The Canberra Royals looked at each other in stunned silence on Saturday after ACT Brumbies forward Tom Cusack scored a second-half double to secure a great escape victory which left the Uni-Norths Owls’ heartbroken.
Royals continued their unbeaten John I Dent Cup season but were given an unexpected scare when the Owls threatened to pull off a remarkable turnaround in Canberra’s premier division.
Royals held on for a one-point win, beating the Owls 27-26 just two months after the Phillip-based club thrashed the Owls 76-12 in the opening game of the season.
The Owls went within a whisker of a brilliant triumph, but missed a tough sideline conversion in the dying minutes and had a drop goal charged down after the siren in a shattering end to a game of eye-catching tries and brutal defence.
Cusack and Brumbies teammate Lolo Fakaosilea traded friendly barbs and tries in the second half, but it was Cusack who let out a sigh of relief after the closest game of Royals’ season.
Cusack put Royals in front in the last 10 minutes with his second try, but Fakaosilea hit back with time running out to get the Owls within a point.
“We stuck with each other and that was the important thing,” Fakaosilea said.
“It was a pretty good rivalry with me and a [Cusack], but he obviously led them from the front foot and was a danger player we had to shut down. When we did that, it opened up spaces for us.
“I thought we were going to steal that one. It’s a tough one to take but we know we played well and we gave ourselves a chance.”
Few gave the Owls a chance of challenging the rampaging Royals, especially after a 64-point thumping in the first game of the year.
Royals had won every game of the year by an average margin of 43 points while the Owls have been fighting to stay in top-four contention.
It looked like the Royals would streak clear when they scored 20 unanswered points after conceding the first try.
But the gutsy Owls clawed their way back into the contest and hit the front when Sam Irwin converted from the sideline for a 21–20 lead.
Their time in front lasted less than 90 seconds before Cusack scored again, but Fakaosilea forced his way over in the corner to close the gap.
The Owls threw everything at Royals in the dying seconds in a bid to end their winning streak, but every player from both teams stood in silence after the referee blew the full-time whistle.
“If you told me before the game we’d get two bonus points and lose by one … after losing the first game against them by [64 points], we probably would have taken it,” said Owls coach Dan Hooper.
“But to get so close and be in their zone at the end there, to not get it is disappointed. But we have to be estatic, no team has got within 20 points of them so we have to be positive.
“We’ve set that standard now so the trick now is keeping it in every game rather than fluctuating.”
The Owls are now seven points outside the top four as they chase a drought-breaking finals spot while Royals are flying high with a perfect record after eight games.
They weren’t at their peak against the Owls, but coach Wayne Southwell urged his players to bank the winning belief for the rest of the year.
“We were always going to have one of those days when we didn’t execute. We got too fancy at times … but it’s back to our character and we hung in there,” Southwell said.
“It didn’t look pretty for a while, but it is a win. Uni played well and it’s always tough playing them [at ANU]. We didn’t execute well, I think we bombed four tries. It wasn’t the best but it was belief.”
AT A GLANCE
John I Dent Cup: ROYALS 27 (T Cusack 2, L Kimber, G Morseu tries; P Rolando 2 conversions, penalty) bt UNI-NORTHS OWLS 26 (L Fakaosilea, S Irwin, D Bennett, L Berry tries; S Irwin 3 conversions); WESTS 71 bt EASTS 10; QUEANBEYAN WHITES 29 bt GUNGAHLIN EAGLES 14.
Women: Royals 45 bt Uni-Norths Owls 7, Gungahlin Eagloes 32 bt ADFA 15.
Reserve grade: Royals 28 bt Uni-Norths Owls 26, Wests 22 bt Easts 19, Gungahlin Eagles 47 bt Queanbeyan Whites 14.
Colts: Uni-Norths Owls 43 bt Royals 14, Easts 45 bt Wests 0, Gungahlin Eagles 19 bt Queanbeyan Whites 12.
First grade: Gungahlin Eagles 40 bt Queanbeyan Whites 33, Easts 26 bt Wests 12, Royals 47 bt Uni-Norths Owls 5, ADFA 45 bt Cooma 17, Tuggeranong VIkings 47 bt Young 8, Hall 31 bt Goulburn 21.
Second grade: Queanbeyan Whites 21 bt Gungahlin Eagles 10, Royals 31 bt Uni-Norths Owls 19, ADFA 17 bt Cooma 0, Tuggeranong Vikings 76 bt Young 0, Goulburn 47 bt Boorowa 0.