The Kempsey Sharks claimed the Under-17s Koori Knockout in nail-biting fashion yesterday as they held off the heavily favoured Western Koori Eels outfit 12-10 in the final.
Kempsey reached the decider after defeating the Castlereagh All Blacks and Koori Brothers United on Friday, before defeating Wiradjuri in the semi-final on Monday morning.
The Sharks were confident they could knock off the Eels, but they knew it would take an almighty effort as the Western Koori side was full of SG Ball players, who are linked with the junior system of NRL clubs.
The task was made more difficult when five-eighth Tim Bull was sent from the field with the Sharks trailing 6-0 at the midway point of the first half.
However, led by the tireless backrow trio of captain Selwyn Smith, lock Ethan Thompson and Ivan Madden, Kempsey lifted to another gear.
Thompson was later named the NITV Best and Fairest of the tournament.
Sharks winger Tirell Dungay should have reduced the deficit when he showcased his ability to find the try line when he leaped through the air and jotted the ball down with one arm while Eels defenders attempted to bundle him over the sideline.
The touch judge raised his flag to signal Dungay was out but replays showed the winger had remained in the air and a try should have been awarded.
Despite the disappointment, Kempsey remained on the front foot in the second half and were rewarded for their perseverance when forward Learoy Davis barged his way over from close range to level the scores.
The sides couldn't be separated until the final five minutes when attacking brilliance resulted in Kempsey taking their first lead.
On the back of a strong carry from Thompson which put the Eels defence on the back foot, Madden used his footwork to hold off the Eels defenders and showed off his strength when he got an arm free to offload the ball to Dungay.
The winger raced down the sideline and stepped off his left foot to beat the fullback and dove over the try line.
The resulting successful conversion from Oshay Tyerman proved instrumental as the Eels scored a try with the last play of the game to reduce the deficit to 12-10 but the unsuccessful conversion gave Kempsey the victory.
Trainer Reuben Jones was proud of the boys efforts and said they deserved the victory.
"It was a terrific game, the boys dug deep for each other, especially with only 12 players for most of the match," Jones told the Argus.
"They were all pretty stoked. It's been a great season as most of them won the grand final with the Kempsey Dragons too."
Jones expressed gratitude to the hard working Kempsey Sharks committee, who have spent the past nine months fundraising to be able to pay for the juniors to play in the tournament, and to the sponsors who made it a reality.
"The team wouldn't have been in this position without the Sharks committee who volunteer their time and raise thousands of dollars for the kids," Jones said.
"The club would like to thank all coaching staff, club officials, delegates, sponsors and supporters.
"It's a mammoth task raising the funds every year to get the boys to the knockout. There are too many people to name individually but those people know who they are so once again, thank you."
The Sharks team formed in 2016 as a memorial side for the late Ray Donovan. Madden, who set up the match-winning try, was Donovan's grandson. Thomas Donovan coached the Kempsey side.
Since formation, they have been in the semi-finals twice and the grand final once previous to this year.
Kempsey Sharks 2019 sponsors; Booroongen Djugun Limited, Burrun Dalai ACI Kari, Willawarrin Hotel, Team Spirit Sportswear, M.T Andrews Auto Freighters, HMCT LINKED and Kempsey Macleay Tender Centre.
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