The Tumut Blues produced a comeback for the ages, recovering from a 14-0 halftime deficit to secure the 2023 Group 9 premiership with a gutsy 23-18 win over Kangaroos in Sunday’s gripping grand final at McDonald’s Park.
The decider was played in sapping heat and Kangaroos adapted better in the opening stages, valuing possession and kicking judiciously to the corners to build pressure.
Tumut couldn’t stay in the arm wrestle and came up with some uncharacteristic errors inside their own end, allowing Kangaroos to strike early with tries to hooker Hayden Jolliffe (10th) and Jacob Mascini (14th). When Latrell Siegwalt landed a penalty goal the Blues were reeling at 14-0 down just 20 minutes into the decider.
Any time they threatened to get a foothold into the game at the backend of the half against a tiring Kangaroos, something always went amiss.
There were a couple of promising breaks that ended with the ball being thrown away. They received a couple of penalties in good position, only to cough up possession cheaply.
Both teams struggled under the warm September sun and were no doubt happy for the halftime siren to sound.
“I don’t know if it was the heat, nerves, or the week off, maybe a combination of everything,” captain-coach Lachlan Bristow reflected after the game. “But everything that could go wrong did go wrong in that first half.
“We dropped it coming out of trouble, we gave away silly penalties. It went horribly wrong.
“But considering we couldn’t have played any worse, I didn’t think going in at halftime 14-0 down was too bad.”
At the break, Bristow told his team to stick with the game-plan and not to panic.
“I just told the boys we needed to continue to believe, to believe in the group we had,” he said.
“We also had to get back to our football, the type of footy we’ve been playing the last couple of weeks.
“We didn’t need to panic and search for tries. I knew the points would come if we could get back to doing what we do best.”
The fightback showed plenty of character, because the Blues by no means played flawless football when play resumed.
The second half started almost as badly as the first for Tumut as they gave up a long break from the kick-off, which almost yielded a try a couple of tackles later to Nathan Rose, who was brought down just centimetres short.
That goal-line defence would be tested throughout the half, invariably coming up with the required desperation to keep Kangaroos at bay.
Just moments after the Rose near-miss the Blues were at the other end courtesy of a penalty and taking advantage of a bit of luck when a Lachlan Bristow kick ricocheted nicely into the waiting arms of Jacob Sturt for the towering lock to dive over and give Tumut a sniff, trailing 14-6 after 43 minutes.
That first score gave the Blues some much-needed energy. The likes of Lewis Arragon, Michael Fenn, Mitch Ivill and Lachlan Bristow were making inroads against a visibly weakening defence as Tumut got on top in the arm-wrestle.
On the back of a penalty and an attacking set they chanced their arm on the final tackle as the ball was flung wide for winger Billy Bridgeman to plant the ball down in the corner in the 55th minute.
Bristow nailed the conversion from the touchline and the Blues had closed to within 18-16 with plenty of time left on the clock.
Just when it looked like Tumut had all the momentum, they knocked on from the kick-off, inviting trouble. Kangaroos took the invitation, getting a couple of repeat sets and eventually getting over through Mascini out wide. With about 18 to play, Kangaroos were back out to an 18-12 lead.
A turning point came a few minutes later, when a floating Bristow bomb was spilled by the usually safe Siegwalt 10 metres out from his line. From the scrum, the ball went wide to Ivill, who skilfully drew in two defenders before flicking the ball out for Mal Aitken to cross in the corner. Bristow missed the conversion and the Blues still trailed 18-16 with 13 to go, but it was clear the fightback wasn’t finished.
The key play of the game came when Fenn produced a crucial one-on-one strip on Kangaroos winger Charles Barton to put the Blues on the attack with about 10 to play.
Two tackles later hooker Jordan Anderson dived over from dummy half amid a tangle of arms and legs after a messy ruck.
It had taken 72 minutes, but the Blues were finally in front – up 22-18.
Tumut continued to dominate territorially in those final minutes to never really be in danger of giving up a lead they’d worked so hard to get. With a couple of minutes left Bristow landed a field goal for his team to go five points up.
Fittingly, the ball was in Bristow’s hands when the final siren sounded. He was later named the player of the match.
Bristow is heading to France to play over the Australian summer and while he hasn’t ruled out returning to the Blues next season, he’s indicated it’s unlikely. He explained the feeling of winning a premiership for his hometown club.
“It’s awesome, it means everything to me,” he said.
“We went around the group at training on Friday night and every single player spoke about what it would mean to them to win. It was very emotional and to do it with that group of guys, it’s unbelievable. It makes me feel really content with my rugby league career.
“It’s a great way to go out.”
Blues fans will be hoping it’s not the last they’ve seen of the feisty playmaker, who has been an integral part of Tumut’s revival over the past four seasons.
Premiers in 2019, runners up in 2020, unbackable favourites when the competition was called off prematurely due to Covid the following year, and then knocked out last year in the preliminary final when captain-coach Zac Masters was sent off, the Blues are back on top in 2023.