Wellington coach Aidan Ryan felt any blame for AJ Davis’ missed penalty in the final 50 seconds of Sunday’s incredible Group 11 major semi-final lays with him, not the Cowboys halfback.
In undoubtedly the best match this season, the Wellington Cowboys were on track to record a stunning upset at a wet Apex Oval when leading the previously unbeaten minor premiers, Dubbo CYMS, by two points in the final five minutes.
However, Wade Kavanagh caught the Cowboys defence napping on the extreme outside when he darted over from dummyhalf to put the Fishies back in front and set-off wild celebrations among the fans in green and white.
The drama wasn’t over there, with the Cowboys regaining the ball from a short kick-off before being awarded a penalty 32m out from goal, to the right of the posts.
With less than a minute on the clock, Davis looked to his bench and signalled he wanted to take the tap and search for a match-winning try, but the call came to go for goal and force extra time.
The kick went wide to the left and the Fishies claimed one of their toughest wins of the season, and one which puts them through to a eighth straight grand final.
“AJ wanted to roll on and I credit CYMS’ defence so I had to go with my gut feeling,” Ryan said.
“He’s a pretty good striker of the ball and at the end of the day I made the call and it’s on my shoulders, none of the players.
“It’s unlucky and unfortunate but we’re on to next week now.”
Despite his side going so close to a first grand final appearance since 2010, ironically the last time CYMS haven’t featured in a decider, Ryan said there wasn’t a huge amount of disappointment.
Instead, he said his side took plenty of confidence out of a game in which he felt they “rattled” the powerhouse Dubbo club.
While Ryan felt his side had CYMS worried, the match-winning Kavanagh said it was his side’s determination and close bond that saw them never give up.
While there was plenty of noise among the CYMS players and some plays which bordered on desperation, Kavanagh said there was never panic.
“We just play for each other,” the hooker said, finishing the game with a double.
“If they’re putting in for you then you put in for them and we always find a way to dig deep.
“It’s good to be another grand final.”
The first half was one of the most intense seen in some time, and while there was plenty of errors in the slippery conditions at Apex Oval, the physicality and effort was never lacking.
Davis opened the scoring with a penalty while CYMS failed to complete its first two sets.
The sides went toe-to-toe, and sometimes face-to-face during a few heated moments, and it took until the 19th minute for the first try to be scored.
After holding out the Cowboys, CYMS worked it downfield and a slick shift from left-to-right resulted in winger John Grey diving over.
Brad Pickering, as he has so many times this year, converted from the sideline to make it 6-0.
Wellington dominated possession from there on but couldn’t make it count and right before half-time CYMS halfback Bayden Searle made a break against the run of play and found Kavanagh in support to set up a 12-0 lead.
While many saw that as a massive point in the game, the Cowboys weren’t phased and produced the same kind of effort in the second stanza.
Eleven minutes into the half a fine kick from Davis on the last was fielded by Jyie Chapman and he floated across field before attempting to link with Grey.
However, the pass went straight to Jarrin Fernando and the Cowboys winger had the simplest finish to score his side’s first try, and then six minutes later Wellington hit the lead.
It again came from an intercept as CYMS, 10m out from the Cowboys’ line, opted to spread it on the last tackle.
The ball came to back-rower Jordan Reynolds and his off-load was pinched by CJ Ralph, who sprinted 95m ahead of a chasing CYMS pack to score. Davis’ conversion made it 14-12.
Both sides dropped the ball in fine attacking areas in the final 10 minutes but after forcing a dropout with five minutes to go, CYMS got their chance.
57 | TRY! Cowboys in front!!— Nick Guthrie (@Nj_Guthrie) August 26, 2018
The Wellington fans might lift the roof off this place! It’s another intercept. CYMS in the attack and opt to run it on the last, Reynolds offload is picked by CJ Ralph and he races 95m to score. Davis converts, 14-12. This is epic. #Group11
A shift to the far right was shut down, but with less than a metre between he and the sideline, Kavanagh surprised everyone by going that way and getting ball across.
There was plenty of deliberation between referee Simon Hartas and his touch judge before the try was awarded, sending CYMS fans into raptures.
“I wasn’t (going to go blindside) but then I saw they had no-one there and weren’t watching so I went for it,” Kavanagh said of the try.
“I knew I got there. It was on the line before they kicked it out of my hand.”
The defending premiers are now into another grand final, but Kavanagh admitted all the work done throughout the undefeated regular season was almost undone in 80 minutes.
“We almost ruined it and now we’ve got one more job to do,” he said.
“We’ve got to be better again. It’s the same thing that kills us, our own errors.
“We know we can beat any team, it’s just our errors and we beat ourselves.”
CYMS will enjoy a rest next weekend while the bruised Cowboys will return to Apex and take on the Forbes Magpies in the preliminary final.
“All the talk has been ‘Forbes this and Forbes that’ but I think they’ll be talking about Wello now after that cracker of a game,” Ryan said ahead of next Sunday’s clash with the in-form Magpies.
- DUBBO CYMS 16 (Wade Kavanagh 2, John Grey tries; Brad Pickering 2 conversions) defeated WELLINGTON COWBOYS 14 (CJ Ralph, Jarrin Fernando tries; CJ Ralph 3 goals)