Past Brothers kept their perfect season record intact and maintain a four-point buffer at the top of the Bundaberg Broadcasters A Grade Premiership table with an ugly 40-34 victory over Wests Panthers at Salter Oval on Saturday night.
In the process, they claimed the Mark Halter Cup, which was inaugurated and donated by his family in memory of a popular young man who played for both clubs but lost his battle with cancer in 2005.
But Brothers coach Steven Plath was livid at by far their worst performance of the year, drawing few positives from it other than picking up the two points and the continued stunning form of Papua New Guinean winger Ben Kambanei, who notched another double, scoring their first try in each half.
By the end of the night, Bundaberg clubs filled the first three positions in the standings and four of the top five, with Easts Magpies, joining Waves Tigers, who had the bye, and Wallaroos on 10 points after sentencing Roos to their third-straight loss and moving ahead of them on for and against.
Despite scoring seven tries – the same number as Brothers – they squandered several chances to cause a boil-over and inflict Brothers’ first loss of this year after hitting the front 30-28 in the 71st minute and drawing level at 34-34 with three minutes remaining,
The Panthers’ hold on fifth place could now be under siege from Hervey Bay Seagulls, who moved to within two points of them with just their second win this campaign, defeating a brave but outclassed Maryborough Brothers 74-12.
The Seagulls’ only previous win this year had been in the opening round back on March 30, also against the Maryborough Brethren 72-0 in the Heritage City, but after forfeiting the previous two weeks, the cellar dwellers rallied to field 17 players for the first time and they trailed just 26-12 at the break, but it was all one-way traffic in the second stanza as the Bay added an unanswered 46 points.
Former Junior Kiwis representative fullback Logona Vetemotu, 21, who has returned to the club this year after starring in eight games for them in 2017, had a field day, racking up four tries.
But a new star arose in 18-year-old winger Casey Russell, who chalked up his first A Grade hat-trick, playing along-side his elder brother Camden, who started on the bench.
Russell, who scored one try in their Under 18 loss to Ross earlier in the day, is one of their many outstanding junior products who has played for the club throughout his career since starting in Under 12 in 2013.
Coach Faiupu Sami said their second half was “pretty good” and he was “happy with the effort of the boys” but that they “have still got a lot to work on”.
If they can beat Wests at home at Stafford Park this Saturday, they will draw equal with them on points and remain ahead of them on points’ differential, but to do so, they will have to reverse a 48-8 drubbing by the Panthers in Round 4.
Casey Russell, a Xavier Catholic College Year 12 student, who is also doing a traineeship with Fraser Coast NRL Game Development Officer Scott Zahra, said he was “just happy to get the points on the board for the team and happy that [he] could contribute to a great win”.
“The feeling in the team is also good after a good win and we are confident in our team and hoping we can put together a good performance at home and hopefully get another win [this week] against West but they are a solid team and will be hard to beat,” Russell said.
It will be a big few weeks for Casey as he will also captain Xavier in the QISSRL Confraternity Carnival in Bundaberg from July 1 -5.
Meanwhile, Brothers made a great start against Wests, establishing a 10-0 lead in the ninth minute, but they seemed to drop their guard, not scoring again until three minutes before the break when lion-hearted lightweight front rower Tyla Hodge, who went on to be the man of the match, scored a superb try for a 16-8 lead.
But they were very patchy as the two teams traded tries in the second term and were ultimately saved from embarrassment by signature tries to champion hooker Brent Kuskey and high-class centre Tyrell Priestley.
Also chiming in was the kicking boot of five-eighth Zak Bainbridge who slotted six goals to take his season tally to 49 while also posting his sixth four-pointer for the year to take his points tally to a hefty 122, 46 more than second placed Vetemotu.
Plath described Kambanei as “unreal” and the “best winger in this competition by a mile” but said that as a team, they would have to be infinitely better this Saturday in their top of the table showdown with Waves, who they beat 32-4 in Round 4, but have since got their title defence right back on track.
Wests had four players backing up after their 22-6 despatch of Waves in Under 18s, including starting centre Livingstone Lingawa, another Papua New Guinean native on A Grade debut, and winger Jensen Deamer, who both grabbed doubles and warmed the hearts of the Panthers’ faithful on their Sponsors and Old Boys’ Day.
Joining them was interchange dynamo Tom Tikonilia, who played in all three senior grades for the fourth time this season, taking his count to all eight Under 18 matches, seven Reserve Grade and four A Grade this season.
Easts also proved that they are now legitimate contenders by overcoming a 10-6 halftime deficit to outgun the bridesmaids of the past two seasons with perennial quiet-achieving veteran journeyman centre Danny Moran an unlikely hero with a double and their new game breaker Fijian winger Josateki Masibalavu chalking up his fifth try in three games since his arrival in Australia.
The Magpies are set to continue their rise up the pecking order as they meet whipping boys Maryborough Brothers in the first A Grade game on the Salter Oval program this Saturday.
In the Bundaberg-Gladstone Intercity Women’s League, front rower Jacinta King bagged a double to spearhead Brothers on their winning ways at the expense of the hot and cold Wallabys 26-6 at Salter Oval, while Tannum shut out Valleys/Roosters 40-0 and Waves Tigers and Hervey Bay battled out a 14-14 draw.
Round 9 A Grade Results
HERVEY BAY 74 (Logona Vetemotu 4, Casey Russell 3, Tiko Hooper 2, Jayden Shepherd, Danial Sylvester, Travin Baumann, Ryan Davy, Tyson Miller tries; Ben Hudson 5, Burung Shillingsworth 2, Logona Vetemotu, Jayden Johnson goals) defeated MARYBOROUGH BROTHERS 12 (Lachlan Kenny, Sam Barwick tries; Ethan Fisher 2 goals)
EASTS 28 (Danny Moran 2, Chris Ford, Trent Seeds, Josateki Masibalavu tries; Matthew Craven 4 goals) defeated WALLAROOS 16 (Shaun Collins 2, Daniel Craig tries; Daniel Beatty 2 goals)
PAST BROTHERS 40 (Ben Kambanei 2, Tyrell Priestley, Zak Bainbridge, Tyla Hodge, Brent Kuskey, Mathew Templeman tries; Zak Bainbridge 6 goals) defeated WESTS 34 (Livingstone Lingawa 2, Jensen Deamer 2, Josh Johnson, Blake Laybutt, Ray Zysk tries; Nicholas Tanner 3 goals)