The miracle of Mundubbera: Gladiators claim famous victory
LAST Thursday, before Gayndah Gladiators' semi final against Monto Roos, halfback Tom Jameson was lying in a hospital bed, swathed in bandages.
He had melted his face and much of his right side after a horror accident resulting from straying too close to a fire which had had accelerant poured over it.
Coach Dave Madden told the Times after last week's semi-final that Jameson was "cooked", in both senses of the word, and he doubted Jameson's recovery for the grand final.
Yet Jameson, who missed last year's 30-10 grand final victory against Mundubbera Tigers due to a broken leg, was determined not to miss another.
He pulled on the jersey, face several shades paler and right arm in a compression sleeve, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, to score four tries in a thrilling 26-32 extra-time victory, rightfully earning the man of the match award.
The Tigers' heartbreaking defeat, which came after they went undefeated during the regular season, brought to an end the illustrious career of captain Cameron MacDonald, who, while not achieving the fairy tale send-off, could take solace in the fact the Tigers ran the Gladiators as close as it is possible to run a side while still ending up on the wrong side of the ledger.
The grand final started with sensible football from both sides, as they rucked down the middle with simple, one-off play.
Tyler West played a key role in drawing first blood, breaking straight down the middle, virtually untouched, until he was brought down 20m from the Gladiators' line.
Daniel West-Pes then set Vaiola Kivalu up in the corner with a precision kick which bounced awkwardly for Liam Gooden, wrong-footing him. 6-0.
Gooden made up for it shortly afterwards, as the exemplary Mitch Ballin held his pass long enough to draw defenders away from Gooden, who broke down the right side.
Territory gained, five-eighth Zac Dann then fed the ball to Jameson, who, using experience gleaned from his many years playing rugby union, burrowed his considerable body mass to almost subterranean levels, his inertia impossible to stop that close to the line. 6-6.
This would be the main attacking theme from the Gladiators, who looked generally insipid in attack until Dann fed Ballin the ball, wherein the exquisite timing of his passes would create constant overlaps for the Gladiators' right side attack to exploit, which Jameson did repeatedly.
The two combined directly for the next try, Ballin dancing his way through the ragged Tigers' defence for Jameson to again burrow over. 6-12.
However, these would be the Gladiators' last points until 10 minutes into the second half, as Bailey Kimber inspired his side with a powerful run and an offload which was just good enough to be collected and fed to Daniel West-Pes to score the first of his hat-trick of tries. 12-12.
MacDonald played a hand in the Tigers' next one shortly after, drawing Callan Trott and firing off a pass for Kivalu to nab his second. 16-12 at half time, optimism restored on the Tigers bench.
Both Madden and Tigers coach Shannon Steinhardt carried similar messages at half time: exploit the right side defence, slow the rucks down, and find a reserve of energy deep within.
After the resumption, Dann almost crossed to draw the Gladiators level, darting out of dummy half, but he was muscled past the corner post.
Tigers then earned repeat sets down the other end, courtesy a pair of well-placed kicks keeping fullback Luke Altham in-goal, including one where MacDonald monstered Altham and drove him 10m past the dead ball line.
The pressure eventually showed as West-Pes used his superior speed to capitalise on some shoddy Gladiators' defence. 22-12, the game slipping away from the Gladiators.
But Jameson, again. Quick plays had created an enormous overlap for the Gladiators on the left side - Ben Kenny was screaming for the ball, yet Jameson faked from dummy half, tucked his head and crashed over again. 22-16, only a try in it.
Ballin then made a break down the left side, feeding the ball to Dann, who looked to have made the wrong call by not utilising the free man to his left, but he beat two defenders to score. 22-22, the Gladiators start to believe.
Yet a costly drop by Mackenzie Kenny gave the Tigers great field position, which West-Pes capitalised on. 26-22, heads sag on the Gladiators' bench.
Another moment - with around five minutes on the clock, Jameson made an incredible break down the middle.
For all his considerable skill, he is not the quickest, and it was like he was running in slow motion as he was pulled down 20m out from the Tigers' line.
All the Gladiators needed to do was feed through the hands for a certain try, but they fumbled and it seemed the Frank Clancy trophy had slipped through their fingers also.
The game had twists yet, though.
Ballin put Trott into space and then the ball went the width of the field for Shane Morgan to crash down in the opposite corner.
Dann had a chance to win it with the conversion, for there was only one minute left, but his kick curled left. 26-26, extra time.
The Tigers broke first.
A pair of silly penalties frogmarched the Gladiators deep within the Tigers' territory, before a Ballin run set up Jameson again down the right side. As it had been all night. 26-32.
There would be no more twists as the Gladiators held firm for the remainder of extra-time.
The final siren sounded amidst the gloom - the floodlights were operating at half-capacity following an electrical fault in the canteen.
On the field, Dann, who was lying writhing on the ground in pain following a big hit, burst into tears, as did club president Gavin Berrie on the visitors' hill.
Green jerseys ran from the bench, orange jerseys sank to their haunches on the field.
Cries of '4625' built to a crescendo.
Gladiators had secured a remarkable third consecutive premiership, after looking as though they would be a footnote all season to the Tigers' revenge.
"We only beat them in the round robins, but we showed today that the boys had real class," Berrie said.
"Real class, they held it together, the pressure was on, held it together, fantastic."
He said the atmosphere on the hill was electric.
"Just look at it, there's more Gayndah people here than Mundubbera people, they just love it," he said.
"Without the Gayndah people, there is no Gayndah Gladiators.
"The following we have, the people behind us, is just magic."
Dann said, while the previous two premierships were special, this one came with the knowledge they were "underdogs" this season.
"We dug deep, our defence, we sparked up, all those one-percenters we needed to do, we did it," he said.
Madden said the team relished their underdog status, reinforced by the knowledge of the Tigers' superior player resources.
"We didn't know who (which Tigers would be selected) we were going to play," Madden said.
"At training, one of our players said, 'I don't give a #@$! who's on the field, we're going to beat them', and that just echoed through the whole team.