PANTHERS DIG DEEP TO DOWN DOGS IN EPIC PRELIM FINAL
Hornby Panthers secured a third straight CRL men’s premiership grand final showdown against Linwood Keas with a 16-6 victory over a gallant Northern Bulldogs in Saturday’s gruelling preliminary final.
Kaiapoi’s Murphy Park heaved with one of the biggest crowds seen at club game in years, but the visiting Panthers absorbed a mountain of goal-line pressure in the opening 20 minutes to lay the platform for a gutsy win.
The second-placed Bulldogs led 2-0 midway through the first half via a Nathaniel Tirikatene penalty goal, but the Panthers took a crucial 4-2 advantage into the break after a sizzling Charlie Charlie try set up by beautiful inside work from Corey Lawrie and Will Tafua.
Hornby took a stranglehold on the game in the second stanza with close-range tries to captain James Baxendale – who switched to five-eighth after Sean Spooner’s late withdrawal – and interchange forward Gene Spooner.
At 16-2 down and out on their feet from a Panthers onslaught, the game threatened to get away on the Bulldogs. But the hosts dug in and provided a late glimmer of hope when mercurial front-rower Chris Bamford busted the defensive line to lay on an outstanding try for fullback Nick Wain.
While Baxendale produced a typical everywhere-man performance, blockbusting winger Charlie cut the Bulldogs open on several occasions and centre Dene Grace had several shining moments, there were none better on the field for Hornby than evergreen second-rower Corey Lawrie – a constant danger with the ball and a workhorse without it – and energetic fullback Pesini Tavake.
Panthers coach Jed Lawrie lauded his side’s early defensive resolve and cool-headed experience as the key factors.
“We always knew coming out to Murphy (Park) in a semi-final was always going to be a really tough game, and credit to these boys, they ‘D’d’ up with those first five sets on their line, it set us up for the win,” Jed Lawrie said.
“Then we just ground out a set, ‘D’d’ up again and started playing some footy. You saw that experience for us to come out the other side of that positively, it’s a good sign going into the (grand) final.
“I thought one to 17 we really dug deep – with that amount of ‘D’ we shouldn’t have won that game – but you can see how tight we are, and we are stronger together this group.”
Bulldogs leaders Bamford and Izic Placid tried their hearts for the entire 80 minutes, Wain had a fine game at the back and Tirikatene was electric out of dummy-half.
A shattered Bamford could only lament a grand final opportunity lost but was proud of the club’s progress in 2018 – and declared he would be back on deck to helm the Bulldogs’ charge next season.
“The prep was good this week, there’s no excuses. We had a few niggling injuries and I (injured) myself in the first five minutes so I was a bit gutted, I wasn’t my normal self,” the charismatic skipper said.
“But we had that never-say-die attitude – over the years the Dogs would (concede) a couple of tries and fold, but this year we showed that fight to stay in there.
“Overall the club’s pretty happy but it would have been nice to go that one step further.
“I’m sure if this body can go again, I’ll go again (in 2019).”
Meanwhile, Lawrie said a decision will be made early next week on whether Sean Spooner and Nopera Karipa will return after both pulled out with injury and illness respectively in the lead-up to the preliminary final. But the addition of Tyrone Arona and Peni Mo’Ale for the Bulldogs clash underlined the club’s depth.
The Panthers are chasing their first grand final victory since 2013, having gone down to the Keas in the 2016 and ’17 deciders.
Despite the Massetti Cup preliminary final loss, there was major cause for celebration at Northern Bulldogs as their Canterbury Cup team upset Linwood Keas 24-20 to snare a grand final date with Shirley Hawks.
The Bulldogs led 12-10 at halftime at Linwood Park but the Keas rallied to build a 20-12 advantage. The visitors surged home, however, scoring two tries and holding on for the final 10 minutes.
It was a disappointing finish for the Keas’ Bs, having topped the table before slipping out the back door with consecutive home losses.
Woolston Rams’ 46-34 win over Ashburton Barbarians in the Division One preliminary final at Robilliard Park made it a trifecta of wins for the third-ranked away teams on Saturday.
The defending champion Rams held a 24-12 lead at halftime and managed to maintain that buffer as both sides ran in four tries after the break.
Woolston will take on Burnham Chevaliers in next Saturday’s grand final at Canterbury Park.
Celebration Lions will square off against Aranui Eagles in the Gore Cup final after holding off Riccarton Knights 24-22 at Cuthberts Green.
The Lions led 16-8 at halftime before withstanding a stirring fight-back by the last-placed Knights.