THE Blue Lake Knights bowed out of the Limestone Coast Rugby League premiership race on the weekend, with a 36-16 loss to Warrnambool Raiders.
The semi-final clash was played in hot conditions at Horsham, where the Raiders adapted better than the Knights.
While the final score suggests a comfortable win, Knights stalwart Lloyd Pearce-Raisin said it was simply a lapse in concentration in the first half which let the side down.
“We had a bit of a lapse in the last 10 minutes of the first half and they just spread it wide, got through a few holes and scored a couple of tries before half time,” he said.
“That put us a bit behind the eight ball and it was catch up after that.”
Despite that lapse Pearce-Raisin said the players never dropped their heads, but simply worked harder after the break.
“After half time we could have just laid down, but we never gave up until the end,” he said.
“They got through our line a few times so we knuckled down and put on a few good shots … I think a few blokes might struggle to get up this week for the grand final.
“It was disappointing to go down, but as we have done all year, we never gave up.”
Game day saw a good lineup take to the field, but as has been the story for much of the season, a crucial injury played its part.
“We lost Jarred Wenam, one of our best players, just before the finals,” Pearce-Raisin said.
“He plays the dummy half/hooker role and usually makes about 40-50 tackles in the middle.
“Losing him to a broken ankle was pretty tough.”
That, along with one more player unable to take the field, caused a shuffle around the ground, with Pearce-Raisin going to five-eighth, Jay Mariano to full back and Jackson Standen to the second row.
Despite those changes Pearce-Raisin said everyone adapted well to their new roles.
“We had to move our winger Jay Mariano to full back,” he said.
“He scored two tries and probably played his best game for the year.
“We moved Jackson Standen to the second row – he usually plays in the forwards where he played his whole life.
“He played really well there, made a lot of metres and a lot of tackles.”
Pearce-Raisin said Standen and Mariano were the two standout players for the game, but said everyone else “had their moments”.
“We played well in patches, but gave away a lot of penalties,” he said.
“It was just silly stuff, a few off-sides and high tackles.
“The intent was there, but we did not play well for two halves and I think that was the difference in the end.”
Now the Knights’ season is done, Pearce-Raisin said it was good to look back and see the improvement in the side.
In an Australian Rules region new players took to the different code well.
“We have come a long way from Round 1,” Pearce-Raisin said.
“We have had a few games where we gelled really well.
“A lot of blokes have improved out of sight and they understand the game a bit better.
“The new blokes, the outside backs, wingers and centres were sort of bystanders early on, but they started to adapt and pick the game up, to know when it was their turn to take a few runs and take some pressure off our forwards.
“From Round 1 to now they have stepped up heaps.
“If we had a most improved award you could give it to half a dozen blokes.”
That improvement often came under adversity, where limited numbers on the field forced the newer players to stand up and be accountable, which in turn improved their play.
“They showed plenty of character,” Pearce-Raisin said.
“It was hard when we looked like winning a few games, then had a few injuries.
“But I was really proud of the way they picked the game up, adapted to the pressure and never took a backwards step.
“On a whole it is a close group of blokes who simply push that extra five to 10pc when we are undermanned.”
The Knights are already focused on next season, with plans to atone for the semi-final result a motivating factor.
Even after such a tough season, Pearce-Raisin said the feel around the group was positive, with few players likely to leave the roster for the next assault.
“I do not think we will lose many players for next season, which is good, especially with structure and set plays,” he said.
“People understand their roles now.
“The new blokes really enjoyed their first taste of rugby league.
“They were pretty disappointed to not get a crack at a grand final, so they are pretty keen to make amends and start training as soon as possible.”
The grand final takes place Saturday between the Raiders and the Naracoorte Jets.
The Jets are chasing back-to-back titles and with the last word on the season Pearce-Raisin said in his opinion they will be favourites to claim the honours, despite Warrnambool having the home-ground advantage.
“They are both really good sides with plenty of experience,” he said.
“But I think Naracoorte is a little bit too experienced.
“They have a lot of forwards who make a lot of metres and a few blokes who are hard to contain.
“I think the Raiders might fall short and Naracoorte will go back-to-back.”