2018 NSW Country Championships: Wrap Up

By Matt Findlay

Illawarra completed its NSW Country Caldwell Cup redemption bid at Warren on Sunday afternoon, taking advantage of a plethora of Central West errors in the final to claim NSW Country’s top tier championship and atone for the previous year’s grand final hammering at the hands of Newcastle-Hunter.

While the Pauli Tuala-led Illawarriors were clinical and ruthless in the final Central West was equally as sloppy, the Blue Bulls’ stunning upset of Newcastle-Hunter the night before clearly taking its toll physically and mentally.

Every time Central West made a mistake Illawarra swooped and either added points or created a scoring opportunity, four of the side’s six tries in the 37-15 win came directly following an error, rubbing salt into the Blue Bulls’ wounds.

“This is just… I don’t really know what to say,” Tuala said in his post-game speech.

“We set the goal to come together as a group and win this back and we didn’t really gel until [late in the preparation], which is a good show of character.

“We got [the Caldwell Cup] back, I couldn’t be prouder.”

The evergreen Tuala was spectacular in the final, which Illawarra led 20-5 at the break before outscoring Central West 17-10 in the second half as well.

It actually took 18 minutes for either side to open the scoring, although it looked like the Illawarriors had just eight minutes in when Blue Bulls five-eighth Mahe Fangupo – who ended up being named player-of-the-tournament – threw a double cut-out on his own line, which went to ground.

But after Dane Nethery scooped it up, slammed it down and celebrated he realised it had been pulled back for an Illawarra forward pass the phase before.

It was a lucky break for Central West, but it did nothing to abate the pressure Illawarra was building. A 12-phase movement finally pushed the Blue Bulls over the edge, they gave away a penalty in kicking range which Tom Baker duly slotted.

Central West took the lead five minutes later when Tom Green scored the first of his two grand final tries, but that was the last joy the Blue Bulls enjoyed until deep into the second half.

Henry Yiull scored out wide in the 27th minute after a Central West knock-on and then Baker latched on to a Tuala offload to cross in the 31st, he converted his to push Illawarra’s lead to 15-5.

Then, just a minute from half-time, Illawarra fullback Jacob Kara took a quick tap from a penalty and caught the Blue Bulls napping, or rather, not watching.

He raced past the entire Central West forward pack, speeding away to score his side’s third try of the afternoon.

The rout continued straight after the break, Illawarra scoring from a lineout it won after a Central West kick went out on the full. When Tuala scored a well-deserved try in the 53rd minute to push the lead to 32-5, he effectively killed off any chance the Blue Bulls had of coming back.

Central West scored next through fullback and NSW Country hopeful Lochie Robinson and again in the 29th minute through Green, but an Illawarra try in between was the final nail in the coffin.

“We could tell from the line-speed and our execution that we weren’t quite there, and Saturday night had taken its toll. We were one step off the pace,” Central West coach Dean Oxley said.

“We based our play around sticking to the process and ignoring the scoreboard, but once we fell behind the desire and possibly panic at times meant we put pressure on ourselves.

“But we learned valuable lessons and we took a step forward, because a goal was to make the final and we did. It’s disappointing to lose, but I want this group to stay together now and try to do what Illawarra did.

In the second tier Richardson Shield, Central Coast easily took down hosts Western Plains to earn promotion in 2019, winning 47-19 while in the Rowlands Cup colts tournament, Newcastle-Hunter completed its own redemption bid.

The Novocastrians were defeated by Central Coast in the 2017 decider, a loss they used as motivation before handing an injury-hit Central West a 53-10 defeat in Sunday’s final.

Knowing how talented his outfit was, that was actually a result Newcastle-Hunter coaches Tim Partridge and Blake Creighton were somewhat expecting.

“We knew we had a good team and they’d trained well, and redemption from last year was a motivator,” Partridge said.

“The big thing for us was a lot of our under 18s came in and made up the full squad, they really stepped up in the games. We were unsure of what we’d come up against but we knew they’d play well.”

“To have those under 18s coming through, it was really good for them and they played a big role. Having them play with guys who are playing or have played first grade this year is great for them, and those guys provided really good leadership,” Creighton added.

Newcastle-Hunter actually completed a rare double at Warren last weekend, also coming away with the women’s sevens title.

The Novocastrian women went through day one undefeated before beating Central North 17-5 in the semi-final and then Mid North Coast 36-0 in the decider.

The Country Cockatoos and Cockatoos Colts squads will be released later this week, along with a list of players identified from the women’s sevens tournament to join University of New England’s AON Uni 7s training program.

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