Perth Spirit will play in its third NRC finals, after an 80th-minute penalty goal from flyhalf Peter Grant sealed a tense 29-26 win over Queensland Country in Ipswich.
The win means Perth leapfrogs NSW Country into fourth place on the competition table, and while the losing bonus point means Country finish equal with Canberra on 29 points, the Vikings have claimed the minor premiership on points differential.
Perth kept the home side scoreless in the second half, with Grant’s penalty after the siren capping a remarkable turnaround, after they looked out of the contest at half-time.
Handling errors plagued both sides in the opening exchanges, but it was Queensland Country who settled first. A patient build-up and a great offload from Wallabies and Reds prop James Slipper set up the first scoring opportunity in the tenth minute, with winger Jock Campbell scoring in the corner on starting debut.
Scrumhalf James Tuttle raced away to score in the 16th minute, after Country counter-attacked from in their own half. Having converted Campbell’s try from the sideline, Tuttle then converted his own try from the opposite sideline to make it 14-0.
Chris Feauai-Sautia, standing in as Queensland Country skipper for Duncan Paia’aua, was in next to make it 21-0 after as many minutes, with things looking very ominous for a Perth Spirit side needing a win to qualify for the NRC Finals.
Perth had to get on the board, somehow, and they did it through the forwards in the 27th minute, with lock Richie Arnold back from Barbarians duty and crossing under the posts.
But just as they narrowed the margin, Perth coughed up possession in their own half, allowing Country to work a nice set piece play and send fullback Patrick James over in the corner in the 31st minute.
Tuttle pushed the conversion to the left to push the score back out to 26-7, and that’s where it remained at half-time.
After the break, it was always going to be a matter of who best took in the half-time messages, so it would have pleased Spirit coach Kevin Foote to see a patient pick and drive build-up sending no.8 Tevin Ferris over in the 46th minute. Peter Grant’s conversion pulled the margin back to 26-14.
A second try in four minutes to Perth brought the margin back to seven points, after fullback Nick Jooste busted through traffic and thumped the ball down in the corner.
Perth suddenly had all the momentum in the game, and Queensland Country began making the mistakes.
A huge Spirit scrum forced a turnover at the back of a Country scrum, and with another patient build-up, replacement hooker Sama Malolo was over next to the posts in the 65th minute.
Grant’s conversion levelled the scores at 26-all, which lifting the NSW Country Eagles nerves about their hold on fourth spot.
Country eventually re-entered the Perth 22, but had two mauls killed off by some superb Richie Arnold work.
The ball went back and forward as the intensity lifted in the final moments. Perth had a scrum feed just inside the Country half, won clean ball, but just as they coughed it up, Country were pinged for being offside.
With the final siren sounding, Grant lined up the penalty attempt for the win, with Perth’s season literally on the line.
He struck it beautifully, the assistant referees remaining unmoved behind the posts, and Grant was mobbed by teammates as the flags went up to secure the win.
The equations looked against them going into Round 9, but Perth’s NRC title defence remains alive.
Queensland Country 26
Tries: Campbell, Tuttle, Feauai-Sautia, James
Cons: Tuttle 3
Perth Spirit 29
Tries: Arnold, Ferris, Jooste, Malolo
Cons: Grant 3