Wicks into final after downing brave Gordon in 10-try thriller

Photo: SPA Images

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With Sydney University grabbing the first grand final place the day before, it was left to Randwick and Gordon to fight out for the right to join them in next week’s showcase. And in a repeat of last year’s semi-final clash, both sides had redemption on their minds.

The Highlanders were keen to avenge that heartbreaking loss, when they were just nine minutes away from the big dance, while the Wicks had Sydney Uni in their sights and a shot at payback for last year’s one-sided final. With both teams keen to throw the ball around given the chance, an exciting and attacking game beckoned, and with plenty of ammunition to be found in both backlines, who would be left standing after this gunfight?

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Gordon got the start they wanted with a Dave Harvey penalty after three minutes. However, their defence – which had performed admirably to keep Warringah out at Rat Park the previous week – was breached rather too easily a couple of minutes later, as Frankie Fainifo came in off his wing, found some space through the middle, and swerved his way to the posts.

The Galloping Greens were applying a lot of pressure early on, forcing their opposition to push passes and cough-up turnovers as a result. They also turned up the heat with good field position, giving them a chance to test the Highlander’s line-out, and the accuracy of prop-turned-hooker Tobias Gukibau’s throws. And it was a line-out on Gordon’s 10 metre line that did indeed lead to the next points in the match, but not in the manner expected.

With the Wicks in possession, Gordon’s defensive line spread themselves across the park in preparation for the imminent assault via Marshall Milroy, Ratu Nasiganiyavi, or Bernie Orbell. But when the ball found the hands of Tim Walsh in front of the posts, he simply straightened up and popped over a field-goal. There were a few mutterings of discontent amongst the watching crowd, but it was of little concern to Walsh or his team mates as they jogged back for the restart with a 7pt lead.

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Dane Haylett-Petty gets airborne for the Highlanders – Photo: SPA Images

That was reduced to 3pts moments later, after a swift counter-attack from Viliame Ratu and Matt McDougall eventually earned a penalty for offside, and Harvey swung his magical left foot once more to make it 10-6. But back came the Wicks as they attacked with real intent, and after an impressive set of phases had manoeuvred them to within 15 metres and the ball found Walsh in front of the posts – bop – over went another field-goal.

The previous mutterings now turned into a chorus of ironic boos from the neutrals, Gordon supporters, and even their own fans, with one irked enough to shout ‘You’re supposed to play running rugby Randwick!’

With 24 minutes on the clock, Gordon fullback Dane Haylett-Petty put up a clearing kick that didn’t get the length he was hoping for as it looped it’s way towards a waiting Nasiganiyavi on the left flank. If the giant winger had caught it, you wouldn’t have backed against him beating the two defenders in his path to find the line. But whether he lost the flight of the ball in the sun or somehow misjudged it, it fell five metres behind him and straight into the hands of a charging Matt McDougall, who read it perfectly to sprint away down the open field for Gordon’s first five-pointer.

Straight from the restart, a high shot on Stephen Hoiles gave Milroy the opportunity to make it 16-11 which he duly did, as the absorbing contest rattled along at a point a minute. And just after the half-hour, Randwick showcased their far more appealing expansive football to stretch their lead.

Patient play from the forwards kept the ball moving down the left channel, as Sekope Kepu and skipper Atonio Halangahu repeatedly smashed into the Gordon defence. And after making plenty of metres the ball was flashed wide right to Walsh, who executed a perfect wrap-around return pass to Kepu, onto Orbell, and finally the unmarked Fainifo, who was able to run in his second and give the Wicks a 10pt half-time advantage at 21-11.

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Marshall Milroy bagged a 17pt haul for Randwick – Photo: SPA Images

If Gordon were hoping to strike back early in the second half, the first 10 minutes definitely didn’t go the way they intended. Just five minutes in, a ‘garryowen’ into the their half wasn’t dealt with, and Hoiles capitalised on the mistake to snatch the loose ball and carry it 15 metres further into enemy territory. With plenty of support helping out at the next breakdown, Shaun Foley recycled it wide, where quick hands created an overlap for Milroy to cross in the corner.

A constant stream of replacements bolstered both sides going into the final half hour, with Drew Mitchell – who’d only arrived back in Sydney that morning following his part in the Wallabies’ capitulation to the All Blacks the previous night –  replacing an out of sorts Nasiganiyavi, with the big man looking like he’s yet to fully recover from the knee injury that kept him out for the last month.

It was also great to see Waratah and Wallaby hooker Adam Freier make his comeback in 1st Grade after a lengthy injury spell. The only surprise was that he replaced Seilala Lam in the no.7 jersey, leaving Halangahu at hooker. Gordon also made their usual change of the last few weeks, taking off the industrious Paulie Tuala and bringing on young gun Chris Alcock in the backrow.

But the changes didn’t affect the one-sided flow on the scoreboard, and with Gordon really needing to score next, head coach Lachie Fear must have been tearing his hair out as indiscipline cost them a further 3pts from a Milroy penalty, to leave them trailing 31-11.

However, with the game starting to look lost, the Highlanders finally clicked in the final third and constructed a trademark try to restore hope. Haylett-Petty attacked the right flank at speed before a series of phases saw Terry Preston go close. Possession then changed hands a couple of times before Gordon took control once more, and the ball was recycled to newcomer Alcock. He attacked straight down the middle before finding Mark Preston, who exchanged passes with prop Marty Plokstys, burst through a gap, and dived for the line, carrying a valiant effort from Freier with him.

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Gordon flanker Chris Alcock impressed again off the bench – Photo: SPA Images

More replacements on the hour saw Fainifo come off to rapturous applause for his two-try effort, with Western Force recruit Nick Cummins taking his place. And it was the Wicks who went in again, Henry Vanderglas suddenly emerging from a ruck with the pill to break through a few half-hearted tackles and find the line.

In another indication of the uneven strength-in-depth available to both teams, Randwick took off Brumby half-back Patrick Phibbs, and brought on Brumby and Wallaby half-back Josh Valentine to see out the last 10 minutes. And it was at this point that things went a little crazy, with the last 10 minutes heralding another 29 points. Strap yourselves in.

Gordon certainly weren’t going to die wondering, and they peppered the Randwick line looking for a way back into the match, only for the imperious Kepu to force a turnover. But buoyed by their 18pt lead, the Wicks started to throw the ball around with some ‘off-the-cuff’ rugby, and paid the penalty for their relaxed approach when Halangahu coughed the ball up into the arms of Haylett-Petty, who said thank-you very much and strode away for a try.

The Wicks did themselves no favours with the crowd by taking the opportunity to try and kill the game with Walsh’s third drop goal from the next attack, but Gordon crossed again within a minute. Hooker Gukibau, who put in a sterling effort across the park all game, hammered the line once more before a quick-tap and short pass found Alcock. The impressive 20-year-old shuffled, stepped, dropped a shoulder, and somehow ghosted through some ineffectual defending to make it four tries apiece, and when Harvey did the business, it was now 41-32, and most definitely game on.

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Drew Mitchell and Adam Freier helped the Wicks finish in style in the second half – Photo: SPA Images

The Highlanders were now carving up out wide, and as has been the case so often in their run to the finals, their superior fitness was showing through. But with a mere five minutes left on the clock, the telling play was made that finally sealed their fate.

Moving the ball through the hands, they fashioned another chance on the flank. But with McDougall lying in wait on the touchline, the final pass went astray, and Drew Mitchell swooped to go 50 metres upfield before being reeled in. Three phases later and with Gordon back-pedalling, Walsh put up a clever chip-kick into the corner, and Shaun Foley emerged from nowhere to pluck it out of the air, and touch down to seal the deal.

Randwick landed a knockout punch after the bell to put a slightly uneven look on the scoreboard, Kepu blasting through a hole and side-stepping a tackle to put Hoiles away from 10 metres. Milroy piled on the misery to make it 53-32 with his boot, and it was the Wicks who had booked their place in the grand final for the third time in four years. Can they go one better this time out?

RANDWICK 53 (Francis Fainifo 2, Marshall Milroy, Henry Vanderglas, Shaun Foley, Stephen Hoiles tries; Marshall Milroy 3 cons, 2 pens, Tim Walsh con, 3 field goals) defeated GORDON 32 (Matt McDougall, Mark Preston, Dane Haylett-Petty, Chris Alcock tries; Dave Harvey 3 cons, 2 pens) at Woollahra Oval. HT 21-11

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WHAT THEY SAID

Randwick head coach Gary Ella:

“It was a mixed sort of game but I think overall we played pretty well. They’re a very good side Gordon, and you can’t take your eye off the game. In the end, we probably went a little bit too conservative midway through the 2nd half, and then we decided to attack and open up the game again. It called for tactical changes, and I think both teams were adapting to different conditions and trying different things as the game went on.

“We brought Adam Freier on at no.7 at half-time and he’s a class player. He needs game time and we want to use him next week. The more game time he gets, the better he’s going to be for us. He’s been on at me constantly trying to get out onto the pitch. The last time I spoke to him, he just said ’80, 60, 40, 20, 10 – I don’t care, just get me out there!’

“Sydney Uni are tough, but I don’t think we need to change our plan too much. We’ve got to cut-out errors, we can’t afford to make too many against them. We had a few today where we gave away quite a few penalties and free-kicks at the breakdown, and we’ve got to have a look at that and find out why that was the case. We’ve got to win our ball at the breakdown, if you don’t do that against Uni, you’re in trouble. It’s all about your set-plays and getting your hands on the pill and holding it. We’ll just attack because that’s the way we play and see what happens.”

Gordon head coach Lachlan Fear:

“Their last three weeks hasn’t been very productive in terms of game time, so we definitely thought that if we started hard, it would be tough for them to hit the required intensity level early enough, and we could blow them away. Unfortunately that didn’t come around, and a couple of intelligent field-goals actually put them on the front foot, kept the points ticking over, and made us drop our heads when we didn’t need to.

“We just didn’t get in to any rhythm in the first half. We made some fundamental errors and it came down to the line-out being a really telling area, and it hurt us. We’re down three hookers in the club so we had to manufacture one out of a prop. He’s a wonderful player whose game around the field is awesome, but it’s not a natural skill for him to throw yet and that didn’t help.

“We had the right plan but we just couldn’t execute it today unfortunately, and that’s the way it goes. Even deep into that second half, we isolated ourselves by going individually rather than playing footy as a group. When we did play as a group we scored easily. We knew that we could create numbers on the flanks, we knew that we would get opportunities on either side, we just needed to make sure we could get there and we didn’t do it well enough.

“I don’t think the final score is a true indication of the game, it wasn’t a 19pt ball game. But having said that we gifted some bad tries. I guess they could say that we got an intercept try and a lucky bounce for a runaway try as well so that’s the way it goes – they got some, we got some, they got more.”

Randwick captain Atonio Halangahu:

“Gordon are a great team at kicking the footy and putting the pressure on you. So to beat them at the breakdown is probably the key, and I think we were at least equal with them there, which took us a long way towards beating them. They’re a really well drilled side, so if you can stop their counter-attack and their defensive effort from being so good, then I think you’re a real chance against them.

“You do start to get a bit nervous when they get a bit of momentum because they’re playing for their season. But we stuck at what we had and we’ve got some really good, experienced players which can help you out in a clinch. When you’ve got Drew Mitchell, Josh Valentine and Adam Freier out there guiding you around to finish the game, it always helps. They’ve played footy at the highest level and they understand what it takes to win those tight ones, so it’s a big advantage for us.”

“We’re not playing for bonus points here anymore. Yes, there was a bit of stick from the crowd but that’s fine, we’ll take the game and win it by a point if we have to, I don’t care how we win at this time of year.”

Gordon captain Ed Gower:

“It’s never easy to lose a semi-final, and the fact that they’ve got us two years in a row doesn’t make it any easier. We were really hoping to make up for last year but it wasn’t the way it went unfortunately. We didn’t die wondering, we gave it our all. But we made a few mistakes at crucial times and they’re a good side. We tried to smash them in defence, we tried to smash them at the breakdown, we just couldn’t do any better than we were doing.

“We’ve just got to keep building. Every time we lose like this it’s an experience, the team gets a year older, and each loss makes you drive a bit harder next time. We always focus on our game and we just go out as hard as we can, and if we can keep hold of the same players again, you never know what can happen next year.”

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Randwick: 1. Sekope Kepu; 2. Atonio Halangahu [c]; 3. Lotu Taukeiaho; 4. Tim Maxwell; 5. Steve Brennan; 6. Henry Vanderglas; 7. Seilala Lam; 8. Stephen Hoiles; 9. Patrick Phibbs; 10. Tim Walsh; 11. Ratu Nasiganiyavi; 12. Shaun Foley; 13. Bernie Orbell; 14. Francis Fainifo; 15. Marshall Milroy

Gordon: 1.Ofa Fainga’anuku; 2. Tobias Gukibau; 3. Marty Plokstys; 4. Nifo Nifo; 5. Ed Gower [c]; 6. Paulie Tuala; 7. Craig Thomas; 8. Viliame Ratu; 9. Vinnie Byrne; 10. Josh Kiel; 11. Terry Preston; 12. Dave Harvey; 13. Mark Preston; 14. Matt McDougall; 15. Dane Haylett-Petty

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First published on clubrugby.com.au, on September 21st, 2009

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