MANNING River Ratz qualified for their first grand final in as thrilling an elimination final as has been witnessed in the six years of the Lower Mid North Coast rugby union premiership, defeating the Gloucester Cockies, 24-17, at Taree Rugby Park.
From first to final whistle it was a fiercely physical, fascinating sudden-death affair, the Ratz emerging worthy winners, four tries to two, so near to scoring on three other occasions that in the tension they knocked the ball on over the line.
Wiser and well-prepared, the Ratz now ready themselves for next Saturday's grand final at Tuncurry's Peter Barclay Field against the minor premiers, the Forster-Tuncurry Dolphins, champions in 2008 and 2010.
The final was the best possible advertisement for rugby. Before one of the biggest crowds to watch a LMNC game, the Ratz jumped to the lead in the third minute through winger Matt Hardcastle's swerving, in-and-away try only for the Cockies to jump to a 7-5 lead three minutes later.
Cockies captain, Andy Paynter took a quick tap and from the ensuing pick and drive, young hooker Peter Lewis caught the Ratz napping with his dart for the line.
The signs were ominous for the Ratz 10 minutes later following a series of mauls and drives from 30 metres out with half Paynter emerging from a forward pile-up with the try for the Cockies' 14-5 lead.
Gradually, the greater weight and pressure of Jon Annand's scrum and lineout possession of Chad Lambert and Glen Mathiske turned the tide with the Ratz equally dangerous winger, Luke Moroney, surging over in the corner from five-eighth Jake Maurirere's searching cross kick. The Ratz drew on reserves of spirit and strength, and from a hefty scrum, durable inside-centre Sam Hartnett stepped through the Cockies' defence for the slickest of tries and a 19-14 lead before halftime.
Coach Jamie Andrews was inspirational at five-eighth for the Cockies with his fearless running while beside him Jack Alison satisfied most judges that he is the best product of the competition to emerge this winter with his dynamic tackling and never-say-die attitude.
Gloucester's worst fears were realised as powerful No 8 Chris Marchant limped off with the ankle injury he carried from the minor semi-final and though David Cox switched from prop to hooker to steal a tight-head, the Ratz re-asserted themselves with Lambert blasting over from a short lineout.
Gloucester were courageous to the last minute, their last drop of sweat, fighting to make up the leeway, inspired by their Paynter-Andrews halfback combination, only for the Ratz to withstand the storm.
Once again, flanker Lambert proved what an acquisition he was for the Ratz after the Old Bar Clams closed their doors, sharing match honours with his captain, MNC breakaway turned halfback, Mitch Carter.
Club president, Jon Compton and first-season coach, Danial Stone have done wonders for the Ratz. They have developed a hot-headed combination into the club's most formidable team across the field in the competition's brief history, from grand prop, hard headed Lee Blunt, to enterprising fullback Jordan Weir.
Their clashes with the Dolphins are always willing affairs and Saturday's confrontation for the title will be no exception. It will be a fitting conclusion to the Tallwoods and Harrington Waters golf course-sponsored premiership.