Sydney Uni Lions extended their incredible run of Gridiron NSW championships by taking out the 2016 Waratah Bowl in a nail-biting encounter at Leichhardt Oval on Saturday.

The Lions took the lead 20-19 with under seven minutes to play in the fourth quarter and then had to defend three possessions by the West Sydney Pirates to claim the win.

In the end, it was Lions captain and strong safety Nick Olive (#22), who picked off a last-gasp pass from veteran Pirates quarterback David Ward to seal the victory and deliver a 14th consecutive NSW championship.

The Lions had shown their experience in taking the game to the Pirates from the kick-off. Their defence smothered the Pirates on their opening drive, sending them three and out, and good pressure from Keenan Mackett (#9) on the ensuing punt gave the Lions the ball in the Pirates half for their first possession. Quarterback Matt Hilley (#14) fired a couple of short passes before running back Charles Adams (#2) barrelled into the endzone for the opening score.

The Lions defence seemed to have the Pirates in check, with defensive end Batuhan Tuylu (#90) leading the way with a tackle for loss and a sack in the first two series, until Pirates running back Marlou Tacague broke the game open with a 64-yard touchdown against the run of play. Nick Olive blocked the PAT to keep the lead at 7-6, but the Pirates were back in the contest.

The Pirates mounted a strong drive on their next possession, moving down to the Lions 25-yard line, but pressure from the Lions defensive front forced a lofted pass from Ward and cornerback Chris Day (#43) picked off the ball.

The Lions made the most of the turnover, quarterback Hilley hitting slot receiver Conor Foley (#21) in stride down the sideline for Foley to outrace the coverage for a 72-yard touchdown. However, the Lions PAT was blocked, leaving the score at 13-6.

The Pirates ground attack was getting on top as the game moved into the second quarter and they again drove into position to score. This time Ward completed a crucial pass on 4th and 13 to keep the drive alive and then fired a touchdown pass from nine yards out to a wide open receiver. With a successful PAT, the Pirates had tied the game at 13-13.

The Lions opened the door for the Pirates on their next drive. After moving the ball to midfield, Hilley threw for a slot receiver but was picked off by a Pirates cornerback who had dropped off his receiver to take the interception. The Pirates took full advantage, running the ball down to the goal line and then in for a touchdown to take the lead 19-13. In a play that would prove crucial, defensive end Phillip Loeffler (#92) rose up to block the PAT to keep the lead below a converted touchdown.

The Lions had a chance to even the score before halftime after Keenan Mackett blocked a punt to give the Lions the ball at midfield with 40 seconds left. Hilley completed passes to Harry Granger (#5), Abdul Kadir (#25) and Sam Darcy (#84) to give the Lions one last shot from the 16-yard line, but his pass to the endzone was batted away by the Pirates secondary to preserve their lead.

The Lions needed to tighten their run defence in the second half and adjustments made at halftime had the desired effect. Whereas the Pirates had rushed for over 150 yards in the first half, after the break, the Pirates would be held to 0 net yards on the ground by the revitalised Lions defence.

The Lions shut down the first two Pirates possessions of the second half without giving up a first down, with middle linebacker Steve Dabin (#45) recording two tackles for loss and Martin Balada (#77) getting the first of his three sacks for the game. Dabin would play an inspired second half, finishing with 13 tackles, four tackles for loss and a sack while rallying the Lions defence.

However, a penalty for running into the punter gave the Pirates a second chance and a 28-yard pass saw the Pirates threatening to score. The Lions defence dug in with, first, Fady Aoun (#79) and Steve Dabin and then Martin Balada sacking the Pirates quarterback on consecutive plays to defuse the threat. While the Lions had prevented the score, the Pirates drove home their field position with a good punt down to the Lions goal line.

Backed up against their endzone, the Lions pulled out a big play. Hilley threw a perfect pass to wide receiver Harry Granger, who had beaten his defender on a deep pass route. Granger caught the pass and set off down the touchline. Hampered by broken ribs he had suffered earlier in the game, Granger was caught by the cover and ruled to have been bumped into touch one yard short of the endzone after an 84-yard completion. However, the Lions could not take advantage of Granger’s heroics. A holding penalty on the next play saw the Lions marched backwards and, from there, Hilley missed on his pass attempts to the endzone.

Now into the fourth quarter, the Pirates tried to mount a drive to extend their lead, but quarterback sacks to Loeffler and Balada forced the Pirates to punt the ball away again.

The Lions got the ball back on their own 31-yard line and set about constructing a championship drive. The offensive line of Aaron Carbury (#60), Mathew Taber (#63), James Gifford (#72), Victor Teixeira (#61) and David Wilson (#76) got to work to open up running lanes for Adams to pick up key yards on the ground. And when Hilley hit Conor Foley on a pass of 24 yards, the Lions had the ball only 30 yards out and were in range to launch an attack. Adams and the offensive line ran the ball down to the five yard line, where Hilley coolly found Foley open in the end zone on a quick out pattern for the Lions to tie up the game at 19-19.

The opportunity to put the Lions ahead fell to medical student Godfred Agyemang, who had only taken over the kicking duties in the last game of the regular season. Nick Olive snapped the ball back to Matt Hilley, who placed the ball for Agyemang to send it sweetly through the uprights. The Lions now had a 20-19 lead with 6:45 to play.

The Lions next defensive series may have been their best. It started with a deep kickoff by Agyemang and retiring club legend James Gifford (#72) beating the young guns down the field to tackle the returner at the 15 yard line. Freshman linebacker Mitchell Dicalfas (#44) then levelled a Pirates receiver venturing across the middle with a devastating hit to cause an incompletion.

Nick Olive and Joel Suttor (#58) followed this up by sacking the Pirates quarterback to bring up 3rd and 19 on the Pirates 11 yard line. Suttor was also a freshmen and had excelled after being thrust into the game unexpectedly following the ejection of a veteran player. The series was finished off when Steve Dabin sliced through the line to take down the Pirates runner for a loss on the six-yard line. The Pirates had to punt and were lucky to get the punt away at all in the face of a fierce Lions rush.

The Lions were now driving to run time off the clock. In a sign of the aggressive approach taken by the Lions, head coach Andrew Ogborne chose to go for it on 4th and 3 rather than punt the ball back to the Pirates, with Hilley completing a crucial pass to Sam Darcy to pick up the first down. This allowed the Lions to drive the ball down to the 19-yard line and run the clock down to 2:40. On 4th and 15, Hilley took a shot at the endzone, with Andrew Ghaly (#89) briefly holding a tough catch at the pylon before it was knocked out of his grasp by a defender.

The game was again put in the hands of the defence. The Pirates were determined to end the Lions dynasty and gave themselves a chance when receiver Mitch Hunt beat Lions double coverage to hold a tough 33 yard pass. The Pirates then tried two gadget plays – an overloaded line and a hidden man play – but the Lions were ready. On 3rd down, Ward threw incomplete as he was being hit by Balada to bring up 4th and 8 on the Lions 44 yard line with 1:43 on the clock. Ward looked for a receiver over the middle, but left his pass short as Balada again closed in to turn the ball over to the Lions on downs.

The Lions ran the ball to soak up the remaining Pirates time outs and ran the clock down to 13 seconds after punting the ball away one last time. Ward launched one more deep pass in the direction of Hunt, but this time Olive was in position to step in front of the receiver to take the interception and kill off any chance of a miracle finish. The interception rounded out a big day for Olive, who had nine tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack, in addition to snaring the most important interception in recent team history.

Lions receiver (and recent Blues recipient) Conor Foley was deservedly named as the 2016 Waratah Bowl MVP for catching five passes for 145 yards and scoring two touchdowns.

Hilley finished with 18 completions from 35 attempts with 292 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, while Harry Granger caught six passes for 120 yards. On defence, Steve Dabin led the tackle count with 13, while Nick Olive made nine and Kennan Mackett and Mitchell Henderson had seven each.

A key factor in the Lions’ victory was the pressure imposed by the defensive front of Phillip Loeffler, Martin Balada, Fady Aoun, Joel Suttor, Steve Dabin, Mitchell Dicalfas and Nick Olive, who combined for 12 tackles for loss and eight sacks.

The Lions win saw them cap an undefeated 2016 season, claim their 18th New South Wales title and extend their current run of championships to 14 in a row. It may have been close, but it certainly was sweet, as the Lions are still the champions and have written another proud chapter in their unprecedented history of Waratah Bowl success.