REIGNING champions Wests Panthers overcame their lesser match fitness and a very brave Easts Magpies to advance directly to the Bundaberg Broadcasters A Grade Premiership grand final with a 28-20 victory in a pulsating major semi-final at Salter Oval on Saturday night.
But the Magpies will get a second chance in the preliminary final this Saturday against Isis Devils, who were ruthless in putting Brothers to the sword 34-16 in the minor semi.
As minor premiers, Wests had not played for three weeks due to no football on 23rd and 24th August, then not having a game on the first round of the finals, but they matched Easts in all departments and led 16-10 at oranges before staving off the plucky Magpies in the second stanza.
Easts had accounted for Wests 34-28 when they previously met on 3rd August, but the Magpies who were chasing 10 straight victories and had come from behind to edge out Brothers in the qualifying final a week earlier, had their chance to hit the front when, trailing just 22-20 in the 77th minute, try scoring winger Baidon Cooper made a attacking raid through traffic from close to his line, but was penalised for a sheppard after running into the back of one of his team-mates.
Panthers hooker Joel Fagan, one of just a handful of survivors from their grand final triumph of 12 months ago, scored his second try from the ensuing set of six to clinch victory, before Bevan Page landed his fourth conversion.
Flashy fullback Windsor Bowie also bagged a double for the Panthers, who will now have another weekend off before contesting the grand final on Sunday week 21st September.
Wests will now chase back-to-back A Grade crowns for the first time since successfully defending their title in 1997, and it would be a remarkable achievement for the club and coach and club stalwart Nathan Tanner after losing coach Tracy Kuskey, his son and captain Brent and a string of other star players after their drought breaking ambush of then three times defending champions Brothers in last year's decider.
Easts will get a second chance when they take on Isis in the preliminary final this Saturday night and their nine under-18s in the team will have the advantage of being fresh because that team will have the day off after their major semi-final blitz.
The preliminary showdown will be an epic battle between two in form and very good all-round teams, although Easts will be slight favourites to advance especially as they have won both clashes between the pair this season, firstly in round 1 back on 29th March when they prevailed 26-22, before scraping home 32-28 to start their nine-game winning streak on 22nd June.
Isis have only contested one A Grade grand final since joining the BRL from the Northern Districts Rugby League in 2001, and that was in their fifth season when they were pipped by Easts 20-16.
Meanwhile, Brothers, who had been grand finalists the previous six seasons, welcomed the return of four times premiership ace Lewis Williams off the bench for his first game in over three months, but try as they may, they had no answer as the Devils proved too strong in all departments.
With an imposing pack laying the platform, captain/coach And hooker Simon Ricciardi and high quality five-eighth Nathan Sullivan directing the ship and their outside backs running rampant, Isis forged a 12-4 half-time lead and powered on from there with centres, gifted local junior product Kurt Thompson and teenage Taylar Barritt, a specialist half, each grabbing doubles and Thompson's younger brother Jake scoring one try in a signature commanding performance at fullback.
Easts were victorious in the Reserve grade and under-18 major semi-finals, edging out minor premiers Hervey Bay Seagulls 20-16 in the former and outgunning Waves Tigers 46-10 in the latter with second rower Jesse Marschke leading the charge with a double.
Wests bowed out in the Reserve grade eliminator at the hands of Maryborough Brothers, who had scraped into the finals in fifth place with a last-round victory, with the Heritage City side getting home 30-24 on the back of five goals to interchange player Wayne Marshall after both sides scored five tries.
It was also a disappointing day for Brothers' three-times defending champions women's outfit as they were outgunned by Bundaberg first season outfit Gladstone Raidettes 14-6 in their qualifier.
But Brothers' under-18s kept their hopes alive, recovering from a 12-6 half-time deficit to pip Wallaroos 20-18.
Wallaroos' women were also eliminated by Cherbourg 38-12 with halfback Kristy Murray amassing. 16 points with two tries and four goals for the South Burnett raiders.
Minor semi: Isis 34 (Kurt Thompson 2, Taylar Barritt 2, Jake Thompson, Robert O'Donnell, Mathew Curtis tries; Nathan Sullivan, Robert O'Donnell, Aaron Ratcliffe goals) d Brothers 16 (Aidan Dempsey, Keane Gooch, Andrew Cross tries; Andrew Filo 2 goals).
Major semi: Wests 28 (Windsor Bowie 2, Joel Fagan 2, Willie Nagas tries; Bevan Page 4 goals) d Easts 20 (Baidon Cooper, Kyle Laybutt, Reece Maughan, Jesse Marschke tries; Hayden Herbert 2 goals).