MINOR premiers Wests Panthers completed a red-letter year, claiming back-to-back Bundaberg Broadcasters A Grade Premiership crowns after finding their second wind to defeat Isis Devils 42-28 in an epic grand final at Salter Oval on Sunday which was broadcast live state-wide on ABC Radio.
As minor premiers, Wests had played just one match in five weeks, while Isis, who were chasing their maiden BRL top grade gong after finishing fourth, had come through three tough finals games, and with several repeat sets in the opening five minutes, they maintained a sustained attack on the Wests line and could have scored three or four times, but the Panthers' defence marshalled magnificently to deny them time after time.
The pendulum swung with Wests getting down the other end and mounting concerted raids, but the Devils' defence also aimed up.
It took 15 minutes for first blood to be drawn with powerhouse Isis club junior product centre Kurt Thompson, who had spent a couple of years with Melbourne Storm, before returning home a few years ago, bursting on to a pass from mercurial five-eighth Nathan Sullivan and crossing under the posts for Robert O'Donnell to convert.
Thompson again ignited the attack with a 40m break shortly after but Isis were unable to finish off.
Wests then engineered a few more chances, only for their last passes to be thrown into touch on both sides of the field, but the turning point came in the 23rd minute when Isis knocked on on the first tackle on their own 10m line.
From the ensuing possession, Wests hit back with 30-plus years club junior product centre Waylon Eggmolesse, who had come out of retirement earlier in the season, exploiting an overlap on the right and wily halfback Bevan Page converting.
That was the start of an amazing Panthers' power-play as they ran in three more tries leading into the break against a seemingly mesmerised Devils, with electrifying 19-year-old fullback Windsor Bowie, who originates from Cape York but was signed in May from Gladstone heavyweights Valleys, striking in their next set, equally scintillating winger Daniel Mairu brilliantly finishing off a set which was started on their own 10m line, then with 56 seconds left on the clock, five-eighth and inspirational five-eighth and captain Josh Tanner striding through the middle of the ruck to cross untouched, before celebrating with a back-flip.
Page's third conversion gave them a 22-6 lead at oranges, and it got worse for the Devils in the second stanza as they continued to make repeated mistakes, including conceding a string of penalties, and it looked game over when another evergreen, second rower Rick Nagas, in his first season with the club, burst over on the left and Page again kicked truly in the 45th minute, then extended their advantage to 30-6 with a close range penalty in front of the posts six minutes later.
Wests may have mentally dropped their guard, and Thompson's younger brother, the equally potent fullback Jake, triggered a dramatic turn-around when he cracked the Wests' line and galloped 60m before being "taken out" as he threw his pass, and from the ensuing penalty, the Devils clawed back with young halfback revelation Tim Cole darting over and O'Donnell raising the flags.
Now Wests were unable to flick the switch back on as the Devils turned it on with three more tries in a frenzied 10-minute blitz, with Kurt Thompson collecting a pass from rookie centre Taylor Barritt, who had made a 50m escapade down the left in their next set.
Wests were then very lucky to not have a player set off or at the very least sin-binned after centre Kane Chapman was placed on report for a high tackle, then they conceded two more back-to-back penalties.
With the Panthers still in disarray, Jake Thompson made another incisive break before presenting the ball for his brother Kurt to chalk up a personal hat-trick.
Jake then grabbed a four-pointer of his own in the 69th minute, plunging over after Kurt had split the defence yet again, and was only stopped by a foul, but Jake capitalised and O'Donnell's conversion reduced the margin to two points.
Somehow Wests picked themselves up off the canvas as the huge physical and mental effort in coming back from the dead may have told as the Devils knocked on in their own half in the 74th minute, and on the end of the ensuing set, Tanner's elder brother and bulky interchange front rower Corey, the eldest statesman in the side at the age of 35, proved the unlikely hero, charging over from 20m out almost untouched through a tired defence and Page's kick gave them an eight-point buffer.
Isis regained the ball from the restart, but their pass on the first tackle was ruled forward, which was the virtual knock-out blow.
But to put the icing on the cake and to add salt to Isis' wounds, Bowie broke away on the first tackle from a scrum win and sprinted away for his second try in the 77th minute, raising his arm in celebration before diving over, before Page kicked his seventh goal.
The Tanner brothers were two of just seven survivors from their drought-breaking premiership 12 months earlier, and they were the only remnants from Wests' previous A Grade premiership in 2006.
But they only returned home last season after they both transferred to Easts in 2007 and Josh, 29, had a few seasons out of Bundaberg, including playing for Central Capras in the Queensland Cup.
Josh said it was also great playing under his father, long serving former Wests champion player and coach Nathan, who is highly respected throughout the state, again this year after he took the reins when 2013 mentor Tracy Kuskey transferred to Gin Gin in the Northern Districts Rugby League and took a handful of stars with him.
Josh said astute recruitment had enabled them to defend their title and win the club back-to-back flags for the first time since 1997.
Josh fully endorsed the Les Somerville Medal for Best and Fairest in the grand final going to high-class lock George Kepa, who last played in Bundaberg in 2007 when he was a star in Across The Waves' premiership, before going on to carve out a distinguished career in the Queensland Cup.
He said Kepa had returned after about three years off as a result of reconstructions of both of his knees.
"The boys pushed and pushed and pushed and a lot of young forwards in the middle worked really hard in defence, and George was the key, then we got the wide and his young brother Windsor Bowie wreaked havoc in the backs," Josh said.
Josh said he was never really worried even when Isis were on a comeback of Lazarus-like proportions, and he also singled out Mairu, Nagas, Chapman, winger Willie Nagas and Eggmolesse for special mention.
He also said they had devoted the win to his uncle and Nathan's younger brother and former club champion player and premiership coach Danny Tanner, who died suddenly from a heart attack in May.
Meanwhile, despite the disappointment of losing the A Grade preliminary final in heart-breaking circumstances a week earlier after an also narrow major semi-final defeat after having won nine games in a row before that, Easts Magpies claimed a share of the spoils, taking out both the Reserve grade and under-18 titles.
The under-18 Magpies completed a totally dominant season, establishing a 24-0 lead over Brothers at oranges and never relenting, finally getting home 42-12 with unheralded lock Hayden Elsebach having a field day with four tries.
Winger Baidon Cooper, one of eight players who was also a permanent and integral part of their A Grade outfit all season, where he was a prolific try scorer, backed up in Reserve grade and he came off the bench to grab a trademark try as they accounted for Maryborough Brothers 20-10 in an tight battle, while coach Dennis Evans also played his role off the interchange list, along with evergreen club stalwart Andrew Mason, who also was a driving force in their A Grade late season charge.
In the women's division, Brothers made it four straight premierships in the four-year history of the competition but they had to pull out all stops to edge out valiant minor premiers and major semi-final victors Gladstone Raidettes 12-10.
Brothers led 8-6 at half-time but were forced to come from behind after the Gladstone side hit the front in the second stanza.
But the women in blue, white and pink were not to be denied, finishing deserved champions three tries to two, scored by former Queensland open women's representative Nicole Curtis, hooker Bec Kenny and second rower Kelly McDowell.
Well led again by captain and hooker Chelsea Marshall, the core of their team has been together from day one, but they had a new coach this year in Glen Darby, a former A Grade multiple premiership winning star for the club.
Wests 42 (Windsor Bowie 2, Daniel Mairu, Waylon Eggmolesse, Josh Tanner, Richard Nagas, Corey Tanner tries; Bevan Page 7 goals) d Isis 28 (Kurt Thompson 3, Jake Thompson, Nathan Sullivan tries; Robert O'Donnell 4 goals).