Story by: Mitch Jennings
A 44-12 loss to Thirroul put paid to the Cougars finals hopes but the performance, in which they were unlucky to trail 16-12 at halftime, was in season-defining in other ways.
They were ultimately outclassed by the league leaders in the second half but assistant coach James McClory was proud of the way the squad lifted for their coach.
“We put it to the boys that it was about a bit more than football today,” McClory said.
“It was about Sean and [son] Tommy [Maloney] and their family back home in England and I think we really stuck together as a squad and club.
“The scoreline didn’t really reflect it but that first half we stuck it to them and played really well. Unfortunately it blew out a bit in the second but it’s just one of those things.
“Sean’s had a three-year plan from when he started, we’re in the second year and I think everyone in the Illawarra Rugby League has seen the steps we’ve taken.
“On our day when we turn up we’re really damaging and quite competitive so we’re building in the right way and it’s a credit to Sean and what he’s done.”
With the the chance to go top of the table on the line, the Butchers were slow to start but still found themselves up 10-0 through tries to Tom Simpson and Joel Johnson.
Having made most of the early running, the Cougars hit back through Wiremu Peters before a try to Blake Higgins re-took a 10-point buffer.
Jamie Marinovic’s four-pointer two minutes before halftime cut it back to four, giving the visitors a sniff of an upset heading into the second stanza.
They had most of the running following the resumption before Higgins’ 60-metre effort against the run of play for his second try proved the heart-breaker.
It opened the floodgates, with the Butchers running another four unanswered four tries to run out winners.
It saw them edge past Wests into top spot on for and against, though coach Jarrod Costello says his side is still looking for top form with three weeks left before the finals.
“We were pretty poor in the first half,” Costello said.
“They played with a lot more intensity than us and brought a lot more energy to the game and were probably the better side in the first 40 minutes.
“To turn around in the second half, hold them to 12 and not let them score was pleasing but we need to make sure we’re not missing the jump.
“We’ve only got three games now before the semis so we’ve got to make sure we’re starting like we were the first four or five games of the year because we were pretty ordinary at the start today.”
It leaves the Butchers in the box seat for the minor premiership, with that title likely go on the line when they meet Wests in a fortnight.
Top spot is a handy place to start from, but Costello said his side need to find another gear over the remaining three rounds.
“We’re not where we need to be, we’ve been pretty open and and honest about that,” Costello said.
“[top spot] is a good position to be in but I want to make sure we’re playing good footy leading into the semis. That’s when you’ve got to be at your best.
“I know we’ll get there, we’re working hard at it, but we need to make sure we’re on the front foot and getting ready
“We’ve got the Burgh and then Wests so we’ve got two really important games coming up back to back now and we need to go to another level.”