IT loomed as a very dangerous game for Thirroul, but the Butchers ensured two bites at the grand final cherry with a 32-16 win over Helensburgh on Saturday.
In what was a swansong match on home turf for retiring Tigers stalwarts Steve McCallum and Grant Smith, the Butchers shot out to an early 12-0 lead and were never headed, despite the hosts finishing strongly in both halves.
The Butchers risked being leapfrogged into second spot by Collegians – who won handily over Berkeley – had they dropped the match, but outlasted the Tigers, with the physical clash proving the ideal lead in to the finals for coach Jarrod Costello’s men.
“We knew it was going to be hard place to come and play, it always is, especially with Tower [McCallum] and Smithy finishing up,” Costello said.
“They’re a really proud club and we knew they were going to play with a lot of emotion and intent which they did. It wasn’t a great performance from us but we did enough there to score some back to back tries and get away with it.
“I’m really proud of the guys. At the start of the year we wanted to get into the top four, then midway through we thought we were playing well enough and were sitting high enough on the ladder to get top two.
“We’ve achieved that and that’s great. We gave ourselves a bit of a round of applause but that’s it, we’ve put that to bed. The real competition starts in the semis and we’ve got Wests so that’ll be a real tough one.”
The final wash-up saw Wests, who had he final-round bye, claim the minor premiership, setting up a mouth-watering major semi-final stoush with the Butchers in two weeks’ time.
The visitors moved quickly to take the emotion out of the clash, with Callum Tutauha and Joel Johnson getting across in the opening seven minutes for a 12-0 lead. The Tigers hit back through Mutu Stanley before Damien Sironen re-took momentum for the visitors.
Wayne Bremner crossed 11 minutes after halftime make a game of it at 20-12 before tries to Luke Dodge, Leigh Higgins and Ethan George sealed the win, Bremner’s second try a consolation.
It told the story of a tough season for the Tigers, who’ve been near enough but not quite good enough is plenty of clashes, and coach Gavin Lennon is confident there are some positive building blocks in place for 2019.
“You can only ask the boys to keep turning up so much when you’ve got nothing to play for, today we had everything to play for with [McCallum and Smith] but sometimes you just don’t have the cattle,” Lennon said.
“If we’d played like that [all season] ll we’d be sitting higher on the table. We’ve got no one to blame but ourselves for that.
“With the blokes we’ve got coming through we’ve got a good core there, we just need to build on it. There’s some key positions we’ve got to fill but with this new salary cap coming in [next season] it’s a game-changer for us.
“If we can get a couple of key guys to fill those roles we’re looking good.”
Meanwhile, both of last year’s grand finalists will head into this weekend’s minor semi-final in a rich vein of form having racked up a combined 120 points in final-round wins on Saturday.
Dapto ran in 11 tries, including four to winger Josh Bryant, in a 62-4 win over Corrimal, while Collegians ran in the same number of four-pointers despite being down to 12 men for most of the second half in their 58-12 win over Berkeley.
The 12-man Dogs were briefly had a one-man advantage with Eagles pair Matt Waugh and Jake Harrigan sent to the sin-bin after a scuffle. Dogs five-eighth Paul Roberts was sent off for his role in the same incident that will be scrutinised by the match review panel.
It’s an unwelcome headache for coach Nathan Fien, with Roberts having stepped into the No. 6 jumper vacated by star half Jarrod Boyle, who won’t feature again this season. The elimination match shapes as a blockbuster, with the two heavyweights having built an enthralling rivalry the past two seasons.