The Cowra Eagles have fallen narrowly short in a classic encounter, with the Bathurst Bulldogs pulling ahead in the game's final moments to remain as the only undefeated team in the Blowes Clothing Cup, winning 28-18 to be one game clear on the top of the ladder.
The clash had a palpable electricity in the air that was obvious to all at the Cowra Rugby Grounds and didn't give way until Bulldog Harry Peacock's game-winning try, the second such effort the scrum-half has performed in the last two weeks, made an Eagles win highly unlikely.
Otherwise, the win was one that came off the back of grit rather than class, with a strong Cowra defence pushing back strongly against a relentless Bathurst forward-line, with scores remaining stationary for much of the second-half at 18-17, as the Eagles tried to hold on to the narrowest of leads.
Yet, if it wasn't the inability of Cowra to get the ball forward, or the early second half try by lock Dylan Carter, the errant Bathurst field kick that spilt a row of stubbies to jeers and laughs of the Cowra faithful spelt it out: The Bulldogs weren't going to stop until the game was theirs.
While Peacock's try was the canary in the gold mine that put the game in the hands of last year's Grand Finalists, two late penalty conversions to James Woolmington in the game's 76th and final minute respectively helped the Bulldogs, first, to get in front, and then secondly, to put the result beyond doubt.
If not for number eight Alex Weal's two tries in the first half, the gap the Bulldogs had to bridge could've been bigger, with Woolmington only hitting one from three conversions in the first half (and three from seven for the game).
Cowra were up by 18-12 at half-time, the Eagles taking advantage of several line-out wins to put the opposition's try-line under immense pressure.
Full-back Garrizo Gonzarlo was instrumental early, scoring the game's first try, before following up with a successful conversion and then a penalty conversion moments later, all within the first 11 minutes of the match.
From there though, it was a different story, with another successful penalty goal by Gonzarlo followed by a late first half try to skipper Tim Berry not enough to hold the Bulldogs from making their successful charge late, as the Eagles went scoreless in the second half.
Despite the loss, Berry was proud of his team's efforts, especially with the steadfast defence even as the game slipped away.
"The boys dug deep and we sort of stuck in there," Berry said, adding that the Bulldogs deserved to be on top of the ladder after five rounds.
"They showed why they're a good side... they put it together and... we probably slackened off a bit, didn't trust our own ability."
Bulldogs fly-half Scott Johnston paid tribute to Cowra's effort, but added that the team always believed they could turn the game their way.
"It's hard to come here and get the win at the best of times but obviously Cowra are going really well this year... It's probably one of the better games of football I've seen here," he said.
"We're very confident in winning and I think's probably come from the work we've done in the pre-season.
"We've been able to get on top of teams at the end of the game through our fitness, so it was just a matter of sticking with our structures and we knew it would click as the game went on."
Bathurst Bulldogs will now return home to host the Dubbo Kangaroos next Saturday, while the Eagles will stay put, hosting the Orange City Lions.
- BATHURST BULLDOGS 28 (Tries: Alex Weal 2, Dylan Carter, Harry Peacock. Conversions: James Woolmington. Penalty Conversions: Woolmington 2) def COWRA EAGLES 18 (Tries: Garrizo Gonzarlo, Tim Berry. Conversions: Gonzarlo, Penalty Conversions: Gonzarlo 2)