Sydney University Lions powered to a 43-14 victory over the West Sydney Pirates on Saturday to win Waratah Bowl XXXI and claim the NSW title for a 12th consecutive year.
In the process, they passed the legendary record of the St George Dragons, who won 11 consecutive rugby league titles from 1956 to 1966, to stand alone in Australian sporting history with 12 consecutive championships.
The game could hardly have started any better for the Lions. After kicking off to the Pirates, the Lions were immediately back in possession when Lions defensive tackle Chris Peel dived on a fumble by the Pirates’ quarterback on the first play.
In a taste of what was to follow, Lions running back Alex Watson broke off a 25 yard run to put the ball on the goal line and then went in for a touchdown to give the Lions an early 7-0 lead. Watson would have a banner day, rushing for 201 yards on 29 carries while scoring three touchdowns, and was justly rewarded for his powerhouse display with the Waratah Bowl MVP award.
However, the Pirates hit back with a score of their own on their next possession, punching in for a touchdown from one yard out on 4th down, and then taking the lead 8-7 by successfully running in a two-point conversion.
After exchanging a couple of possessions, the Lions took back the lead early in the second quarter after quarterback Kiernan Dorney connected with wide receiver Brandon Ausley for a key 37-yard completion.
The play of Dorney at quarterback for the Lions was all the more remarkable as he was playing with a splint on a broken finger on his throwing hand. Dorney had broken his finger three games earlier in making a touchdown-saving tackle, but was determined to help the Lions claim the title.
As part of the game plan to deal with Dorney’s injury, starting wide receiver Sam Darcy was injected into the game as a “Wildcat” quarterback after Dorney’s long completion and sliced through the Pirates defence on a speed option from nine yards out to score the go-ahead touchdown. Darcy also ran in a two-point conversion to put the Lions ahead 15-8.
After letting in the initial Pirates score, the Lions defence had rebounded to force the Pirates into three consecutive drives without picking up a first down. The defensive line of Mitch Haney, Michael Rigney, Chady Aoun, Jack Danielson and Nicolai Hansen took back control of the line of scrimmage to allow linebackers Steve Dabin and Dino Srekais and safeties Nick Olive, Keenan Mackett and Liam Erby to control the dangerous Pirates running game.
After again forcing the Pirates to go three-and-out, the Lions took over at midfield and drove down to the red zone on the back of strong running from Alex Watson and Sam Darcy. From 27 yards out, with time running down in the half and under heavy pressure, Dorney threw a decisive touchdown pass to receiver Brandon Ausley. With a successful conversion, the Lions moved out to a 22-8 lead.
On the Pirates’ final possession of the half, cornerback Kevin Trinh made a key pass break up and Angelo Matz, Michael Rigney and Mitch Haney each sacked the Pirates quarterback to kill off any further scoring threat before halftime.
To be any chance of mounting a comeback, the Pirates really needed to score first in the second half. They looked to have landed a blow when they intercepted a Dorney pass on the Lions’ first drive, but safety Nick Olive turned the tables just three plays later, picking off the Pirates’ quarterback at midfield.
The Lions seized the chance and drove the advantage home, Alex Watson making all of the yards on the ground in a controlled offensive drive and scoring from one yard out. The Lions offensive line of Tsuyoshi Kittaka, Marco Miranda, James Gifford, Chris Peel and Nicholai Hansen were now dominating the Pirates defence with a clinical display of sound run blocking.
The Pirates’ last throw of the dice came on their next drive. After advancing down to the Lions’ 15 yard line, the Pirates’ season went on the line when they went for the first down on 4th and four. Rushing from his outside linebacker spot, Dino Srekais swamped the Pirates quarterback to take him down for a sack and turn the ball over to the Lions.
The Lions put the game beyond doubt with yet another scoring drive. Mixing runs from Watson with pass completions to Ausley and Anthony Tuong, Quarterback Dorney showed all of his guile to force the Pirates to jump offside with a hard count and then threw a 26-yard touchdown strike over the Pirates defence to Sam Darcy. This was Darcy’s second touchdown on the day and, with the PAT from Liam Erby, the lead was stretched out to 36-8.
Now late in the fourth quarter, the Lions conceded a touchdown as they allowed the Pirates to run the ball (and run off the clock) while protecting against a quick touchdown pass. Watson finished off his strong game with yet another rushing touchdown to conclude the scoring at 43-14 to the Lions.
The win was a great reward for a Lions team that had worked hard to adjust to the retirement of a number of key players and had rebounded from the disappointment of an early season loss which had snapped a 99 game winning streak. Somehow, that only made it all the sweeter to keep alive the streak that really counted.
Still the champs.