Sydney University staged yet another remarkable comeback to defeat modern-time arch rival Eastwood 41-32 at the Football Ground on Saturday in the first 2016 Shute Shield qualifying final.
In the final two rounds of the competition proper the Students had hauled in significant leads by Warringah and Eastern Suburbs to finish top of the table.
The remaining clubs in the finals series must be wondering just what sort of margin they need to feel safe.
On Saturday, Eastwood led 22-7 well into the first half and 29-14 at halftime. Yet Uni scored 29 second-half points countered only by a penalty goal on one of the rare occasions the Woodies penetrated Student territory in that stanza.
Eastwood opened proceedings on Saturday by kicking out on the full, a portent of things to come both for the Woodies in particular, and skills in general. Some of the unforced errors from both sides were not worthy of finals football.
The Woodies opened the scoring after seven minutes, when, from a five-metre scrum they went two phases right before switching back to the left and a well-aimed chip kick from five-eighth Jai Ayoub found winger Cameron Mitchell and he crossed in Bruce Ross corner. Ayoub couldn’t convert and the Woodies led 5-0.
Sustained Woodies attack that went well into double-figure phases only resulted in a Uni try when outside centre Jim Stewart said enough is enough, took the odds on an intercept and raced 75 metres. Chris Kagiassis converted and Uni led 7-5 after 11 minutes.
Whether it was the intercept or the recent Super Rugby recognition and cameo, Stewart looked an assured player on Saturday.
An Ayoub penalty put Eastwood back in front 8-7 nearing the halfway mark of the first stanza and a couple of minutes later No.8 Michael Kovacic was in, duly converted by Ayoub and it was 15-7 Woodies.
Palpable University mistakes were handing the game on a platter to Eastwood and they happily kept dining with Darren Fitzpatrick scoring a great hooker’s try adjacent to the posts.
The Woodies’ second and third tries had come from pick and drive straight through the middle of the Uni maul. Ayoub again converted and the visitors were out to a 22-7 lead.
Despite the scoreline, territory and pressure gave a hint of the actual disparity between the two sides when Uni put the squeeze on in the Woodies’ red zone and opted against taking penalty goals.
Eventually five-eighth Stu Dunbar jinked and made a half break, allowing Folau Fainga’a’s footballing instincts to come into play and the hooker ran a great line to score. Kagiassis converted and Uni were back in the game with about five minutes left in the first half despite trailing 22-14.
Woodies custodian and their best performed Johnathan Malo had other ideas and he scored a terrific individual try before oranges. Ayoub had no problems adding the extras and the Woodies went in 29-14 leaders at half-time.
Heroics of previous weeks aside, there was definitely a sense that Uni had a stronger all-round game if they could cut the unforced errors out of their game. Certainly the flourish before halftime was a pointer to the potential.
A Jim Stewart bust after the break was further evidence and overwhelming proof came when Uni’s scrum turned from workmanlike into a weapon. Penalties added to the vibe of Uni ascendancy everywhere but the scoreboard.
Eventually after 55 minutes it all came to fruition when Kagiassis was on the receiving end of the final pass and scored what can only be described as a splendid team try.
A controversial call against Uni winger Jack Redden had stung the Students and this was the reply, forwards attacking down the right flank and ultimately a sweeping backline to the left, with two phases using the full width of the field. Kagiassis couldn’t convert but the momentum swing was obvious with Uni 10 points down at 29-19 yet seemingly holding all the answers.
The ultimate reward for scrum dominance came midway through the second half with a try to replacement front-rower Tolu Latu. A penalty acknowledging Uni pre-eminence in the set piece found touch close to the Woodies’ line. The lineout was duly won and a couple of pick and drives later the big fella was over.
Kagiassis added the two points and Eastwood were barely holding on at 29-26.
Soon after, with referee Charles Hartson placing his arm in position for another Uni scrum penalty, Dunbar made a clean break and picked up Redden. Kagiassis surprisingly missed but Uni had hit the front 31-29.
In a rare incursion into Uni territory Ayoub put another twist into proceedings with a penalty goal to nose the Woodies in front 32-31, but Uni were never going to be fazed by a one-point deficit.
Eastwood’s illegal tactics, for which they’d been warned officially by the ref and unofficially by some Uni actions, eventually came back to haunt them. Thinking they’d turned the ball over, they were penalised on a linesman’s call for transgressing. A good Uni touchfinder, sustained pressure, and happy hooker Fainga’a collected his second. Kagiassis goaled and it was Uni 38-32.
Dunbar kicked sensibly in general play thereafter, territorial advantage came into its own and Kagiassis sealed the comeback with another penalty close to full time for the eventual 41-32 scoreline
Uni second rower Matthew Philip was monumental. Wallaby coach Michael Cheika tried seven locks in the three-nil series loss to England. They all should be looking over their shoulders.
It was not only a remarkable comeback in first grade, it was a remarkable day for the club, with all four grades and three colts sides winning their qualifying finals.
As Tolstoy wrote in Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Eastwood and Randwick were the pacesetters early on this season, and Eastwood and Uni have been the pacesetters over the past decade. Uni is a happy family at the moment.
First Grade (Shute Shield)
Sydney University 41 (Folau Fainga’a 2, Tolu Latu, Christian Kagiassis, Jim Stewart, Jack Redden tries; Kagiassis 4 goals, pen goal) defeated Eastwood 32 (Darren Fitzpatrick, Michael Kovacic, Cameron Mitchell, Johnathan Malo tries; Jai Ayoub 3 goals, 2 pen goals) at Sydney University Football Ground Oval on Saturday.