Zac Masters’ first game as the Blues co-coach was something to behold at Twickenham on Saturday, with the big bookend playing a stunning 80-minute role during Tumut’s 30-12 Maher Cup and Group 9 victory over the Gundagai Tigers.
The 23-year-old was relentless in attack and defence, with a myriad of barnstorming runs, and rock-solid tackles – a performance that won him the inaugural John ‘Bronc’ Jones-Ray Beavan medal for best player on ground.
Masters was extremely proud to win the award, but more because of the Maher Cup history of both names attached to the medal.
“I’m obviously very honoured to receive the Jones-Beavan medal, especially being named after two such historic and special families for both Tumut and Gundagai,” Masters said.
The prop led by example from the outset, and while he said it was in his nature to lead as captain/coach, he praised those players around him who helped Tumut to a round one victory.
“The way I approach it, playing in the middle, you always want to try and lead from the front,” Masters said.
“I guess the added responsibility should only improve my game. I just couldn’t be prouder of the team’s effort, especially our debutants, we couldn’t have asked any more of them.”
Blues president, Bryan Black, was impressed by Masters’ performance, and he hinted his big man could get even better in 2021.
“He made a statement to me that he wanted to lead from the front, and he certainly did,” Black said.
“I think he certainly can improve too, he is going to gain some experience from coaching and the rigmarole that goes with it, and he will learn his game a bit more and I certainly think it will help him.”
In a contest that swung both sides of the ball, errors and penalties played a big part in the result, with the two teams seemingly a little nervous, playing a scrappy brand of rugby league after a big off-season.
Tumut got off to the best start though, after Masters crossed over for a try in sixth minute – the prop powering his way over the line to the right of the sticks and Jacob Toppin converting for a six-nil lead.
On the back of points, Gundagai had their opportunities, but Tumut defended well before back-to-back penalties had the Blues on the attack.
A swift right-side play saw the ball in Tevita Aroha-Tuinauvai’s hands and the centre shimmied, beating his opposite number, before getting one-on-one with the winger, then flicking the ball to Andy Harris.
Harris then ducked back in field, scoring a terrific try, while Toppin couldn’t convert, and Blues were ahead 10-nil after 20 minutes.
With the wind in their sail, the Blues kept on attacking the Tigers right edge, and new man, Ron Leapai was fantastic, with many bullocking runs setting the platform for Tumut.
Lachlan Bristow and Jacob Toppin combined well at times and played off the back of Leapai, but last-ditch defensive efforts from Ryan McQueen and Charlie Barton foiled Brayden Draber and Tom Hickson, who both had opportunities to score.
Finally, the pressure told, and it was almost a nothing play that led to Lachlan Bristow scoring the next try in the 23rd minute of the first half.
On the back of a big Adam Pearce run, the Blues were on the front foot, and Bristow, who was playing as half back, had the ball in his hand inside the 10-metre line, and shaped to kick not once, but twice, before burrowing between Royce Tout and Jake Elphick to score a soft try – Toppin converted the Blues went ahead 16-nil.
After a brief period dominated by mistakes and penalties, multiple scuffles ensued, with tempers flaring, and unfortunately, the Blues let the Tigers back in to the contest.
In the 29th minute, Derek Hay created something from nothing, after shaping to offload to Luke Berkrey, he stepped past Tommy Jeffery and Zac Masters, scoring a great try to the right of the posts – James Luff converted, and the Blues now led 16-6.
With five minutes remaining in the half, an offside penalty had the Tigers in the Blues half, before Tumut, whilst in attack, gave away a silly penalty inside their 10-minute line.
Gundagai made the home side pay, with Luke Berkrey bursting through a hole to score – James Luff converted, and Tumut only led 16-12 at the break.
The Blues came out firing in the second half, and after a mountain of possession early, Brayden Draber was able to score first, scooting to the left after a Tommy Hickson run, burrowing over to the delight of the Hobby and Madigan Hills – Toppin missed the conversion and Tumut led 20-12.
Tempers flared again at multiple points in the second half, which allowed for the forward packs to continue to soften each other up in the middle.
Brayden Draber was forced to leave the field with what looked a rib or chest complaint, while Luke Berkrey also hobbled from the field with an apparent calf injury.
Hickson then broke the game wide open for Tumut when he returned a Derek Hay kick, leaving Charlie Barton flat on his face after a sharp left-foot step, before outpacing Ryan McQueen and Dylan Murdoch, only to be stopped by the Tigers fullback, Dane O’Hehir.
The blues capitalised moments later, when shifting the ball right, and Aroha-Tuinauvai made mincemeat of the Tigers defenders, getting past Jack Lyons before fending away Troy Barby and Jake Elphick to score a terrific try in the 60th minute – Toppin converted, and the Blues led 26-12.
To rub salt in the wound, the Blues would score the final try of the game, giving Tommy Hickson his first meat pie in top grade.
After an errant pass hit the ground, Jacob Toppin regathered and fired a long spiral pass to Ron Leapai, who offloaded to Tommy Jeffery.
Jeffery then worked hard, drawing a defender and passing to Hickson, who dove, and even though his legs were in the air and across the sideline, he somehow managed to ground the ball, referee Ben Whitby pointing to the spot to put the exclamation mark on a sensational Blues 30-12 win over the Gundagai Tigers.