Last year, as Wellington skipper Keiran Brien put it, his side were “genuine cellar-dwellers”, they ended up winning just three games and finished a distant seventh on the GrainCorp Cup Northern Division table in 2017.
Just under 12 months later the Redbacks are one step away from a much-coveted premiership win, after an inspired defensive effort and a simply magnificent performance from fullback Brad McCarroll spurred the side to victory in Saturday’s preliminary final.
Enjoying far less possession than their Molong rivals, Wellington defended themselves to a standstill at the Dr Ross Memorial Recreation Ground, consistently turning the Magpies away and doing so with 14 men at one stage too, after Preston Brien was sin-binned in the second half.
That combined with McCarroll’s huge showing inspired a 21-7 victory, their first over the Magpies this season.
McCarroll contributed 16 of his side’s 21 points, scoring a try, landing a conversion and two penalty goals along with a match-sealing, 70th minute drop goal too. He also kicked his side out of trouble a number of times when the Redbacks were under immense pressure.
Granted, the Magpies constantly kicked straight down his throat at the back, but McCarroll was happy enough to nudge it back, plug the corners and spin any pressure back onto the Magpies.
“He was unbelievable,” Wellington skipper Keiran Brien said, lauding his custodian.
“He doesn’t miss many shots at goal anyway, but he was incredible [on Saturday]. Everyone was good, I’m a bit overwhelmed actually, speechless really.
“From where we were last year, genuine cellar-dwellers, to a grand final, it’s some turnaround.
“I think we just wanted it to be more to be honest. Not that the Molong boys weren’t, but every bloke was absolutely busting his gut to get over the line [on Saturday].”
That was a sentiment Molong skipper Josh Peffer agreed with, to some extent.
He admitted his side “didn’t deserve to win” after being forced into “too many errors” by the Redbacks side, which proved costly in the end.
“They did deserve to win that one, we didn’t. It is disappointing for us, but I really hope they go on and do well in the grand final,” Peffer said, even saying the Redbacks are every chance of upsetting undefeated minor premiers Geurie.
“They just bashed us for 80 minutes, if they do that next week against Geurie I think they might get over them. Their scrum is better than ours too and we pushed Geurie around, their lineout is exceptional.
“They’re a good side, Wellington. They had their chances and took them.”
Peffer conceded his side’s tough run to Saturday’s preliminary final may have taken a toll both physically and mentally as well.
“I think it did,” he said.
“In the three games leading up to this one we played Geurie twice and Yeoval, which is a local derby for us, so it wasn’t an easy run.
“We had a few guys out too, but none of that is an excuse, the better side won [on Saturday].”
Although Molong didn’t have a lot of ball in the opening 10 minutes the Magpies did pin Wellington in their own half and earned the first couple of scoring chances on the back of that, although none turned to points.
Damien Hayes missed a second-minute penalty goal attempt and Molong also had several raids where they applied bucketloads of pressure but lacked a finishing touch.
The Redbacks took their first opportunity when McCarroll landed a penalty goal in the 12th minute to push his side ahead 3-nil. It was actually one of only a handful of penalties the Redbacks received, the Magpies enjoying the better end of that count.
Molong settled back into their work though and once again, mounted pressure on Wellington in their own half.
Finally that pressure told in the 20th minute as Jo Reid dived over on the right edge. Hayes added the extras, giving the hosts a 7-3 lead.
20 | TRY MOLONG! They've had to work super hard for it but pressure tells, the Magpies finally break the strong Redbacks' wall and score, through Jo Reid! Hayes nails it.— Matt Findlay (@MRFindlay24) August 4, 2018
Molong lead 7-3, and the crowd loves it.#GrainCorpCup#CWRU18pic.twitter.com/ZRs6qtwa7h
Incredibly, despite having already defended a lot, the Redbacks lifted without the ball and they were to be Molong’s only points of the afternoon.
Wellington picked up the pace with the ball too and hit back almost straight away, through Andrew Glover’s converted try not long before half-time.
McCarroll landed his second penalty goal just after the break to extend Wellington’s lead to six and then produced an incredible piece of individual brilliance to score a try of his own 15 minutes later.
Hayes punted long but found McCarroll, who plugged the left corner, chasing his own kick and forcing a scrambling Scott Nicholls to lose possession.
The Redbacks’ fullback dived on the loose ball, and even though he missed the kick his side’s lead was now 11 points at 18-7.
He capped off the win, and his own man-of-the-match effort, with a sweetly-struck drop goal 10 out from full-time, which put Wellington ahead by two converted tries.
- WELLINGTON REDBACKS 21 (Andrew Glover, Brad McCarroll tries; McCarroll conversion, 2 pen goals, drop goal) def MOLONG MAGPIES 7 (Josh Reid try; Damien Hayes conversion)