ALBURY Thunder will play Gundagai in next Sunday’s grand final after the Tigers clinched a thrilling 24-20 win against Southcity in the preliminary final at Equex Centre on Saturday.
James Smart’s line-up defeated the Bulls for the first time in three years to give themselves a shot at winning their first flag since 1983.
Up 14-6 at half-time, and quickly out to a 20-6 early in the second half, Gundagai was later rattled by three Bulls tries before almost limping past the post.
Beaten in six successive games in Wagga since Daniel Fitzhenry took command at Southcity in 2011, the Tigers worst fears were surely taking shape when Bulls fullback Scott Bowden converted a Ned Mortimer try in the 77th minute.
Amid joyous scenes, however, Gundagai eventually broke its recent Wagga jinx to set up another shot at shattering a soul-destroying losing streak going back three decades.
For Gundagai, Saturday’s dramatic five tries to four success has given the team a chance to again try to bury the ghosts of eight failed grand final campaigns since a Tigers triumph in 1983.
With history beckoning, Smart was not about to make audacious predictions following Saturday’s cliff-hanger result.
Taking stock, Smart said Albury would be a monumental challenge.
“They’re (Albury) the best performed team this year,” Smart said.
“They’re big and fast and always hard to beat.”
Reflecting on Saturday’s performance, Smart declared the Tigers had lost their composure when it counted most — a must-not come the grand final.
“We panicked,” he said.
“They kept hanging in and we made it hard for ourselves.”
Against an unlikely scenario, Southcity made a remarkable recovery after looking on the edge of a knockout loss following Peter Magnone’s bulldozing try in the 45th minute.
By the time Smart converted Magnone’s strike, the Tigers were bolting at 20-6 ahead — and seemed safely into the premiership decider.
But, as Smart revealed later, the Bulls rallied in stunning style.
“We were tiring and they (Southcity) came back at us like we knew they would,” he said.
A week out from a second grand final appearance in four years, Tigers second rower Cameron Woo was definitely not keeping his emotions hidden on Saturday.
Woo, who played for Junee when the Diesels lost the premiership to Tumut in 2010, is ready to savour the experience for a second time.
“This is unbelievable,” Woo said.
“I can’t believe we’re there.”
Likewise, Gundagai prop Brett Eccleston made it clear the Tigers were ready to create more history on Sunday by denying the Thunder a second straight title.
Putting it simply, Eccleston declared hoodoos were there to be broken.
Eccleston and Woo were great contributors in Gundagai’s win, but none played better than Smart or brothers Chris and Matt Rose.
Smart had all the answers at the right time, while the Rose boys were absolutely breathtaking.
Matt Rose scored two super tries, the latest in the 74th minute which extended the Tigers lead to 24-14.
Ultimately, Rose’s second try was the difference as Mortimer crossed three minutes later to have the game briefly on a knife edge.