
“We played ourselves into a bit of form and hopefully now we can keep improving heading into the semis.”
The Devils had a glut of possession early on but had just a sixth minute penalty goal to Zac Greene to show for it, with Hayden Crosland finishing an outstanding team try against the run of play three minutes later.
The Butchers had most of the momentum from there, with Gallagher landing his first penalty goal and skipper Joel Johnson burrowing over just moments before halftime for a 14-2 lead.
Disaster struck for the Devils, with Pellow pulling up lame just four minutes after the resumption and hobbling from the park. The hosts found a silver lining in shifting Rhys Hanbury to fullback, with the veteran grabbing his side’s first try five minutes later.
Gallagher grabbed his second penalty goal for an eight-point lead and things turned further against the Devils when Rankmore was marched with just under 20 minutes to play.
He looked to have taken the Devils hopes with him only for Mitch Barbuto to produce one of the plays of the season to hold up a runaway Blake Higgins and deny what would’ve been the match-winning try.
They drew even closer when Greene laid on a try for Lachlan Hurst only to then cannon the very kickable conversion attempt into the upright, keeping the margin at four – one the Butchers were good enough to hold to the end.
It was ultimately a heartbreaking defeat but Devils coach Pete McLeod found some small victories in the performance.
“I was definitely proud of the effort, particularly in the second half after we went down to 12 men,” McLeod said.
“It was 14-2 at halftime and we spoke about playing every minute until the 80th and I thought we could get them at the back end. We nearly did but Thirroul were better on the day and they got the points.
“I thought it was a resilient effort, the boys have always got that, but we haven’t won the last couple of big games we’ve played so we need to find something and be better in the coming weeks.”
McLeod was yet to have a look at replays of Rankmore’s send-off which could give the club some judiciary headaches this week.
“It happened really quick, Keiran was putting inside pressure on,” McLeod said.
“It definitely wasn’t late, it was simultaneous. I don’t know what the first point of contact was but it was a pretty tough one I think.”
Elsewhere Helensburgh all but secured themselves fourth spot with a 42-8 win over Berkeley, giving themselves a 42-point for-and-against buffer from Dapto who had the bye.
It leaves them both on 12 points ahead of final-round clashes against Collegians and Wests respectfully, with the Dogs looking to secure a top two finish after notching a 58-6 win over Corrimal on Saturday.