Two late Carl Manu tries and a huge defensive effort delivered Maitaland Blacks a memorable 10-9 win against competition heavyweights Wanderers.
Led by James Johnston in his 100th first grade game, Maitland found their spark in the championship minutes despite the penalty count and a draining glut of possession favouring Wanderers.
Captaining in the absence of co-captains Mick Howell and Chris Logan, Johnston said it was one of the best wins he had been involved in at the Blacks.
“That was unreal, the ticker we showed was incredible. To win like that in a milestone game was incredible,” Johnston, 26, said.
“To lead the boys around today was a pleasure.
“Credit to them (Wanderers) they play a good brand of footy really moved the ball around, but we were up to the challenge today.”
Johnston shaded former Anderson Medal winners Car Manu and Nick Davidson for man-of-the-match honours, but the entire starting XV and reserves all had moments when they stood tall and delivered for the team.
“We have some real weapons in the backline. Carl Manu has added just another new dimension to our team,” he said.
“We’ve always had a lot of potential, but not always lived up to that. It seems that it’s clicking.
“Davo is a machine, he is the Terminator he just doesn’t stop.”
Max Stafford was also very good in his return to the side from injury and last week’s debutants Ben Wood and Jock Barry both had strong follow up games.
“Maxy is a ball of energy, he is a real positive for us. He lifts us, he lifts the tempo, loves to chat and it’s great to have him in the team,” Johnston said.
Forward Tuiri Uini made his debut for the Blacks coming off the bench and his energy with fellow reserve Ben Taylor was vital in the frenetic final 20 minutes.
The Blacks spent most of the first half and the first 20 minutes of the second camped in their own half but held out repeated attacks by the Two Blues.
The backs in particular smothered every Wanderers break and the whole team stuck tough on the try-line to restrict their opponent to a 6-0 lead at half-time, courtesy of two penalty goals.
Wanderers scored the first points after the break courtesy of another penalty goal. They then threw everything they had at the Blacks defense for a 10-minute period.
The Blacks held and unlike the first half their passes stuck as they ran the ball deep from their own half to put Wanderers on the back foot.
“Everyone was eager to do the right thing and get the ball moving. Some of it worked but we want a bit of composure and play it smart and hang onto the ball,” Johnston said.
Manu, Davidson and Johnston led the charge and the entire back line chimed in with great support runs.
The enterprise paid off and Manu crossed twice, the first from a break and the second with a run over the top of the tiring Wanderers defence.
Both coversions were unsuccessful and a penalty attempt also missed but the two tries were enough in the end as a huge roar went up across the ground wit the final whistle.
“It was a pretty gritty affair out there to say the least, but again the championship minutes 70-80 we hung tough,” co-coach Ryan McCormack said.
“It was something that we haven’t done for two weeks in a row for a long time.
“We hurt ourselves with our discipline, we need to do better than that.
“But in the end it was four points from a gritty win and that’s what it’s all about at this time of the season.”