ALL week the Shute Shield final had been built as a David and Goliath contest.
And that is how it unfolded, as the kings of Sydney club rugby Sydney University – assisted by the returns of Wallabies duo Tolu Latu and Nick Phipps – won their first Shute Shield title since 2013 by defeating Warringah Rats 45-12 at North Sydney Oval.
The 33-point win snapped a five-year drought for the Students, who had won eight of the previous nine competitions between 2005 to 2013.
For the third straight year, a bumper crowd piled through the gates on Miller Street with 15,500 cramming the picturesque suburban ground.
Extraordinarily, the attendance was more than 3,000 higher than the 12,067 that watched the Waratahs’ Super Rugby quarterfinal win over the Highlanders at Allianz Stadium in July.
On a mild winter’s afternoon, perfect for running rugby, the Students led 17-7 at half time, before running riot in the second half to score a seven tries to two victory over the 2017 champions.
But it was the Students’ star-studded front-row – led by dropped Wallabies hooker Latu – that set the tone for the crushing victory and their dominance was rewarded with a penalty try early in the second half.
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Latu, who was dropped by Wallabies coach Michael Cheika for Bledisloe II at Eden Park after a miserable performance in Sydney in Bledisloe I, was a standout.
His lineout hit the mark, he spearheaded a dominant scrum and burst onto a superb ball from Phipps – who himself enjoyed a 20-minute cameo in the second half – to score a try in the 63rd minute.
“I work on that with Tolu,” Phipps said.
“He runs a super good line like that.
“If he’s going to put himself on the line there, the least I can do is put his chest.
“It was good for him to get over the stripe.
“He did so much in that game.”
The Students led 10-0 after a penalty goal to winger James Kane and try to starting halfback Jake Gordon.
A coast to coast try to Rats fullback Dave Feltscheer got the Northern Beaches’ faithful on their feet, when he scored under the sticks to reduce the margin to 10-7.
But Gordon’s second try – after playing on quickly after a dominate scrum on the Rats’ goal line – was a crucial blow on the stroke of half time.
Needing to score first in the second half to give themselves any chance of a come from behind win, the Rats made the worst possible start after failing to field the kick restart and losing the lineout throw on their own five metre line.
The Students made the Rats pay for the mistake, as winger Harry Potter scored.
Minutes later, the Students were in again after being awarded a penalty try and before the Rats knew they were trailing 31-7.
Another length of the field effort from the Rats saw them close the margin to 31-12, as Sen Wileman dived over.
But the arrival of Phipps midway through the second half only saw the Students pick the speed of the game up.
Two tries in quick succession saw the Students seal a convincing win.
While the title win couldn’t undo the devastation of another failed Bledisloe campaign, Phipps said it was a moment to enjoy ahead of returning to Wallabies camp on Sunday.
“To be honest, it’s been a long few weeks,” Phipps said.
“We haven’t performed how we wanted to, but it’s always good to come back with some people that just love footy and the crowd was unreal today.
“I started at the club in 2007 and this club has given me everything.
“I came to the club as an average 1st XV player from school and they gave me the opportunity to be where I am today.
“It’s always an honour to come back.
“Full credit’s got to go to the boys – they’ve just changed the culture form last year, really flipped the script.
“They’re so young the group, but they’re so confident and happy and enjoy playing with each other.”
The grand final defeat meant former Wallabies outside back Mark Gerrard wasn’t afforded the fairy tale finish he craved in his last match before retiring from rugby.
“The opportunity to play in a grand final for Shute Shield, especially for Warringah, is pride and joy,” Gerrard said.
“(Rats coach Darren Coleman) DC gave me the opportunity to say a few words prior and I said that ‘no matter where I’ve been, what I’ve done, the teams that I’ve played for internationally and Super Rugby, Warringah’s always home.’
“And I know the times that I’ve come back and I’ve asked to come back has been purely to play for the club.
“Now that’s not because of the footy, it’s because of the group of people that we have here at Warringah.
“We’ve got to take full hats off to the boys, over the last few years they’ve created a lasting legacy for our club and for me finishing up this year I couldn’t be prouder of the young men that are coming through.
“But more so the community that we have.
“Look who turned up today, we had 8,000 of our locals rock up.
“That’s amazing for a club rugby grand final, especially for us.”
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HOW THEY LINED UP
Sydney University (1-15): Matt Sandell, Tolu Latu, Paddy Ryan, Lachie Swinton, Dave McDuling, Nick Champion de Creispigny, Brad Wilkin, Rohan O’Regan (c), Jake Gordon, Stu Dunbar, James Kane, Will McDonnell, Guy Porter, Harry Potter, Tim Clements
Reserves: Tom Horton, Harry Johnson-Holmes, Chris Talakai, Jack Sharrett, Viliame Cocker, Nick Phipps, Theo Strang, Henry Clunies-Ross
Warringah (1-15): Rory O’Connor, Luke Holmes, Harry Rorke, Sam Thomson, Jack Tomkins, Tom Preece, Mahe Vailanu, Sam Ward (co-c), Josh Holmes, Hamish Angus (co-c), Esera Chee-Kam, Sailosi Tagicakibau, Seb Wileman, Tyson Davis, Dave Feltscheer
Reserves: Ruaridh Mackenzie, Faavae Sila, Baxter King, Emmanuel Meafou, Maclean Jones, Mark Gerrard, Myles Dorrian, Harry Jones
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