Norths stunned two-time defending premiers Sydney University with a 24-22 comeback win after trailing for all but six minutes of their preliminary final.
Originally published on RUGBY.com.au
The Shoremen uncorked their biggest performance since their 2016 grand final triumph thanks to a late try from inspirational No.8 Hugh Sinclair.
Three times, brave Norths had a bounceback score when Sydney Uni threatened to pull away at 8-0, 15-7 and 22-10 at a breezy Pittwater Rugby Park on Saturday.
The Shoremen just kept digging deep with their superior ball-in-hand game and were rewarded with direct entry into next weekend’s Shute Shield semi-finals.
Sydney Uni captain Rohan O’Regan and his teammates will wonder how they let this one slip from 22-10 ahead with a stiff breeze and a clear scrum advantage.
O’Regan scored the second of Uni’s tries from big scrum shunts at the 55-minute mark for the 12-point lead but it was Norths who were spurred on.
“In the second half we put a stake in the ground ‘how much do you want this?’,” a delighted Sinclair said at full-time of his team’s urgency.
Norths centre Nathan Russell had an outstanding game. When his little grubber bounced back at him off a Sydney Uni leg at the 58-minute mark, he had the dexterity to grab the ball and dash at the line afresh.
A high one-handed offload put flanker Heinrich Brendel over and Angus Sinclair’s conversion tightened the score to 22-17. Uni had ample chances to ice the game but a poor or strangely absent kicking strategy with the wind behind them was bemusing.
Fullback Tim Clements showed how much wind was being wasted when he launched a huge punt from his quarter line on defence but it ran dead in goal 85m downfield in the final 10 minutes.
From the ensuing scrum deep in Uni territory, elusive winger Kepu Lokotui made ground and clever halfback Nick Duffy was able to feed the ever-present Sinclair, on the inside, for the try.
Norths still had to repel a dangerous Uni rolling maul just as Angus Sinclair’s fine tackle on Stu Dunbar and the team's fine try-line defence had earlier stifled threatening situations.
The match began in the sort of fashion that would have exhilarated late Wallabies Stan Pilecki and Jake Howard and other members of the Vintage Props’ Club.
Both Norths prop Dewald Dekker and Sydney Uni counterpart Chris Talakai burst into the clear in the open 90 seconds.
Uni struck first with an excellent try when O’Regan popped a top ball off the deck to dashing centre Will McDonnell, who put flanker Josh Kemeny over.
Kemeny was a high performer but was forced off with a blue card for a head knock when he clattered into Norths ball-carrier Brad Hemopo just after half-time.
Uni’s all-Super Rugby front-row of Tom Robertson, Declan Moore and Talakai had the Norths scrum backpedalling twice for tries. Norths found some more stability with a new front-row and Talakai’s exit after 65 minutes and such gains were all part of a superb victory.
Fullback Max Burey’s constant probing, a smart change-up to use the inside ball a little more in the second half and Lokutui’s thrust were all trump cards.
Norths' well-rehearsed attacking thrust was never better on show than midway through the first half when a quick-strike win in the scrum allowed centre Harry Burey to hold up a pass with perfect timing to send winger Reece Mau'u away.
The Norths' decoys split and the saloon passage through the gap was taken by Mau'u's speed.