SOUTHERN Districts Rebels came, oh, so close …
But a fairytale finish was ruined in the closing stages of Saturday’s dramatic Sydney Rugby Union Shute Shield grand final.
Alas, their first grand final appearance in 23 years stopped at that. Perennial favourites Sydney University ruined the day at Concord Oval with a come-from-behind win — by a solitary point!
Southern Districts provided easily the biggest crowd of supporters, hoping to see more than just club history, simply made by the first grade team’s first grand final appearance since Southern Districts was formed in 1989. And for a long time, it appeared their fans bathing in bright sunshine would get their wish for a win, despite watching University win the earlier second and third grade titles.
While the students grabbed an early lead thanks to a penalty goal to fullback Angus Roberts, the Rebels took over when Western Force Super Rugby centre Nic Cummins scored after good work from centre partner Apo Latunipulu.
Souths then dominated, with Sydney University their own worst enemy through error after error in their kicking game, and indiscretions in the ruck having them heavily penalised.
Still the students managed to keep the Rebels’ running game in check and away from their try line, despite Souths fullback Ben Volavola adding two penalty goals to provide them with an 11-3 half-time lead.
But in the second half the penalties went the other way, and straight into the lap of the 24-time champions, Sydney University.
Consistent pressure eventually saw their hooker, Nathan Charles, crash over for a great try on the back of a rolling maul.
With 15 minutes remaining, Cummins came close to scoring. Instead, University took the ball out and away and Angus Roberts crossed for a converted try to put the students ahead, 15-14.
The Rebels pushed the students to the brink and almost took back the lead, but the premiership favourites eventually managed to bring play back deep inside the Rebels’ quarter. And they kept it there, until time ran out.
University thus won their 25th Shute Shield title — and their seventh victory in eight years — marking an impressive personal milestone for captain Tim Davidson (who has led the side to seven Shute Shield titles in eight years).
‘‘I think it’s definitely the hardest [premiership victory],’’ said Davidson. ‘‘It’s fantastic and a huge relief to know that all the hard work that’s gone in has paid off.
‘‘Full credit to Souths; they were absolutely exceptional. They put us under so much pressure, I think it [the victory] rates up there highly because of what we went through last year.’’
No one will know just how much difference Souths big lock Kane Douglas (Wallabies) and Rob Horne (injured) would have made to the end result.
For Souths, NSW Waratahs winger Atieli Pakalani was a standout in the first half, breaking first-up tackles with ease.
Souths pack, too, matched their rivals for most of the day, with big No. 8 Lopeti Timani ensuring the Rebels crossed the advantage line with every ball carry.
SYDNEY UNIVERSITY 15 (Nathan Charles, Angus Roberts tries; Angus Roberts con, pen) d SOUTHERN DISTRICTS 14 (Nic Cummins try; Ben Volavola 3 pens) at Concord Oval.
Classy: Despite being heavily marked, Southern Districts centre Nic Cummins scored one try and came close on several other occasions. Pictures: John Veage
Despair: It’s all over for the first Southern Districts team to make a first grade grand final.
Rebels yell: A large group of Southern Districts fans enjoys the sunshine in the eastern stand, cheering on the Rebels.
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