THEY did it the hard way, but Wangaratta Rovers will play in the finals after a thrilling three-point victory over Wodonga at John Flower Oval on Saturday.
It was a ripping contest.
The Hawks started the game like millionaires, with the ball barely touching the ground in the opening minutes as Daniel Archer and Ryan Cobain got Paul Maher’s team off to a flyer.
The Rovers looked like a team warming up for a final, not playing for the right to get into one, but it didn’t take long to see why that was the case.
The Bulldogs flipped the game on its head, booting five goals on the trot to finish the opening quarter.
Another — a brilliant goal on the run from Tom Bowring — gave Wodonga a four-goal lead almost 10 minutes into the second term.
But the Hawks hit back.
Jamie Sheahan kicked a much needed steadier to reduce the margin, before a goal on debut from Mitch Horwood got the Hawks up and about.
James Smith, who is shaping as a future star of the competition, added another late in the term and the margin was back to just five points at the main break.
The third quarter was enthralling.
Nick Beattie, who gave the Hawks headaches all game, kicked his third to give Wodonga breathing space in the early stages of the second half, but goals from Rovers’ livewire Sam Dunstan and Archer wrested the lead back once again.
Ben Hollands left one final reminder of his class with a bullet pass to hand Beattie his fourth goal, but it was the Hawks who took a slender three-point lead into the final change.
It was a see-sawing affair in the last quarter, with the Bulldogs surging out to a seven-point lead with Beattie’s fifth goal 11 minutes into the term.
But a long bomb on the run from Shane Gaston, followed by clever goals from James and Matt Smith, gave the Hawks a 10-point lead with just minutes to spare.
They looked home.
But as if it was written in the script, Hollands replied with an immediate goal and a frantic final 90 seconds ensued.
The Hawks were just four points in front and hanging on for dear life.
The Bulldogs went into attack three times, with McKye Turner missing a tough chance to give Wod-onga a famous victory.
“It would have been awesome to get over the line but the boys left nothing in the tank,” Hollands said after his final game.
“I’m very proud.
“They absolutely gave everything you could possibly ask.”
He wasn’t playing for Wodonga, but nobody exemplified what Hollands said more than Rovers’ star Sam Carpenter.
He was exceptional.
“You’ve just got to respect people like Sam,” coach Paul Maher said.
“Not just because he’s a wonderful person, but just because the way he approaches the game so professionally and the way he attacks the footy.
“He never, ever gives up.”