An understrength Albury Thunder produced a gutsy effort in falling to premiership favourites Tumut on Saturday.
The home team raced to a 22-6 lead in the first half, but the Thunder showed grit in the 44-26 loss.
The visitors were missing a host of players, including coach Adrian Purtell, Wales representative James Olds and hard-running prop Brad Hill.
Albury missed last year's competition, due to COVID, but when the teams met the previous season, they produced some fierce contests, dominated by a handful of monster hits.
And it was another fiery clash.
"I don't know what it is, why we've had some really physical games against them (in recent years), but I thought our young forwards really stood up to the challenge," Thunder utility Robbie Byatt offered.
Tumut boasted NSW Country reps Zac Masters and Ron Leapai, but the likes of unheralded forwards Reece Clegg and Darcy Wilson refused to be intimidated by their profile opponents.
I don't know what it is, why we've had some really physical games against them (in recent years), but I thought our young forwards really stood up to the challenge.- Robbie Byatt
There's also few tougher jobs in the game than a young playmaker coming up against a big and aggressive pack, knowing he has to take the defensive line on, but five-eighth Mason Fuller showed his mettle.
"They put a lot of pressure on him, but Mason handled it well," Byatt revealed.
The Blues ran in eight tries to four, with Byatt snaring a double.
He started at lock, but a groin injury forced veteran halfback Andrew Smith off the field in the first half, so Byatt joined Fuller in the halves.
The injuries have forced Jon Huggett into prop, but it didn't stop the workhorse producing another strong display.
Hooker Joe Lumb was busy, racking up an enormous amount of tackles in the middle of the field.
Lumb and Huggett have been the standouts for the Thunder in the first seven rounds.
The Border outfit started the season with two thumping losses, but it's steadied since, winning two of the five games since and proving competitive in the losses.
Interestingly, it was the second time the teams had met in a fortnight and that continues on Saturday with the Thunder away to Wagga Brothers.
Group Nine has fallen to eight teams, following the departure of Cootamundra and Junee, which means Albury will face the cellar-dwellers after toppling them 40-12.
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Quite remarkably, the Thunder will go seven weeks without a home game.
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