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THERE was no mistaking who the fans came to see at Bishop Park on Sunday. Women screamed his name on his first touch of the ball, both sexes cheered loudly when he scored the first try of the match, even Norths boss Mark Murray was prompted to muse it was ?Billy Slater Day?.
The return of one of the Wizard Cup?s best known and successful products brought the Devils their largest gate of the year. It also moved 2004 Origin hero Slater a step closer to regaining his place in the NRL, playing a leading hand as the home side beat Tweed Heads 20-12.
However, as impressive as the Innisfail speedster was, he took a back seat to Norths debutant Jeff Lima, recruited from France to bolster the front row. With a bullocking running style and a penchant for ploughing over the top in defence, he looked like a tank amongst foot soldiers at times.
Eventually named Man of the Match, Lima combined with Will Scanlon to give Norths penetration through the renowned Tweed defence in the first half, although it certainly wasn?t easy going.
Slater?s opening try in the 6th minute came after sustained pressure. The Devils had every right to score earlier in the piece by weight of possession, but desperation defence kept them out until some skilful passing on the lefthand side fractured the line.
Tweed was not in awe of the superstar company and there was a particularly intriguing contest between the likes of Slater and Tweed?s own Nat Barnes and Josh Vaughan.
Barnes, the Wizard Cup?s leading try scorer in 2006, notched the Seagulls? first four-pointer with an overlap on Devils opposite Chad Leach in the 25th minute. Brad Davis converted and for almost 20 minutes the visitors held a 6-4 lead.
Tweed continually attacked Leach and was unlucky at least three times not to score, with Barnes dropping the ball over the line once and only desperation defence and erratic passing stopping the other opportunities.
When the second half began there was an almost surreal moment: Barnes broke into the clear, then confronted fullback Slater and tried to chip over the top and turn him inside-out. Although unsuccessful, it bore a striking resemblance to Slater?s immortal try against Anthony Minichiello.
Two tries to Steve Franciscus pushed Norths in front and then further ahead 14-6. The PNG flyer?s first effort was over 75m, coming off a brilliant Smith Samau offload. Unfortunately for Samau he went off injured soon after and didn?t return.
The Devils did not receive a single penalty in the second half and there was always a chance Tweed would wrestle back the lead, particularly with Cory Bond instigating some momentum. One particularly threatening moment saw Vaughan, Paul Rolls and Tim Maccan combine for a bust down the right. However Slater came from the clouds and tackled strongly to defuse the situation.
As the Seagulls became more desperate to strike back they chanced their arm, gifting Ryan Shortland a long-range intercept try which effectively sealed the game in the 65th minute. A consolation try in the final minute to Ryan Milligan made it a more respectable eight-point margin and a truer indication of a willing contest.