Norths Devils are primed for the toughest assignment in the Hostplus Cup after the premiers closed out the regular season with four consecutive wins.
The Devils’ 36-28 victory over Townsville Blackhawks at Bishop Park last night – built on a rush of 32 unanswered points – sealed a top-four spot for the second consecutive year.
And it placed the Devils into a qualifying final next weekend against minor premiers Burleigh Bears, who have lost at home only once this season.
They took care of Norths at Pizzey Park in June but this is a different Devils team, rediscovering the spark and the defensive intensity that delivered last year’s premiership.
The Devils stumbled last night – the Blackhawks zipped to a 16-0 lead with the energy of a team that wanted to send out retiring veterans Kalifa Faifai-Loa and Shaun Nona with a win.
But three minutes of attack before halftime blew the visitors off course.
Brendan Piakura crashed over in the 38th minute for the Devils’ first points before 80 seconds that changed the game.
The Blackhawks’ kick to restart play went out on the full and the Devils sprinted back to halfway for the penalty, kicking for line with less than a minute remaining.
Connor Broadhurst was held up over the line as the siren sounded for halftime but the referee had called “held up, time off” milliseconds earlier.
That gave the Devils’ one play and they made the most of it as Jack Ahearn’s perfect kick bobbled up for Brayden McGrady to score in the corner.
After halftime, Tony Tumusa scored two tries four minutes apart, stepping through the Blackhawks defence, before McGrady’s intercept led to his second try and Leivaha Pulu’s flick pass sent Jayden Corrigan over for his eighth try in four matches.
The Blackhawks rattled the Devils with two late tries but the home team drew a huge roar from the hill when Piakura crossed in the last minute to book-end the Devils’ tries for the evening.
That ensured the Blackhawks would miss the top eight while the Devils finished with a 12-7 record for the regular season.
Burleigh ended a three-week winless run this afternoon when it knocked last year’s grand finalists Wynnum Manly out of the competition with a 42-18 result, leaving intriguing finals match-ups next weekend.
Sunshine Coast will host Redcliffe in the clash of teams placed second and third.
“The Blackhawks got out to a good start and we had to answer and the players were good enough to do that,” Devils co-coach Kevin Neighbour said.
“We kept our composure and made those last few minutes before halftime really count. We were too pretty at times and didn’t show the respect to the Blackhawks that they deserved.
“At half time, we asked for a response and a change in how we were playing and the team responded well.
“We prepare all season to be in the finals and we’re there now. I know we’re all looking forward to the next few weeks.”
The top-four position ensures the Devils will avoid an elimination match next weekend. Instead, the Capras, Tweed Seagulls, Brisbane Tigers and Northern Pride will play sudden-death matches.
The Devils head into the finals with a relatively healthy playing roster, buoyed by the return of McGrady and Jerome Veve last night.
The premiers were forced into late changes when halves Tyrone Roberts and Tyson Gamble withdrew, prompting a new spine from the previous week’s win over Ipswich.
Ahearn and Broadhurst again combined in the halves with Matthew Milson returning to fullback.
The Devils again had quality efforts across the field including contributions from Kierran Moseley and Rhys Kennedy injecting enthusiasm from the bench.
Last night’s bench included Jayden Stephens and Veve, presenting a different look to the last time the Devils played the Bears when injuries forced the premiers to carry two outside backs in their interchange.
Sam Lavea, Liam Horne and Xavier Willison again started in the front row, joined in the middle of the field by co-captain Michael Sio.
Last night, the Devils completed their Hastings Deering Colts season with a 36-16 loss to the Blackhawks.
The Devils finished 12th for the season while the Blackhawks sealed second place before the finals.
NORTHS DEVILS 36 (Brendan Piakura 2, Tony Tumusa 2, Brayden McGrady 2, Jayden Corrigan tries, Connor Broadhurst 4 goals) bt TOWNSVILLE BLACKHAWKS 28 (Michael Carroll, Taniela Sadrugu, Cade Maloney, Kyle Laybutt, Zachery McMinn tries, Zac Laybutt 2 goals, Shaun Nona 2 goals) at Bishop Park.