THE drama of the VB South Coast Rugby League semi-final series was heightened last weekend when undefeated minor premiers Gerringong Lions lost their first game of the season to Albion Park-Oak Flats Eagles in a thriller at Michael Cronin Oval.
The Lions loss now means they face the prospect of taking on last year's grand final conquerors, Warilla Gorillas, in next Sunday's sudden-death final at Nowra Showground.
The Gorillas stayed alive after downing the gallant Kiama Knights 24-10 at Kiama Showground, and while their performance wasn't one of their best, they will look forward to the challenge against the Lions. Last time they clashed, Gerringong needed a last-minute field goal to get home 17-16.
Saturday's major semi-final between the Eagles and the Lions came down to a penalty goal by halfback Matt Carroll to get his side home 20-18.
The Lions' classy attacking style saw them score two converted tries within 12 minutes - the first to winger Elliott Stewart and the second a superb team try to Rixon Russell.
A cleverly orchestrated try to Eagles centre Drew Hutchison off a grubber-kick from Carroll and a great run by second-rower Kane Skarratts, who scored under the posts, allowed the sides to go to half-time at 12-all.
Gerringong reclaimed the lead when second-rower Michael Brown split the defence and raced 30 metres straight after half-time for an 18-12 advantage before the Eagles levelled up again through Clinton Braddick and it was left to Carroll's boot to seal the deal.
Sunday's minor semi-final, while not having the same drama of Saturday's game, was nevertheless full of intrigue.
Weakened by injury, the Knights weren't expected to test the in-form Gorillas, but when the home side went to a 10-0 lead via two outstanding Tom Atkins tries, an upset looked well and truly on the cards.
However, a rampaging try to Gorillas front-rower Ryan Johnston just before half-time and a second-half hat-trick to centre Tyson Brown got the reigning premiers home to move to within one game of a chance of defending their title.
Warilla captain-coach Linken Hutchinson felt his side has won the arm-wrestle for the majority of the match against an outfit who had beaten them in their two previous encounters in 2012.
He also praised the efforts of his forwards, particularly prop Ryan Johnston.
“After those first two tries we lost our composure and let our emotions get away from us a bit,” he said.
“They scored some scrappy tries early, but we knew if we could get in and play footy, then it would turn around.”
Hutchinson believed the Gerringong side that stood between them and a fourth consecutive grand final appearance would lift significantly for this Sunday’s game.
“They’ve been undefeated all year and just had their first loss, so they’re going to be pretty stirred up,” he said.
“We need to do the simple things right, keep our composure and minimise the penalties.”