A dominant scrum anchored by rookie Pat Ryan and a rock-solid defensive line paved the way for Sydney University to win a fifth successive Sydney grade rugby premiership with a 24-19 result over Randwick at the Sydney Football Stadium on Sunday.
The Students ran in three tries to two and led 14-11 at the break but found it difficult to mount periods of sustained pressure because of 29 penalty stoppages and countless injury breaks, mostly from the Wicks.
The win was a triumph for University number eight Tim Davidson, who has captained the side to the past five titles, five-eighth Daniel Halangahu, who has played in the five titles and been man-of-the-match in three, and coach Damien Hill, who has guided the team for the past three titles.
The Shute Shield ended a mixed finals fortnight for the club, First Grade Colts collected a third successive title with a 32-18 win over Southern Districts and Second Grade Colts won a fourth successive title with a 17-16 win over Eastern Suburbs at Concord Oval on Saturday.
Third Grade Colts gave up a 17-point lead in going down 19-17 to Gordon, and Third Grade in the seniors lost 6-3 to Gordon in a tryless grand final.
Sydney University Second Grade might question the new finals format. After finishing minor premiers 22 points clear of the pack, they lost 24-21 to Eastern Suburbs in an elimination final and were immediately out of the competition. Under previous finals incantations, they would have had a second chance of making the grand final via a final. There are no major and minor semi-finals in the new system. Fourth Grade also bowed out in an elimination final.
However, club president David Mortimer was on hand at Concord Oval on Saturday to collect the Eric Spilstead Shield for the Colts Club Championship and at the SFS at half-time on Sunday to collect the Sir Roden Cutler Shield (which the club has held for over 40 home matches), the E.S. Marks Cup for the First Grade minor premiership and the Gregor George Cup for the Club Championship. The Shute Shield joined those trophies 40 minutes later.
With buffeting winds inside the Stadium on Sunday, both sides launched countless high balls, with young University fullback Jacob Taylor and Randwick custodian Marshall Milroy continually called into play. It could be said both sides kicked too much, but there was enough running rugby and movement on the scoreboard to make it a pulsating decider.
The Students almost had the perfect start when inside-centre Tom Carter made inroads off the first lineout. Australian Under 20 hooker Nathan Charles, who had a whale of a game, picked up from the breakdown and plunged for the tryline. Video referee George Ayoub was called on and he ruled in the negative, suggesting Charles had knocked on.
Charles wasn’t to be denied, however, and scored five minutes later courtesy of his Australian Under 20 teammate Peter Betham who broke the defensive line to send flanker Pat McCutcheon downtown. Outside-centre Mitch Inman and second-rower Dave Dennis, who both saved their best games of the season for grand final day, continued the assault, before Betham made another incision and delivered a one-handed pass in the tackle for Charles to sprint 25 metres to score. Five-eighth Daniel Halangahu converted for a seven-nil lead in as many minutes.
With the penalties running two to one Randwick’s way, they were able to mount long periods of phase play to dictate field position and test the University defence. The Students kept their line intact but couldn’t stop the penalty flow. Milroy landed a penalty goal from in front in the 16th minute and another from the same position in the 28th minute as the Wicks kept putting phases together.
The Students finally gained some momentum when Betham, Davidson, prop Jerry Yanuyanutawa and Inman counter-attacked off a wonderful bomb defusion from Taylor.
Carter continued the surge with a quick tap from a penalty and Halangahu took play well into Randwick’s half before Ryan and Halangahu combined to sent Betham on another probing run. He linked with fellow winger Nick Edwards, who found Ryan in support. When he was collared with the tryline in sight he managed to get a pass away to Edwards who finished off a wonderful grand final try. Halangahu converted for a 14-6 scoreline.
Randwick hit back from the restart with multiple phases but met some bruising defence. Yanuyanutawa shook the stadium with a bell-ringer on Randwick prop Sekope Kepu, while Davidson and flanker Phil Waugh defused a number of close calls.
With one minute of the half left, the Wicks launched a five-phase assault before five-eighth Tim Walsh attacked the short side with Milroy, who sent Wallaby winger Drew Mitchell over in the corner. Milroy’s missed the difficult conversion and the sides went to the break at 14-11 after a testing 40 minutes.
The second half opened with a kick-fest which ended with a great touch-finder from Walsh. Having established position, Randwick forwards slowly worked their way towards the line until Walsh called for the ball on the right. His pass to Francis Fainifo allowed the winger to send Milroy over in the corner and Randwick had taken a 16-14 lead five minutes into the second half.
University’s reply was immediate. With Wallabies Dean Mumm and Luke Burgess entering the fray for Pat McCutcheon and Scott Stumbles, who had both performed well, they attacked from a scrum 40 metres out. A short ball from Carter to the straight-running Inman, saw the big centre burst through a gaping defensive hole and swerve around Milroy to score near the posts. It was the sort of try that should win grand finals. Halangahu’s conversion put the Students up 21-16.
The University scrum had been gradually gaining the ascendancy and when they took a tighthead in the 62nd minute the Students gained momentum and field position for Halangahu to slot a field goal for an elusive 24-16 lead.
But Randwick once again hit back with a series of multiple-phase plays which eventually resulted in Milroy slotting another penalty from in front.
Halangahu then had the worst 10 minutes of a wonderful season with a couple of kicks going out on the full, a dropped ball and a restart that didn’t go 10 metres. The result was more pressure from Randwick, particularly Mitchell, who went on a roving commission, and more defensive duties for the Students.
Another dominant scrum in the 74th minute stemmed the tide but back-to-back penalties for the Wicks allowed them possession and position as University defended to the end. The final bell was a welcome sound.
The grand final had its high points in the efforts of Taylor and Milroy in difficult conditions, the grunt in the young University scrum, a number of well constructed tries from both sides, skilled multiple-phase plays from both sides, great defence from the Students (structured and scrambling), Waugh’s work at the breakdown and in defence reminding Wallaby coach Robbie Deans of his talents, and a number of pile-driving tackles, from Yanuyanutawa and second-rower Ben McCalman, who with Pat McCutchoen was one of the form forwards in the competition throughout the season.
Having missed the 2008 grand final when out with injury, Tom Carter made up for it this season by being named man-of-the-match. But he must have been hard pushed by young tighthead Pat Ryan, the chief stoker in a very hot engine-room.