Pirates coach Mat Kelly was again proclaiming his side’s character after they defeated a plucky Walcha 24-18 in Saturday’s qualifying final to land a second successive home grand final.
It was another colossal contest, with the defending champions forced to dig deep, as they did when the sides met three weeks ago.
First, they had to claw their way back after the Rams made a blistering start, and then they had to hold out a Rams side who was unrelenting to the final whistle.
“We had to do it the hard way,” Kelly said.
It capped off a big week for him after he welcomed a son on Wednesday, but it was a roller coaster ride on the sidelines on Saturday.
“They [Walcha] were always in it,” he said.
The Rams came out firing. A neat grubber from Simon Newton sat up perfectly for a flying Dom Bower to score. Minutes later Ed Churchill split Pirates’ defence open to send Bower away.
Pirates’ defence scrambled to deny him. But following in support, Newton scooped up the ball to put the visitors up 10-nil after 15 minutes.
“They really showed their pace out wide and caught us out a couple of times,” Kelly said.
Steadily Pirates began to regather ground, and Ben Goodman picked and drove to score in his 150th game.
That was the home side’s first real opportunity in good field position, with them showing good patience to just keep punching at the Walcha line and close the gap to five points at half-time.
“I thought with the wind we were lucky to only be five points behind at half-time,” Kelly said.
“The wind had a few more points in it than that.”
Turning with the wind behind them in the second half, Simon Trappel got Pirates on level terms with a try eight minutes into the second half. His brother James added the extras to put them two points in front.
When Jack Shelton twisted his way over the tryline minutes later, the momentum looked to be well and truly with Pirates.
The Rams dragged three points back but then fumbled the kick receive, handing possession straight back to Pirates. And as their scrum dominance really started to take hold, James Trappel extended their lead to 11.
Always a threat with ball in hand, the Rams hit back. Ed Cordingley instigated a scintillating 70m try-scoring effort to make it a six-point game with just over 10 minutes to play.
Kelly praised his sides ability to adjust their game on the run.
“We went away from plan A and had to go to plan C and D,” he said.
The Rams again showed that Pirates are fallible and played some exhilarating football. But they were unable to close it out.
The scrum played a big role in that, Walcha co-coach Barry Hoy said.
“They pushed us around and that cost us a lot of ball and field position,” he said.
But Hoy couldn’t have been happier with how the Rams started the match.
“It was going good there for a while,” he said, adding that Pirates gained the ascendancy early in the second half.
“We started standing off their players and let them get their pods set,” he said.
“We needed to disrupt their ruck more.”
Once Pirates got their nose in front, it was always going to be tough for Walcha.
But it didn’t help that they didn’t have a lot of ball.
Pirates showed all their finals nous at Ken Chillingworth Oval on Saturday to again deny a plucky Walcha and earn a home grand final.
It was almost a carbon copy to their round clash three weeks ago, with the Rams showing Pirates are fallible and the defending champions staging a second half fightback to run them down.
This time there was six points in it, Pirates getting home 24-18 and leaving Walcha to fight it out with either Gunnedah or Narrabri for the remaining grand final spot.
“It’s good reward to get a home grand final,” a relieved and happy Pirates coach Mat Kelly said.
“(But) We had to do it the hard way.”
It capped off a big week for him after he welcomed a son on Wednesday.
The Rams made their intentions clear early, a superb kick from Simon Newton putting them deep into Pirates territory.
After experiencing some early lineout issues, they were eventually able to capitalise on their territory with Dom Bower flying onto a neat drubber from Newton.
Showing how quickly they can sting you, eight minutes later they were in again, Newton doing the finishing off this time after a brilliant break from Ed Churchill chiming into the line from fullback. After he sent Bower away, only some great scrambling defence from Pirates prevented the winger getting his second, but they could do little to stop Newton picking up the ball from the ruck and scoring in the left hand corner.
Winning the possession and territory battle, the Walcha backs were running riot.
But Pirates bade their time for their opportunity, and when it came they took it, 150-gamer Ben Goodman crashing over with just over 15 minutes to go in the first half.
It was the result of good build-up, and patience, with Pirates recycling the ball through 13/14 phases.
Not long after Colby LaChiusa gassed the Rams outwide and looked headed for the tryline, but spilt the ball.
The Rams also had missed opportunities before the break.
After some brave play, with Newton - from inside his 22 - grubbering the ball for Ed Cordingley, outside centre Pat Keen was called back from what looked a certain try with nine remaining.
Trailing by five at half-time, Pirates hit the front eight minutes into the second half, Conrad Starr standing in the tackle and offloading to Simon Trappel after another multiple phase raid.
James Trappel added the extras to give them a two point lead.
Enjoying the better of the early possession, Jack Shelton twisted his way over a few minutes later to extend Pirates’ lead.
Newton dragged three points back but then they butchered the kick-receive, handing Pirates back possession.
They made them pay, James Trappel diving over in the corner to push their advantage out to 24-13 with 20 to play.
Fairly well starved of ball and territory for a lot of the second half, the Rams got themselves back in it with a scintillating 70m effort.
Ed Cordingley was the architect, the outside centre busting out of three attempted tackles before sending Richard Young away.
Newton was unable to land the tough conversion making it 24-18 with 12 to play.
Playing for a grand final spot both sides gave it all they had in those final minutes, Pirates’ defence standing tall as the Rams threw everything they had at them.
Earlier Moree booked their spot in the second grade decider with a 40-16 win over Narrabri. The Bulls U17’s were also victorious, 33-18 over Pirates, while Pirates prevailed over Tamworth 23-19 in the U19’s.