MINOR premiers Hervey Bay Seagulls bounced back from their last-gasp major semi-final loss to Past Brothers to come back from the brink to defeat two-times defending champions Wests Panthers 32-18 in the Bundaberg Broadcasters A Grade Premiership preliminary final at Salter Oval on Sunday.
Wests looked headed for a major upset when they led 18-0 in the 39th minute, but Seagulls five-eighth Terry Horne, who only recently returned from serious injury and in his first full game since the fourth round back in April, grabbed possession with a one-on-one strip, and with 10 seconds to the hooter, a perfectly placed grubber from player/coach Tye Ingebrigtsen found wing flier Billy Stefaniuk who beat three Panthers to score.
Hervey Bay piled on an unanswered 32 points in the second stanza with Stefaniuk finishing with a double, while their other scorers included recently crowned BRL A Grade Player of the Year, fullback Alex Braun, Horne's elder brother and captain Clinton, a former dual BRL Player of the Year, who also kicked four goals, and evergreen lock Brad Jung, a former BRL premiership winner with both Wallaroos and Brothers.
But victory came at a huge cost with Braun ruled out of the grand final against Past Brothers this Sunday after suffering an AC joint injury in his right shoulder in a regulation tackle.
Stefaniuk also left the ground with a hip ailment, while front rower Ron Fisher suffered a knee injury and did not return, and Jung and second rower Tyson Woodman also sustained injuries, although Jung returned to score his try.
The Seagulls will be hoping that all of them are right for the decider.
Hervey Bay, who previously were part of the Maryborough and later Fraser Coast Leagues, have only contested one previous BRL grand final since entering the fold over a decade ago , and that was three years ago when they were soundly beaten by Brothers.
But despite their dying seconds 24-22 loss to Past Brothers in the major semi a fortnight ago, when Ingebrigtsen was sent off in the first half, they defeated Brothers in two of their three fixtures meetings this season.
The Seagulls threw down the gauntlet when they outgunned the Brethren in the season opener on their home turf at Stafford Park back on 7th March, but the Bundaberg heavyweights ran amok at their home ground 56-22 on 30th May.
Brothers had a long list of big guns missing when Hervey Bay put them to the sword 44-10 at Salter Oval on 2nd August, and at full strength, they would be favourites to claim their first Bundaberg A Grade crown.
But whoever they have missing, they have class and depth across the field and are a very well coached and led team, and an epic end-to-end 80-minute duel is expected.
It was a good day for Hervey Bay with their under-18s knocking out minor premiers Wallaroos 27-26 in extra-time.
Scores were locked together at 20-all at full-time and 26-all in extra-time before Angus Fitzgerald slotted the match winning field goal.
Halfback Dan Bartlett was another hero with a double for the Seagulls who have come from last of the five teams on the ladder.
Fullback Joey Alberts notched a hat-trick of tries for Roos, but they will rue what may have been.
In the women's division, Past Brothers kept their hopes alive of a fifth straight title in the five-year history of that competition with a hard-fought 18-10 victory over Wallabys.
However Brothers could not repeat their qualifying final win over Wests, who turned the tables on them to get home 20-16 in another titanic duel.
A Grade: Hervey Bay 32 (Billy Stefaniuk 2, Alex Braun, Steven Brudzinski, Clinton Horne, Brad Jung tries; Clinton Horne 4 goals) d Wests 18 (Josh Tanner, Josh Garden, Hayden Tanna tries; Bevan Page 3 goals).
Women: Past Brothers 18 (Kady Tinker, Bonnie Coolee, Christi Chapman, Layla Fauid tries; Coolee goal) d Wallabys 10 (Chelsea Baker, Michelle Cox tries; Baker goal).