Determined Pirates edge Uni in thriller

Photo: J.B Photography

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West Harbour continued their upturn in form last weekend with a thrilling 40-38 victory over Sydney University at Concord Oval. A tight first half that ended 19-all was blown apart after the restart, with the Pirates taking advantage of some lacklustre footy from the Students to build a dominant 40-19 lead on the hour. But they had to hang tough in the final quarter to withstand Uni’s late rally, and ensure a win over his former charges for coach Todd Louden.

Having seen Wests beat Eastwood a fortnight ago and pushed Southern Districts the previous week, Uni would have been understandably wary of their trip down the Parramatta Road from Camperdown. But they wasted little time in laying down a marker for their attacking intent with a try just four minutes in.

Marching a scrum some 20 metres from inside their own half and into opposition territory, a jinking run from flyhalf Ben Hughes saw off three retreating Pirates and got his side within sight of the line. And from there it was a simple case of through the hands to put fullback Matt Hood over in the corner.

A penalty for holding on from the restart somewhat spoiled the early celebrations for the visitors, however, the distance proved to be too big an obstacle for Tayler Adams. But the Shute Shield’s leading points scorer didn’t pass up a second opportunity a couple of minutes later when Uni were pinged for not rolling away.

Wests nearly took the lead on 11 minutes, lock Joshua Redfern charging down a clearing kick from Hughes and racing through to collect the loose ball with the line unprotected. But an awkward bounce forced him to knock on as he tried to regather, and left the Students to perfect their exit strategy from a put-in at the scrum, five metres in front of their own posts.

That plan went out of the window when Wests fronted up in some style at the engagement to win a tighthead. But when the ball was scooped up at the back by rangy no.8 Albert Tuisue playing the advantage, and shifted one pass out, scrumhalf Solomona Silipa inexplicably spilt the ball forward as he grounded.

Westharbour 1st Grade v Sydney Uni Shute Shield 2017 Rnd 8

Tayler Adams scoots down the blind side – Photo: J.B Photography

Adams made sure they came away with something for their exertions with another three-pointer, and despite the disappointment of not punishing further, due warning of their abilities to create gilt-edged opportunities had been served. But Uni’s major concern at this point was their discipline – or lack of it.

A high shot and an offside gave Adams two further shots at the posts in quick succession – he succeeded with the second. Only for Uni to stray offside again from the restart, and a clearly annoyed referee James Leckie marched them back a further 10 for complaining.

Frustrated with the paucity of possession they were enjoying, Uni’s next foray was met with stiff resistance from a determined wall of black jerseys. And when skipper Kelly Meafua executed a perfect turnover, the Pirates rubbed more salt into the wounds with a lovely show and go from outside centre Justin Marsters, who found Kodie Drury-Hawkins on his inside for the fullback’s fifth try of the season.

Three penalties in a row piggy-backed Uni up the field after the restart, and when they found themselves in the shadow of the Wests posts from the next scrum, they didn’t miss the chance to turn up the heat. They almost drove their hosts back over their own line, only for Rohan O’Regan to be double-teamed as he broke off and dived for the chalk. But quick hands from Jock Merriman and Jordan Chapman gave Christian Kagiassis a sprint to the corner.

An intriguing scrum battle that had seen momentum swing in the opening half hour, now became a clear weapon for the Students, and it was to prove the founding of their next score just before the break. Ref Leckie had already penalised Wests once near their own line, and when they folded again from the next engagement, he had no hesitation in running under the posts to award a penalty try, Uni’s fourth of the season.

But there was still time for Uni to cough up another cheap penalty after the restart, and Adams’ fourth successful penalty took the teams to the sheds with the game very much in the balance at 19-all.

Rd 8_Wests v Uni Scoreboard_2017

Both fullbacks had impressed in the first half, the explosive pace and elusive running of Matt Hood for Uni a feature, while his opposite number Drury-Hawkins was injecting himself into the play at every opportune moment for Wests, and displaying a tidy kicking game. And it was off one such perfectly placed touch-finder that the home side procured the next score, although, they were amply assisted by some poor Uni judgement.

Throwing in at the lineout 10 metres from his own goal line, Folau Fainga’a wasn’t expecting a return pass quite so soon from an under pressure Merriman. But an ill-advised grubber kick came back to haunt him when it ricocheted back of a Pirate leg, was scooped up by an alert Harrison Orr, and powered over the line by big lock Faiva Sailosi.

If that caused a furrowed brow for Uni head coach Tim Davidson, a penny for his thoughts a couple of minutes later then, when Ben Hughes lost his support runners and was stripped by Kelly Meafua just metres from his own line. Justin Marsters pounced to carry it towards the posts before offloading from the floor for Ben Cotton to slide home for the Pirates’ fourth.

West Harbour’s big ball-runners in Meafua, Tuisue and Sailosi were making some increasingly big dents in a strangely subdued Varsity defence, and it was that ability to pick and drive and make metres that got them within range again just before the hour. Loosehead prop Andrew Tuala went despairingly close with one surge, but when the ball was recycled, scrumhalf Silipa put a neat reverse pass up for his captain to burrow his way through for another.

40-19 then, and the Concord Oval faithful were in raptures, while Sydney Uni were staring down the barrel of an embarrassing reversal. Their cause wasn’t helped when Hughes subsequently kicked the restart out on the full, but just as they appeared to be in danger of unravelling at a rate of knots, they found a lifeline.

From the next scrum, a couple of decoy runners caught Wests napping and gave Hood the space to make headway down the sideline off a Kagiassis pass, and the pacy fullback returned the favour for his winger to race home unhindered for his second, and convert his own good work.

Matt Hood_Wests v Uni_2017_AJF

Uni fullback Matt Hood crossed twice and showed blistering pace – Photo: AJF Photography

Re-energised, Uni upped the ante and the pace of the game. But it was off their go-to-weapon – the scrum – that they reduced the gap even further in the 67th minute. Another powerful surge held the Pirates pack in and forced a penalty, and the quick-thinking Merriman tapped and fed the onrushing Hood, with opposing winger Oleni Ngungutau outnumbered.

Faced with an opponent now fuelled with belief, Wests had to dig deep for the last 10 minutes. But while Uni surged forward with urgency and intensity, they still lacked some clarity of thought and execution in the red zone. So it was no surprise that it was off another set-piece play that they forced a grandstand finish.

Just under five minutes remained when Fainga’a set out to make amends for his earlier mistake with an accurate throw from a five-metre lineout. Gathering it in, the Uni pack rumbled ahead and were joined by a frustrated forward in the shape of Tom Carter, who put his shoulder to the wheel and plopped over the line when the time was right. Kagiassis converted and we had a two-point ball game.

A penalty got them in position again on the edge of the Wests 22 with two minutes left. But it was here that the Pirates really earned their corn and showed the progress being made under coach Louden as they refused to panic, made all their tackles, and quelled something like 23 phases – and umpteen screams for a penalty – before the unfortunate Jordan Chapman lost the ball forward in a crowd of desperate bodies. Cue the final whistle, and raucous celebrations.

On paper, this goes down as an upset victory. But wins against both Sydney Uni and Eastwood in the last three weeks, mean that it may just becoming the norm for a West Harbour team most definitely heading in the right direction.

West Harbour 40 (Kodie Drury-Hawkins, Faiva Sailosi, Ben Cotton, Kelly Meafua try; Tayler Adams 4 cons, 4 pens) defeated Sydney University 38 (Matt Hood 2, Christian Kagiassis 2, Penalty Try, Tom Carter tries; Christian Kagiassis 3 cons) HT 19-19

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