WESTS Panthers claimed the Bundaberg Broadcasters A Grade Premiership minor title with a tough last-round 12-6 victory over Isis Devils in atrocious wet conditions at Salter Oval on Saturday night.
A Devils win would have handed No. 1 position to Brothers, who picked up a charity two points courtesy of a Hervey Bay Seagulls' forfeit, but the reigning champions Wests came from behind to clinch the premier position.
They finished on 25 points, equal with Brothers and Easts Magpies, who notched their eighth straight triumph with an amazing 64-0 white-wash of Wallaroos earlier in the afternoon.
But the Panthers wound up with a vastly superior points' differential of 196 to Brothers' 102 and Easts' 80.
Ironically it was a 92-0 flogging by Wallaroos on 25th May and a 64-6 drubbing by Wests a week later at the height of injury and numbers crises that ultimately cost Easts the minor crown.
But all honours go to the Panthers, who trailed 4-0 at half-time after a try to livewire Samoan winger Tanielu Pasene for the Devils but Wests got home on the back of a double to flashy winger Daniel Mairu.
The only concern for Wests is that with no football this weekend, with the finals delayed by one week with the grand final to be broadcast on ABC Radio on Sunday 21st September, they will now have two weeks' off before taking on the winner of the qualifying final on 30th August between Brothers and Isis.
Whatever happens from here, the Panthers have done remarkably well to finish at the head of the pack under coach Nathan Tanner after losing their premiership coach of 2013, Tracy Kuskey, captain Brent Kuskey and several others stars who all defected to Gin Gin in the Northern Districts Rugby League.
Isis will still be favoured when they meet Wallaroos in the elimination final but while they have the team which could claim the club's maiden Bundaberg A Grade crown, their most recent form has been patchy and from hereon in, it will be sudden death for them.
With the result irrelevant to Roos' finishing position as they would finish fifth, win, lose or draw, they rested players carrying niggling injuries and made the trip from Maryborough with just 15 players, and they were put to the sword by the Magpies who turned on the attack despite the rain and mud, piling on 36 points in the first half and never relenting despite the worsening conditions.
A much depleted Easts had by white-washed by Roos 92-0 on 25th May and while that blow-out and a 64-6 thrashing by Wests a week later ultimately cost the Magpies the minor premiership, they had turned the tables on Wallaroos in dramatic fashion in a 72-26 demolition when they previously met on 27th July, and it was again a no contest.
With again seven players backing up from under-18, just about everyone has kept expecting the Magpie juggernaut to be derailed by fatigue, age and lack of A Grade experience but it just keeps powering on and with their ever growing belief and self-confidence, they now have to be favourites to go all the way after just two months ago looks unlikely to make the top five.
Apart from 19-year-old halfback Kyle Laybutt, who notched another double and has masterminded their late season charge after rejoining the club in mid-June after starting the season with Sunshine Coast Falcons, all of their other tries were scored by six of their exciting under-18s, with centre Jesse Marschke bagging a hat-trick, wingers Baidon Cooper and Cody Maughan and front rower Kyle Spry, who only transferred to the club from Waves Tigers after they withdrew from A Grade a month ago, each crossing for two tries, and fullback Jarrod Crook and five-eighth Hayden Herbert, whose father Alan is in his first season as A Grade coach, both picking up one four-pointer.
In another boon for Easts, former Queensland Rangers star Matt Tanner made his return from a long injury enforced absence from the bench, and his experience is a huge boost for them going into the finals.
It was a day do double-disappointment for Isis as a 36-12 loss to Wests in Reserve Grade cost them a finals berth, edged out by Maryborough Brothers, for whom a 22-all draw with Wallaroos was enough to steal fifth spot from the Devils. Roos held on to fourth with Hervey Bay, Easts and Wests wrapping up first, second and third respectively with the Seagulls sealing No. 1 with a 42-0 shut out of Bundaberg Brothers and Easts disposing of Waves 24-10.
Easts 64 (Jesse Marschke 3, Baidon Cooper 2, Cody Maughan 2, Kyle Laybutt 2, Kyle Spry 2, Jarrod Crook, Hayden Herbert tries; Herbert 2, Robert Hughes 2, Jesse Marschke, Laybutt goals) d Wallaroos 0.
Wests 12 (Daniel Mairu 2 tries; Bevan Page 2 goals) d Isis 6 (Tanielu Pasene try; Robert O'Donnell goal).