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The Sydney University Lion’s continued their perfect season last weekend when they defeated the previously undefeated Western Sydney Pirates 38-32 in one of the most entertaining games of the season.

After quickly being forced to punt after receiving the opening kickoff, the Pirates had Sydney Uni pinned inside their redzone and forced a couple of unwanted firsts. On the Lions first offensive play, the exchange between quarterback Kiernan Dorney and running back Hugh Tompkins was muffed and the Pirates defenders pounced on the loose ball. It was Sydney Uni’s first turnover of the season and not the ideal way for Tompkins – stepping in at halfback in the absence of reigning league MVP Liam Erby – to start the day.

Moments after their first turnover, the Lions then conceded their first points of the season as the Pirates speedy halfback found the edge and beat the Uni defenders to the corner of the endzone.

It was a short-lived lead, as Sydney Uni responded with an efficient drive. Runs from both Tompkins and Dorney, and passes to Wide receivers Sam Darcy and James “Mac Daddy” Shine moved the sticks and got the ball inside the Pirates ten. The drive was then capped with Dorney finding Daniel Kelen over the middle for the QB-turned-receiver’s first ever touchdown reception. The conversion was successful and the score was tied at 7-7.

The Lions defense also rebounded. With key tackles by Nick Skladnev and Mathieu Bertrand, the Pirates were forced to punt again and Uni looked to take advantage.

Again a solid mix of run and pass saw the Lions offense approach the West Sydney redzone. However, on consecutive plays Dorney threw incomplete passes to the endzone – both of which incited premature touchdown celebrations. First, wide receiver Marc Biedenkapp – despite an acrobatic diving effort – was unable to hold on to a pass. This was followed by a disputed call, as a lofted pass from Dorney to Kelen at the back of endzone saw the receiver out leap his defender only to (allegedly) land with a foot out of bounds. The Lions settled for a field goal attempt which was pushed wide, and though the scores remained the same, momentum had clearly shifted to the Pirates.

That momentum was not wasted as the Pirates – relying heavily on their ground game – drove down the field and retook the lead on a mix of strong inside and outside runs.

The second quarter continued to be favourable to the Pirates, as their defense once more halted the Lions offense. After reclaiming possession the ball was again put into the hands of their fleet-footed running back who gained a quick first down. He then broke free on an outside run and had the pace to outrun the Lions defenders, giving his side a 19-7 lead. It came at a cost though as he was injured on the two point conversion attempt and would not return to the game.

Sydney University are a veteran-laden team, and not prone to panic when trailing in matches. Behind the offensive line of Thode, Lawrence, Allen, Carbury and Gifford the Lions took the ensuing kickoff and drove the ball. Picking up two solid first downs, the young running back Tompkins followed some great blocking before letting his speed take over in the open field as he glided into the endzone. The two point conversion was successful and the differential was sliced to 4.

Neither offense could score on the final two possessions of the half – the Lions unable to complete a pass on third and long and the Pirates stifled by the twin tower tackle combination of Michael Rigney and Fady Aoun. The teams went to the break with the score Pirates 19, Lions 15.

At halftime, the Lions found themselves in the very unusual position of being behind on the scoreboard. Facing the biggest challenge of their season thus far, the team talk at the break was that it was time to step up, and step up they did.

The return of captains Joe Lim and Leigh Louey-Gung, inspired the Uni defence after the Lions offense was unable to take advantage of receiving the ball on the kickoff. Great tackles by Andy Eisold and Nikolai Hansen and fine coverage stalled the West Sydney drive.

Upon taking possession the Sydney Uni offensive line – who had demanded the responsibility of leading the charge at half time – began to dominate. Tough runs and a long pass to Biedenkapp brought the ball inside the Pirates 5 yard line, and Dorney or punched it into the endzone. With the kick, Sydney Uni had taken the lead for the first time 22-19.

It would not last. The Pirates hit back straight away following a good return, some tough running and a 15 yard penalty. Again they bounced the ball outside and carried the ball in for six. The kick made it seven, and the Lions trailed by 4.

The 4th quarter hit, and once again it was the Lions turn to drive.  It should have been a quick strike score, but a wide-open Sam Darcy could not hold on to a Dorney bomb that would surely have resulted in six points. Shaking off the inconsistency of the first half, the offense rallied. The line ploughed a path for Tompkins and Watson as Uni crossed into Pirates territory, and a fingertip grab and run by Uni receiver Mike Sander forced the Pirates onto the back foot.

 Rushing to the line of scrimmage, the Lions snapped the ball quickly and Dorney found Kelen for a second time over the middle and in the endzone. With two points on the conversion, it was West Sydney’s turn to trail by 4 in the fourth quarter.

It’s a rare feeling for Sydney Uni not to think a fourth quarter lead is safe, but such was the insatiable desire of the Pirates to win, that it seemed almost certain that more points would be needed to secure victory. West Sydney gave credence to those concerns as they drove to take the lead. Running behind the monstrous Pirate o-line led by Nathan “Sasquatch” D’Cunha, the Pirates ate up time and gobbled up yardage as they slowly but surely worked their way inside the lions 5.  Getting the scent of the endzone they were not to be denied, breaking the plain on an inside carry. The conversion was no good and the Lions had 3 minutes to make up the two point differential.

They would only need 30 seconds. Eschewing the pattern of long scoring drives, Dorney launched a 40 yard strike to Biedenkapp in the endzone. The German international – and one of the most graceful receivers to play the game – leapt over defenders and gave the lions a four point lead. Dorney’s run on the two point conversion stretched the lead to 6, and the Pirates had a chance to drive for the tying touchdown and perhaps a winning conversion.

It was not to be. On third and very long the Pirates young QB lofted a pass too close to Lions safety Peder Jungstedt, who snared the intercept and returned possession to the Uni.

Alex Watson ground out a first down and with the Pirates not possessing enough timeouts to stop the clock, Dorney kneeled out the match.

It was a thrilling encounter between two teams brimming with talent, heart and respect for each other. And one which sets up a tantalizing potential re-match sometime in December.

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