Mounties have piled on four successive tries to overcome an early deficit to the Wentworthville Magpies, beating them 20 points to 17 in their final home game of the year.
With no pressure of losing their minor premiership, coach Steve Antonelli opted to trial some new combinations for the match at Aubrey Keech Reserve. Captain Sam Williams was called into the Raiders' squad as a replacement for Blake Austin, while consistent fullback Zac Santo was also a late omission. The changes forced Kato Ottio into the custodian role, with usual second-rowers Jarrad Kennedy and Scott Sorensen shifting to the centres and Brent Naden into the halves. Royce Hunt, initially named on an extended bench, was also brought in and was among Mounties' best during his time on the field.
It would be Wentworthville to post first points, with the try coming through second-rower Yilleen Gordon. Hooker Sam Gorman exploited some questionable defence to make a break, setting up big man Gordon who got past Kato Ottio for the early four-pointer. With the conversion attempt waved away, the Magpies led 4-0 after just three minutes at Aubrey Keech.
With Mounties looking dazed, some Honeti Tuha class got the Magpies back in a dangerous position. The fullback put winger Scott Schulte into space off a kick return, trapping the opposition in-goal to build momentum. The visitors couldn't capitalise, however, with an offside ruling relieving Mounties of pressure.
The Magpies kept coming and while they couldn't convert every opportunity they had on Mounties' line, they eventually broke through for their second. Skipper Cody Nelson palmed off three defenders to crash over, in worrying signs for the Minor Premiers. Cameron King added the extras for a 10-0 lead.
It was only a matter of time before Mounties clicked into gear and a slick set play would set up Ottio moments later. The competition's leading tryscorer was the beneficiary of a basic overlap in the North Eastern corner and Mounties were suddenly back within striking distance of the Magpies.
With the game settling into an arm wrestle in the dying stages, the Magpies opted to further their lead with a field goal on half-time. Dylan Izzard didn't strike the ball cleanly, but managed to send it over and Wentworthville headed into the sheds leading 11 points to four.
An expected half-time spray appeared to have fired up the home side, with Royce Hunt and Ottio both providing a spark in their opening set of six. The game took a turn for a worse soon after, however, with Jake Butler-Fleming going down with an apparent leg injury. The winger was stretchered off with Roydon Gillett his replacement.
Royce Hunt maintained his destructive running and soon couldn't be contained close to the line. His deserved try, converted by Maurice Kennedy, reduced the deficit to just one after 48 minutes.
End-to-end football ensued and while Mounties were full of energy, their kick accuracy appeared to be letting them down; they squandered several opportunities in dangerous territory and would be made to defend seven-tackle sets. As the game approached its final quarter, however, they hit the lead for the first time via Alofi Mataele. Some great work from Sorensen got him into space, before offloading to Mataele to improve the position.
Five minutes later, Sorensen made it four unanswered tries for the men from Mount Pritchard, pushing himself over for a try that truly exposed Wentworthville's defence. The conversion missed but it was 20-11 in favour of Mounties, setting up for another victory for the minor premiers.
With a potential finals berth on the line, the Magpies were leaving nothing in the tank in their bid to post more points. Cameron King broke through and almost scored, save for some desperate defence from Naden, and the Magpies couldn't find a way to cross the line.
Some brilliance with the ball from Naden almost put the result beyond doubt, with a chip kick marginally beating Ottio to the sideline. Daniel Howard made Mounties pay in the next set, making a 60m line break before being dragged down in a certain trysaver by Maurice Kennedy. Vai Toutai burrowed over from the next tackle, however, and with just three minutes remaining the Magpies were in with a chance - but were ultimately unable to steal a win from the competition favourites.
This article first appeared on NSWRL.com.au