The Middlemount Panthers (Men) and Clermont Bears (Women) redeemed last season’s heartbreak to both claim premiership glory at the Central Highlands Rugby League grand final on Saturday.
1500 fans packed the grandstands at Norm Blanche Oval, Middlemount, to witness both teams’ redemption following Clermont’s 30-18 defeat and Middlemount’s 22-14 loss, to the hands of the Emerald Tigers, in last year’s deciders.
The Panthers finished second at the end of the regular season and were able to upset the minor premiers away from home in an extra-time thriller 34-28 to book themselves the home final.
Their rivals, the Bluff Rabbitohs, qualified for the grand final the hard way with five-straight wins to secure fourth place, followed by gallant wins against Springsure (24-12) in the semi final and Clermont (27-14) in the preliminary final.
From the kick off, the speed of the game was intense, with either side challenging their opposition in attack and defence.
For the first 20 minutes, the game was a stalemate as both teams grinded away in the hope of cracking their opposition, which the home side did in the 20th minute.
Joe Taotofi, who was part of Bluff’s 2015 premiership-winning team, was first to score after using his size and agility to bust through the Rabbitohs’ line and with Matt Heidecker’s top-point scoring boot adding the extra two points, the home side led 6-0 early in the contest.
Following the speed of the opening minutes, a comedy of errors followed from either side in Bluff’s red-zone with Middlemount the eventual beneficiaries of the scrum.
Moments later, with a deafening home crowd behind them, the Panthers were over the line again as captain / coach Joel Duffy scooted from dummy-half to claim the first try of his double.
Heidecker once again added the extras to give the Middlemount faithful something extra to cheer about, leading 12-0 after 26 minutes.
The brutal battle intensified as tempers flared, particularly between Middlemount’s Leigh Coghill and Bluff’s Chris Conway, both wearing their heart on their sleeve for their respective clubs.
The pair had already made up with a handshake as the officials calmed the storm between the two sides.
The stoppage allowed for Bluff to compose themselves and focus on scoring points before the break – which they were able to do.
In the 37th minute, continuous pressure on the goal-line from the Rabbitohs allowed Jack Laxton to cross and reduce the deficit to just a converted try heading into the break.
Coming out of the sheds, the inspirational halftime yarn from Duffy sparked a Panthers domination in the opening 12 minutes of the second half, blitzing the Rabbitohs with three tries in quick succession to lead 30-6 and almost seal a blue and yellow premiership with a majority of the second half to go.
The Rabbitohs were fatigued and had no answers for the Panthers, until Peter McLaughlin came into the fray with his running game.
McLaughlin was able to bust through and score his first try of his double, igniting the late comeback from the Rabbitohs.
Five minutes later in the 32nd minute, Gus Wogand scored from dummy-half to bring the score back to 34-16 and give Bluff and their massive band of supporters hope of achieving a miracle.
The Panthers’ ‘big game’ players were able to contain the Rabbitohs in the final minutes of the game, knowing a well-deserved victory was in their sights.
McLaughlin burst through the line once again to score a consolation try in the last three minutes, but it was too little, too late for his beloved Rabbitohs.
The final siren sounded to the delight of the blue and yellow army, with the Panthers crowned premiers, winning 34-22.
It was a tough decision for the selectors to choose a player of the final, with match-winning efforts from both Coghill and Mick Morris; but Morris was eventually chosen for his defensive effort in the middle and continuous ticker in attack.
Duffy was also brilliant in his farewell game for the club he has given so much for. He and his halves partner Mitch Wyatte were the backbone of the Panthers’ lethal attacking options.
For Bluff, it was a courageous effort against the Panthers, but the five-straight wins to secure a top four berth and two big finals to get to the big dance may have taken its toll.
Peter McLaughlin was the Rabbitohs’ best, providing stability in the middle and leading the second half comeback.
Both Jack Laxton and player / coach Chris Conway toiled hard in the back row, but couldn’t match the metres the larger Middlemount pack were gaining.
The win is Middlemount’s fourth title from 15 grand finals over the past 25 years, with eight players now expected to hang up the boots following the home victory.
MIDDLEMOUNT PANTHERS 34 (Joel Duffy 2, Matt Heidecker, Leigh Coghill, Mitch Wyatte, Joe Taotofi tries; Matt Heidecker 5 goals) defeated BLUFF RABBITOHS 22 (Peter McLaughlin 2, Jack Laxton, Gus Wogand tries; Dane Heron 3 goals)
Clermont claim second premiership
The Clermont Bears Ladies secured their second Women’s premiership following a dominant 34-16 win over ‘new kids on the block’, the Blackwater Crushettes.
The Bears were first to trouble the scorers with Carly Bell crossing the try line after five minutes following a number of attacking raids on the Crushettes’ goal line.
The maiden grand finalists conceded a number of errors early in the game, but were able to level the scores seven minutes later with Justine Fletcher crossing the line to lock the game up at 4-4.
Good ball movement through the backline from halves pairing Tegan Rolfe and Bec Stokes saw Melissa Micallef bag a double on the right edge and Jana Kister contribute with a try on the left to put the minor premiers in good stead.
Fortunately for the Crushettes, usual goal-kicking sharpshooter Kailah Rogers hadn’t packed her kicking boots and missed all four conversions, allowing the scoreline to stay respectable at 16-4 nearing halftime.
With the clock stopped with two seconds to go due to an injury and a scrum feed to Blackwater pending on the restart, the Crushettes’ spine got to work with devising a last-play masterpiece.
From the scrum, the Crushettes’ set up a well-executed backline and moved the ball from right to left for Amy O’Loughlin to score in the south-west corner, capitalising on the defensive overlap and bringing the Crushettes back into the game at 16-8 heading into the sheds.
After halftime, the Crushettes came out of the sheds on a Bear hunting adventure, forcing Clermont to make uncharacteristic errors in the first seven minutes of the second stanza.
This pressure led to a four-pointer to Zoe Mackay to bring the deficit to a lone try.
With Bears and Crushettes fans on the edge of their seats, an error after the kick off resulted in the Bears receiving the ball and from there, the experienced Clermont campaigners took control of the game.
Three minutes after Blackwater got within a sniff, Elle Waters crashed over to extend the lead to 22-12.
Handling errors and unforced mistakes cost the challengers dearly as Clermont capitalised in the next 15 minutes, scoring a further two tries with Codie Patterson claiming her first try and Bell scoring her second.
To rub salt into the wound, Rogers returned to her goal-kicking best and converted all three second half tries to make the game 34-12 with three minutes to go.
In a bittersweet moment, Mackay scored her second try on the fulltime hooter, but it wasn’t enough, as the Clermont Bears Ladies were crowned the Central Highlands Women’s premiers.
Carly Bell was announced the player of the final for her two tries, big shots and defensive pressure in the backrow, with highly commended performances from Stokes, Rolfe, Waters and dummy-half Mackenzie Beames.
For the runners up, Mackay was the Crushettes’ best, scoring two tries and providing plenty of pressure in the defensive line.
Mariah Storch and Miranda Baker were also strong in the middle, but it wasn’t enough to stop the Bears who were out to avenge last year’s grand final loss to the Tigers.
CLERMONT BEARS LADIES 34 (Carly Bell 2, Melissa Micallef 2, Codie Patterson, Elle Waters, Jana Kister tries; Kailah Rogers 3 goals) defeated BLACKWATER CRUSHETTES 16 (Zoe Mackay 2, Amy O’Loughlin, Justine Fletcher tries)
Congratulations to the Middlemount Panthers committee and their team of hard-working volunteers for hosting an outstanding and successful Central Highlands grand final.
The faithful supporters showed up in numbers to back their favourite team and rugby league in general and should be congratulated for their attendance on Saturday and throughout this season.
Sincere thanks should also be extended to the Central Highlands Rugby League committee; notably President Frank Lambley, Secretary Katrina Taylor and Treasurer Tracy McIndoe.
Finally, without the generous support of this season’s sponsors, the competition would simply not be possible.
Thanks to: Purcell’s Engineering, Pirtek Emerald, Emerald Holden, the Emerald Star Hotel and Hit94.7 for their support this season.