Imposing centre Joshua Birch showed all his class and experience, bagging four tries to spearhead Past Brothers to a 58-0 win over hosts Wallaroos in the Bundaberg Toyota Challenge match at Eskdale Park on Saturday.
It was the 23-year-old’s second game since moving back to his hometown.
In 2010, he was chosen the Australian Secondary Schools Rugby League 15 years Pool A Merit Team, alongside the likes of current NRL stars Alex Johnston, Jack Bird and Euan Aitken, before being a multiple Australian rugby union representative.
He then returned to league and excelled over three seasons for Newcastle Knights in the National Youth League, followed by a stint back in rugby during which he played for Queensland Country in the NRC.
After not having played a game in either code since last October, he produced a masterclass as the Brethren notched their 10th win in as many matches to move to 20 points and a six-point buffer over Waves Tigers, who received forfeit points after Maryborough Brothers’ recent withdrawal from the competition.
But in Maryborough, the runners up of the past two seasons, were without their veteran champion try machine Shaun Collins, and it told on the scoreboard.
The Challenge Trophy is contested in all grades between the top two teams after the first full round of fixtures.
Wallaroos had won their first five games of 2019, amassing 168 points while conceding just 74, but the wheels had fallen off as they suffered a hat-trick of losses before escaping with a draw against lightweights Hervey Bay Seagulls.
Even with Collins missing, they were expected to bounce back and serve it up to Brothers.
However, after the Brethren established a 10-0 lead, Roos weathered the storm for a short period, but after that, the floodgates opened as the Bundy Blue and White marauders added a further 18 points before the break.
They showed no mercy in the second stanza, piling on a further 30 unanswered points to again underline their credentials.
Brothers coach Steve Plath said Roos really missed Collins’ class and direction, but were a different side to when they were premiership favourites after a flying start to the year “with a lot of blokes injured”.
This included mercurial halfback Luke Waters, who claimed man of the match honours in their first three games before suffering a serious knee injury while playing for Bundaberg in the 47th Battalion Carnival in early May.
But Plath had little sympathy for them, especially after his team’s season from hell last year when they missed the finals for the first time in years, admittedly with a different roster to their current one.
While he was happy, he warned his players against any complacency two months out from the grand final.
“I broke the game down into sections and looked at different things and we executed stuff we have been working on,” Plath said.
“Defensively, the effort was massive – they had plenty of opportunities to score off some of our silly errors but just our defensive line held strong and I was happy with that."
Plath said the chance signing of Birch had been a massive boost and he proved he could still play at the highest level in either code.
“Josh was a level above them and I feel sorry for their back row and centre on the right side – it was nightmares for them – Josh really bunged on a turn – he was easily our Players’ Player, hands down,” Plath said.
“But (captain and front rower) Kevin Sherriff was also unreal again, (fellow centre) Tyrell Priestley also had a great game, and (five-eighth) Zak Bainbridge was very good again – he wreaked havoc in the middle and he fed that pill to those around him.”
Brothers were also still without three of their stars; electrifying backs Tien Nguyen, who is expected to return for their clash with Easts at Salter Oval this Saturday, and Jayden Alberts, whom Plath hoped to see play again in the semi-finals.
The blue and whites also had vastly experienced veteran forward Mat Templeman missing, who also had work commitments
With four matches to go against Easts, Hervey Bay, Easts again and Wallaroos in Maryborough again in the last round, and with a huge for-and-against differential advantage over their rivals - one more win would probably be enough to clinch the minor premiership.
However, Plath was taking it one game at a time, while having his eyes on a bigger prize, the premiership, and he knows anything can happy in the finals.
“The good thing is we have still got a lot of improvement left in us – we have to clean up a bit of stuff in the ruck, but we built a bit of character, having to do some repeat sets on the line,” Plath said.
“We reassessed during the week – we had a team meeting and looked at these next five games and worked out where we were at and we will have another the week before the finals and reset our goals and assess where we need be at.”
It was a good day all-round for Brothers with their reserve graders, also winning their Challenge, edging out Wallaroos 24-22, while it was triple disappointment for Roos who were beaten by another Bundaberg team, Wests 48-24 in the Under 18s with their Papua New Guinean powerhouse second rower Livingstone Lingawa bagging a hat-trick.
Meanwhile, the Magpies continued to pluck all before them since the arrival of their seven-strong Fijian contingent six weeks ago, and three of them were among their six individual try scorers.
For the sixth-placed Panthers, who remained one point adrift of fifth seed Hervey Bay who had the bye.
Their time is running out for them to move back into the top five and into the finals, with a tough run home against a hungry Wallaroos at Salter Oval this Saturday.
They then face Waves and a bye, before what could be a last-round virtual semi-final against Hervey Bay.
The Seagulls face a daunting test this Saturday at home to the rampant Tigers.
Toyota Cup Results
A GRADE: Past Brothers 58 (Josh Birch 4, Tyrell Priestley 2, Ben Kambanei, Tyla Hodge, Brent Kuskey, Josh Straub tries; Zak Bainbridge 9 goals) defeated Wallaroos 0
RESERVE GRADE: Past Brothers 24 (Jarrason Purcell, Lewin Theuerkauf-Smith, Nathan Moore, Daniel Finter, Robert McKeown tries; Dylan Harradine-Hall 2 goals) defeated Wallaroos 22 (Paul Hennessy, Kynan Watson, Tyrone Tanna tries; Herbie Tanner 3 goals)
UNDER 18: Wests 48 (Livingstone LIngawa 3, Max Shorter 2, Mikal Broome, Robert McCormack, Clay Fagg, Brennan Gynn tries; Brent Hass 6 goals) defeated Wallaroos 24 (Ethan Hutton-Ward, Keian Grogan, Jaiden Davis, Daniel Craig tries; Jorden Kemble 2, Daniel Craig 2 goals)