Port City claimed a berth in next Sunday's Group Three Rugby League preliminary final with a 30-24 extra time win over Wingham in a gripping minor semi-final at Wingham.
The Tigers lodged a protest immediately after the game, claiming Port City started the first half of extra time with 13 players. The Breakers were only allowed 12, as captain Adrian Daley had been sent to the sin bin just before the end of regular time.
However, Group Three chairman Wayne Bridge confirmed the Breakers had the required number of players on the paddock after viewing a video. The Tigers agreed with the decision.
It was a game of lost opportunities for Wingham. The Tigers looked winners when winger Harry Lewis raced across for a try within the last five minutes to level up the scores at 22-22. Danny Russell added the conversion to make it 24-22. Port halfback Anthony Cowan then put the restart out on the full, giving Wingham a penalty and the Wingham supporters started to celebrate. However, that all changed when Russell failed the find touch, gifting the Breakers possession and they worked play deep into the Wingham quarter.
With 37 seconds left on the clock Port had a scrum feed, however, there was a minor melee and referee Jason Higgins awarded the Breakers a penalty, while also sin binning Daley. The fulltime siren had sounded when Cowan potted the goal to level the scores at 24-24 to send the match into overtime.
it remained 24-24 after the first half of extra time although the Breakers always looked the more threatening. With a touch more than two minutes left in the second session centre Ricky Arnell split the line and sent the ball to winger Clint Walker, who was caught by desperate cover defence. The ubiquitous Cowan then floated a long pass to winger Jarrod Robbins and he defied a wave of defenders to plant the ball in the corner for the ice breaker. Cowan then potted the conversion from the sideline.
Wingham had one final chance, but came up blank and it was game, set and match, the Breakers into final, a season that promised so much over for the Tigers.
A strong sou-west wind made open football pretty well impossible so the game was a 90 minute slog, albeit a dramatic one.
Both teams made late changes to the starting 13. Minus coach Mick Sullivan, the Tigers had Russell at halfback with Brodie Myer playing five-eighth and Tim Bridge returning from injury in the centres. Corey Wheeler was named at half, but only had limited minutes, playing off the bench.
Clint Walker returned on the wing for the Breakers. He wasn't expected to play again after injuring his neck at Wingham in the match on April 27. This allowed coach Dan Kemp to switch Bailey Connor from the wing to the second row, and what a match he had. Connor scored a crucial try and regularly took the ball forward in the hard stuff. He was the best on ground, just edging the veteran Danial Dumas, who also excelled. As ever Cowan did some clever things from halfback.
Port coach Dan Kemp agreed that Connor was outstanding.
"He's been a reserve grader for two years, but due to all the injuries we've had this season he's been thrown into the deep end and he's been our player of the year by the length of the straight,'' Kemp said.
"Bailey was player of the match today and he's been a real find. He's one of the good things that come out of injuries, you get to blood some kids and he's been great.''
Sullivan was disconsolate at the result but was quick to praise his players.
"They were outstanding. We came into the match with a game plan and we stuck to it,'' he said.
"I had a bit of a vision his morning that Harry (Lewis) would score the winning try. But we robbed him of that unfortunately on his debut.''
Lewis is the club's under 18 halfback but did a sterling job on the wing, making a couple of incisive breaks while also scoring the try that looked at the time as though it win the match for the Tigers.
Sullivan agreed the Tigers didn't make full use of the howling wind at their back in the second half.
"But I can't fault the effort. We did enough to win the game. I'm thoroughly impressed with what they did, but not to get the win after all that, mate, I'm gutted.''
A positive for the Tigers is that Sullivan will be back in 2020 and more determined to steer the club to an overdue premiership.
Wingham's forwards worked overtime, with props Joel Kliendienst and Nick Beacham again outstanding while second rower Kyran Bubb had his best game of the year. As Sullivan noted, Lewis did all that was asked of him on the wing.
The Breakers had a great start when Cowan fooled tardy defenders close to the line to score a soft try within the first five minutes. He added the goal. Wingham hit back when Myer delayed a pass for second rower to score and Russell's goal made it 6-6.
Bubb then smashed his way over and Russell landed the conversion to make it 12-6 to the home side. But the Breakers had the better of possession towards the end of the half and a perfectly weighted Cowan kick found Walker and he touched down for an unconverted try, so it was 12-10 at the break.
Wingham's ball control was terrible in the opening passages of the second half and despite having the wind at their backs, they were forced to defend grimly. The Breakers cashed in through tries to hooker Matt Everitt. who was also strong and deservedly, Connor. Cowan kicked two goals.
Just when it appeared the Breakers were safe Russell scored a great individual try from 30 metres out and his conversion narrowed the margin to four points at 22-18 before makeshift centre Michael Rees positioned Lewis was what appeared to be the match winner.
It wasn't the case. Rugby League's a funny game.