Group 20 rugby league
A LAST-GASP try from representative front-rower Chris Latu has pushed a gallant Yenda side out of the Group 20 premiership race in a heartstopping finish to yesterday’s preliminary final.
With just seconds remaining in the second half of golden point extra time at Shark Park, Griffith product Latu barged over in the corner to book a grand final spot for minor premiers Leeton – something that, for long stretches of the match, appeared unlikely to happen.
The 30-26 result sets up a tantalising rematch with Tullibigeal Lakes-United for the Greens, who had to reach deep into their reserve tank to stave off the challenge.
But the Doggies will be left to rue what could have been after another brave comeback fell agonisingly short.
Yenda twice clawed back from behind and nearly won the match through Ben Warner, who had a try ruled out in the first half of extra time for a double movement.
“He put it over the line and I’m not sure why it wasn’t awarded,” shattered Blueheelers coach Roy Romeo said.
“We were on the end of a few harsh calls but we can’t blame the refs.
“We put ourselves in a position to win the game but poor execution cost us, and (Leeton) took their opportunity.
“Full credit to them, they were the better side and the luck was with them. They get to play in the big one and we don’t.
“It’s hard to take in – to get so close and fall so short, it hurts. But what can you do?”
Even Leeton captain-coach Willie McDonald - who was cleared by the Group 20 judiciary on Friday night and was able to take his place in the starting line-up - was moved to pay tribute to the Blueheelers.
“I couldn’t be more proud of my boys but Yenda... as much as I thought we deserved to win, they’re pretty unlucky to lose it too.
“They didn’t give us any favours. It was a really hard, physical game - definitely the toughest I’ve played this year - and it could have gone either way.
“I can’t speak highly enough of them - they were a really tough opposition.”
But while Romeo could not fault the commitment or courage of his players, he said many of them were out on their feet in the dying stages, with tiredness to blame for the “soft” defending that led to Latu’s match-winning try.
“We were struggling a bit by then. I think it was just tiredness. It was pretty soft,” he said.
“But they made us pay for our own mistakes. Too many errors, turned over too much ball.
“If you play like that in semi-final football then you’re going to get beaten.”
Leeton surged to an early 12-0 lead after converted tries to Brayden Scarr and Andrew Lavaka, but the never-say-die Dogs picked themselves up off the canvas and were in front by the break.
The momentum carried into the early stages of the second half, when the Greens conceded a last-tackle penalty, opening the door for Tom Sellars to make it 20-12.
The Blueheelers then had multiple opportunities to turn that margin into an unassailable lead - but Yenda’s lack of polish in attack proved costly.
“I thought we had them, to tell you the truth. We had them beat,” Romeo said.
“We peppered their line for two or three sets but just took the wrong options.
“I think in the first set someone threw it into touch. If we’d have scored then we would have taken the game but we didn’t. That was it.”
Sensing their opportunity, Leeton struck back through Sosaia Finefieuaki to close the gap to 20-18.
Then Clinton Green converted his own try - and then added another penalty with three minutes to go to cancel out another Blueheelers score.
The effort was led by Latu, who McDonald said was the best player on the park.
“He was outstanding. I never like singling out one or two players but he was,” he said.
The only sour note for the Greens was an injury to wing sensation Kolo Lomu, who came off after just 15 minutes.
“He was playing really well, too,” McDonald said.
“There’s definitely some sore bodies and it’s going to be a very tough game next week.”