A JAKE Kelly intercept with 63 seconds left on the clock saved the day for Western Zone as it was crowned the inaugural New Era Cup All Stars champions on Saturday with a 33-28 win over Eastern Zone.
With Eastern four points off the lead and holding a one-man advantage following the sin-binning of Kyle Willmott, they pressed for a match-winner at Carrington Park.
Eastern created an overlap down the left, but as the ball was spun wide Kelly plucked it out of the air and sprinted down field. Though he was tackled short of the line, he booted a field goal to end the set and seal victory for his side.
“JK, he was bloody best on ground I reckon,” Western coach Riley Scelly said.
“They got a roll on there and we got a few injuries. Matt Knight rolled his ankle, which he had a full reconstruction on last year, so we were down on forwards there.
“But the boys pulled together, thank God, and I’m actually really happy. My heart was in my mouth at the end there.”
A new concept this season, the All Stars match saw Western Zone draw upon players from CSU, Portland and Orange, while Eastern’s ranks included premiership winning Blackheath talents plus representatives from Kandos and Lithgow.
It was one of Blackheath’s stars – five-eighth Jessi Lua Lua – who opened scoring after just over 90 seconds.
His opening effort was a sign of what he would dish out over 80 minutes, scoring a brace and playing a role in three other tries for Eastern.
At the 10 minute mark Western hit back as a Kelly kick and chase play paid off. Brad Rushby added the extras to see his side pull ahead 6-4.
Five minutes later a barnstorming run from second rower Jarrad Donaldson put Western further ahead and when Jake Allen showed his strength as well – steaming over following an attacking scrum – the score had blown out to 18-4.
Lua Lua help his side claw back some of that deficit 10 out from the break as he shaped to pass to his outside backs but instead went himself and scored.
However, Western went to the break with a handy advantage as a Kelly penalty goal after the siren made it 20-8.
Two minutes after play resumed, Western crossed again via Mitch Britt and at 24-8, Western looked headed for a comfortable win.
But Eastern rallied and laid on three tries in six minutes to haul itself back into the contest. Shannon Rhodes benefited from a Lua Lua cut-out pass, Matt Ranse’s acceleration onto the ball saw him over under the sticks, while Matt Walsh scored from a nice angled run to make it 24-22.
Momentum swung again after Eastern’s Jake Humphreys was penalised for lifting in a tackle. Steve Bender scored from the next set and following the kick-off, Western found space down the left wing for Nev Turner to score.
It pushed the gap back out to 32-22, but Eastern was not yet done.
With 4.15 left on the clock, Lua Lua popped up a no-look inside ball which Ranse flew onto. New Era’s leading try scorer added another to his tally for the season and the conversion put his side back within four points.
Eastern quickly worked its way back down field and pressured Western’s line, the tension showing as Willmott was sent to the bin.
But Kelly came up with the big play when it mattered to see Western take the honours.
“It was actually really good to get a win at the end of the year, especially with the Mungoes boys. Out of the seven Mungoes boys that got named to play only three of them are here, but it was still great to have them here,” Scelly, who also coached the CSU side which lost last week’s grand final to Blackheath said.
“It was a great effort considering we only had one training session and that session was half an hour of just ball running – so it wasn’t great – but we got the chocolates.”
While his heroics did not quite get his side over the line, Lua Lua still enjoyed the All Stars concept.
“It was pretty good, pretty exciting there at the end and good to have one more run with the boys,” the Blackheath playmaker said.
“We were definitely in it there, we had a chance there with two minutes left and could’ve won it, but it didn’t go our way.”