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For the second year in succession the NSW Cup elimination semi-final round has proven to be Newtown's nemesis. The Jets went down to North Sydney by 17-16 at Leichhardt Oval on Sunday, after the Bears had led 12-10 at halftime. The Jets took a 16-12 lead early in the second half and had plenty of chances to impose their control on the match. In fact a late penalty goal attempt gave the Jets the belated opportunity to snatch victory, but the gusty southerly wind determined otherwise.
North Sydney had first use of the strong wind but the Jets were first to score, when five-eighth Johnathon Ford sent second-rower Brad Takairangi away to score at the southern end. A midfield forward pass by the Jets gave Norths possession, from whence they scored an equalising try which was converted from the sideline. The Bears dominated possession in the second quarter and scored in the left-side corner at the 31st minute mark, with this try also being converted from the sideline. A North Sydney error at the ensuing kick-off gave the Jets valuable ball and halfback Blake Lazarus sliced through to score and then convert his own try. Given that Norths led by only 12-10 at the break after having run with a strong wind at their backs and having had the majority of possession, territory and penalties, Newtown looked to be well placed for the second half.
The Jets began the second half in the best possible way, with centre Rhys Pritchard scoring in the first ninety seconds and his try being converted by Lazarus. The third quarter was a prime example of tense elimination semi-final football, as Newtown now had the majority of possession and favourable field position and threw everything into delivering a knock-out blow. The Bears defence was constantly tested, but the Jets appeared to lack the direction, precision and inventiveness that had swept them to several memorable come-from-behind victories at Henson Park in recent weeks. As the minutes ticked by Newtown missed several scoring opportunities, such as a forward pass that denied winger Byron Ford a try, to take a more secure grip on the game's outcome.
The Bears fought back desperately in the final minutes and a penalty at Newtown's end gave Norths the impetus that led to a try in their next set, drawing level at 16-all. A turnover of possession three minutes from full-time presented Norths with vital ball, and they snapped a field goal to take a 17-16 lead. The drama continued into the final seconds. On the fulltime siren Jets halfback Blake Lazarus had the chance to grab a late victory, with a shot at penalty goal from 35 metres out and on the sideline. He struck the ball confidently but the erratic southerly carried the ball ever so slightly to the left of the uprights.
Newtown ultimately paid the price for their perplexing inability to make the best use of territory and possession in that critical extended period of the second half. Their concession of penalties and occasional ball security lapses at their own end were also factors in such a tight contest. Norths showed great resolution in hanging on and surviving their danger period and then by making maximum use of the opportunities allowed to them late in the second half.
Newtown Jets coach Greg Matterson thanked his coaching staff colleagues after the game, along with the general staff members, players and officials. Jets President Barry Vining said that despite the disappointing end to the season there were many highlights in 2011, including some dramatic wins at Henson Park and a series of excellent home ground attendances.
The North Sydney Bears go forward to face up to Canterbury-Bankstown in a preliminary final at Leichhardt Oval next Sunday, while the Newtown Jets can mull over what might have been and start to prepare for 2012.