REIGNING champions Wests Panthers claimed the outright on the Bundaberg Broadcasters A Grade Premiership ladder with a 50-26 drubbing of Brothers at Salter Oval on Sunday as the Brethren continued their late season implosion after sitting four points clear at the head of affairs before their wheels started falling off in the last month.
The Panthers moved to 21 points, two clear of Brothers, who retain second berth but could drop to as low as fourth this weekend unless they can pick themselves up out of the mire.
Isis Devils joined Wallaroos in equal-third place on 18 points as they continued their late season surge with a 46-16 home triumph at "The Furnace", Childers Showgrounds, on Saturday night.
Those two sides are now just one point above Easts Magpies who continued their remarkable charge with a 68-12 demolition of cellar dwellers Hervey Bay Seagulls in the match of the day at Salter Oval on Sunday.
Like Brothers, Hervey Bay have hit a brick wall with their fourth straight loss leaving them anchored on 13 points and in urgent need of a massive turn-around if they are to avoid the wooden spoon.
Brothers had been big beaten Wests in their first meeting this year and the pair had drawn 32-all just a fortnight before their Sunday showdown, but Brothers recent woes continued as Wests took control, racing to an 18-0 lead in the first nine minutes.
The Brethren picked themselves up off the canvas and got it back to 18-12 in the 35th minute but they fell apart at the seams to give up two more soft tries to trail 30-12 at the break and there was no way back after they conceded two more tries in the first nine minutes of the second stanza.
Brothers temporarily took stock and gave themselves a mathematic chance with five-eighth Andrew Filo's second try and interchange winger Jarren Williams crossing in the corner in the 58th minute to reduce the deficit to 40-22.
But the Panthers upped the ante and cracked the 50-point barrier with two more tries inside the last 10 minutes and Bevan Page's seventh conversion.
Brothers collected a consolation try in the dying seconds but it did nothing to ease the pain of a third crushing loss from their past four outings.
They travel to Hervey Bay this Saturday night to take on a Seagulls team which is also very low on confidence but simply must win to revive their top five hopes and will have a vocal home crowd behind them.
For the Panthers, flashy fullback Windsor Bowie scored their first two tries and interchange dynamo Brendan Magala scored their last two of the first half, and their title defence now appears right on track, although the battle for the minor premiership could go right down to the wire as they play Isis this Sunday, followed by Easts, Wallaroos and Isis once again in the last round.
Isis and Easts are the two other form teams with the finals just around the corner, each continuing to go from strength to strength after slow starts to their seasons.
Despite being without their explosive outside backs, brothers Kurt and Jake Thompson and having blockbusting front rower Telefonica Iakopo sin binned two minutes into the second half, the Devils proved simply too strong for their Maryborough rivals with captain/coach and hooker Simon Ricciardi having his side running like clockwork with an imposing pack laying the platform up front and halves Nathan Sullivan and Tim Cole repeatedly sparking the attack.
Sullivan notched another double but second rower Robert O'Donnell led their scoring with five conversions to go with his two four-pointers.
Depending on the result of the Seagulls v Brothers game and the Easts-Wallaroos showdown in the other A Grade fixture at Salter Oval this Sunday, the Devils could leap into second position if they can take the purr out of the Panthers.
But no side was more impressive last weekend that the Magpies who flew high in the battle of the birds in a 13 tries to three annihilation.
They established a 32-10 half-time lead and never relented, powering to their fourth straight victory, brilliantly led by halfback Kyle Laybutt, who has been their saviour since returning to the club after starting the season with Sunshine Coast Sea Eagles.
The then injury ravaged Magpies had been out to the sword by Wallaroos 92-0 on 25th May and Wests 64-6 a week later but since Laybutt's return, he lifted their spirits in a fighting 20-16 loss to the Seagulls on 15th June before masterminding their four wins in a row after they had won just two of their first eight games.
The pocket dynamo was at his brilliant best, scoring four tries of his own and setting up many others.
In a team which featured seven players backing up from under-18, hooker Caleb Gazzard was the only forward to grab a try with their other 12 shared among their backs, with apart from Laybutt, centre Nick Tanner and under-18 winger Cody Maughan also featuring strongly with three tries each.
But while the backs had a field day, the Magpies' pack has also muscled up with Maughan's elder brother Reece and his front row partner Raymond Zysk stamping their authority, second rowers Rhys Neil and Brendan Lachmund also superb, along with club stalwart lock Shawn Swift, who is in career best form.
The Seagulls however retained the lead on the Reserve grade ladder despite suffering a 30-16 defeat at the hands of the Magpies but Wests got to within one point of them by defeating Maryborough Brothers 26-12.
Maryborough Brothers hung on to fifth spot but they are now just two points in advance of the Devils who jumped Wallaroos 26-14 to shunt Roos from second to third.
But Brothers' Reserve grade finals hopes are all but over after being blown away by cellar dwellers Waves 50-4 with the Tigers becoming a force after withdrawing from A Grade a fortnight ago, although they would need a miracle to make the play-offs as they are still eight points behind fifth with just four rounds left.
Cody Maughan had bagged a double in the Magpies' 86-0 white-wash of a 12-man Panthers in under-18 earlier in the afternoon, in which fullback Jarrod Crook, winger Cody Stibbards, halfback Kale Stibbards and twins hooker Ben and second rower Jesse Marschke each also racked up two tries.
Competition new-comers Gladstone Raidettes turned it on in the women's division, shutting out Easts 56-0 with fullback Chelsea Baker running amok with 28 points from four tries and six goals.
Isis 46 (Nathan Sullivan 2, Robert O'Donnell 2, Isitolo Poleka, Telefonica Iakopo, Simon Ricciardi, Peter Grant, Royce Blair tries; Robert O'Donnell 5 goals) d Wallaroos 16 (Lachlan Loft, Eddie Booth, Roderique Gela tries; Roderique Gela 2 goals).
Wests 50 (Windsor Bowie 2, Brendan Magala 2, Waylon Eggmolesse, Kane Chapman, Delroy Tanner, Willie Nagas, George Kepa tries; Bevan Page 7 goals) d Brothers 26 (Andrew Filo 2, Chris Rose, Nicholas Bretherton, Jarren Williams tries; Filo 3 goals).
Easts 68 (Kyle Laybutt 4, Nick Tanner 3, Cody Maughan 3, Baidon Cooper, Hayden Herbert, Caleb Gazzard tries; Herbert 6, Jarrod Crook, Laybutt goals) d Hervey Bay 12 (Ethan West, Brock Eldridge, Allen Cobbo-Mould tries; Clinton Horne goal).