2003: The Breakthrough

The Lions triumphed 38-21 over the Penrith City Outlaws to win the 2003 Waratah Bowl in one of the great games in NSWGFL history.  Coming from behind three times, the Lions showed true mental toughness to prevail in an epic encounter.
The Lions came into the game determined to win the battle on the ground.  On defence, the top priority was to shut down the Outlaws’ powerful running attack, led by NSWGFL MVP Stuart Etchell.  The Lions’ defensive front of Fady Aoun, Fred Gaitau, Lufi Tolai and Ryan Wonser were clearly primed for a big game and were so dominant early that the Outlaws had nowhere to go but to the air.  Unfortunately for the Lions, the Outlaws’ quarterback hooked up twice for big gains to his wide receiver, the second for a 23 yard touchdown in the back corner of the endzone and an early 7-0 lead.
The Lions offence then took over and drove the ball well, surprising the Outlaws with a consistent ground game.  The Lions had worked hard on their running game after losing 7-17 to the Outlaws in round 7 of the regular season – their only loss of the season.  Head Coach Stephen Dunne had brought in former coach, Andrew Ogborne, to draw up some plays and work with the line and running backs, and the team had responded with a new commitment to the ground game.  Behind the offensive line of Cameron Lawrence, James Shine, Tim Snape, David Allen and Manu Poa, fullback Chris Snagg earned the Waratah Bowl co-MVP award by rushing for 121 yards against the strong Outlaws’ defence.  The Lions rushed for a total of 176 yards on the night – over 150 yards more than in their round 7 defeat and a key factor in the victory.  After leading the offence downfield, Snagg sliced into the endzone through a big hole in the left side of the line only for the officials to call a holding penalty on a receiver far from the action.  Quarterback, Dan Kelen, missed with a pass into the endzone and then kicker, Anthony Clow, missed twice from close range to leave the Lions without any points to show for their long drive.
However, that disappointment was soon turned around on defence when cornerback Doug Shaw picked off a pass intended for the Outlaws’ star receiver, Mick Harvey, and returned it to the 2 yard line.  Defensive Coach Ese Enari had scouted the Outlaws well and Shaw had instructions to expect the out pattern if Harvey went in motion.  Shaw jumped all over the play and only a desperation tackle from the Outlaws’ quarterback saved the pass being returned for a touchdown.  Snagg bounced a run to the outside and into the endzone to tie up the score at 7-7.
The Outlaws then asserted themselves on offence, driving the ball against the tenacious Lions defence.  Again the Outlaws were forced to pick up their first downs on pass plays, but still they kept coming.  In a key play, the Outlaws went for it on 4th and 1 on the 15 yard line and, despite Etchell almost being held in the backfield, he escaped for the crucial first down.  On 3rd and Goal from the 7 yard line, the Outlaws ran Mick Harvey on their favourite end around play.  Although everyone in the stadium saw the play coming, Harvey’s great speed was still too much and he outran the defence to the corner for a 14-7 Outlaws’ lead.
The teams traded possession before the Lions’ offence went back to work.  After a neat 24 yard punt return by Leigh Louey-Gung had moved the Lions out of their red zone, Snagg busted a running play for 31 yards down to the 14 yard line to get the Lions in range.  Receiver Ben Quigley then dragged a couple of defenders with him to just short of the first down marker to bring up 4th & 2 on the 4 yard line.  Coach Dunne decided to go for it and Dan Kelen showed poise to execute the play-action and hit Petar Lackovic for the touchdown to tie the score at 14-14.
Then heartbreak.  With only 4 minutes left in the half, Harvey took the ensuing kick-off straight up the middle and all the way for a 66 yard touchdown return and a 21-14 Outlaws’ lead.  Harvey had broken the Lions’ hearts in the previous year’s Waratah Bowl loss with 2 long runs for touchdowns.
But the 2003 Lions were made of sterner stuff.  Petar Lackovic powered his own 37 yard kick-off return to mid-field and the offence took up the challenge again.  Kelen and receiver Mathew Freeman combined for a 38 yard play, Freeman making it to the 14 yard line before being dragged down.  Rob Mack – giving Snagg a spell at fullback – hammered the ball down to the goal line where, on 3rd and Goal on the 1 yard line, Kelen made a great read to find Quigley open for the score.  The half ended with the teams locked at 21-21.
In the first half, the Lions had taken the Outlaws’ best shots and answered back each time.  With the Lions receiving the kick-off to start the second half, it was time to put some pressure back on the Outlaws.  The offence took up the challenge magnificently, moving the ball in controlled fashion down the field.  Veteran receiver Petar Lackovic featured heavily in the drive.  Lackovic got the chains moving with a 24 yard reception on 3rd down  and then followed up with two 7 yard gains on an end around and another reception for a first down.  On 3rd and 3 on the 10 yard line, Snagg followed his blocking on the counter trey play down to 2 yard line.  On 3rd and Goal, Kelen threaded the needle to Andre Purtell on the slant play for the go-ahead touchdown and a 28-21 lead.
The next kick-off showed that the tide had turned.  Whereas Mick Harvey had taken the last kick-off back all the way, this time he mis-judged the kick and was pinned on his own 14 yard line after having to go back to retrieve the ball.
Now the defence took over.  The Lions D had achieved its pre-game mission of controlling the dangerous Outlaws running game, but it wanted more – total control.  The Outlaws were now clearly out of their comfort zone, passing on 3 of the 4 plays of the drive – all of them incomplete.  Unlike the Lions, the Outlaws seemed unable to execute their offence from behind on the scoreboard.  Safety Leigh Louey-Gung batted away one of the pass attempts and then returned the punt 18 yards to mid-field to give the offence good field position.
As a sign of the Lions’ confidence in their running game, Stephen Dunne went for it on 4th and 1 on the next drive – Snagg burrowing through the right side for the first down.  Blatant pass interference on receiver Ben Quigley moved the Lions downfield and they ran the ball inside the 10 yard line before a holding penalty set them back.  After a couple of incomplete passes to the endzone, Clow tried a field goal from 35 yards but was wide right.
The Outlaws paid the ultimate compliment to the Lions’ front seven on the next series by coming out in a four wide receiver formation.  Clearly rattled at being unable to move the ball out of their standard I formation, the Outlaws ditched their basic game plan of running to set up the pass.  The Lions defence could smell blood in the water and went in for the kill. On 3rd and long, veteran defensive end Tau Saipaia hit the Outlaws’ quarterback as he released a pass, with middle linebacker and defensive captain Craig Morgan accepting the gift interception and returning the ball to the 15 yard line.  Kelen and Lackovic combined on a first down pass play to the 2 yard line and Rob Mack did the rest, powering the ball into the endzone behind great blocking from Tim Snape, David Allen, Manu Poa and Petar Lackovic on the right side.  At 35-21, the Lions had issued the challenge to the Outlaws – catch us if you can.
They couldn’t.  On the next drive, Craig Morgan made a great play to bring down Mick Harvey short of the first down marker after Harvey had baulked at a punt and tried to run for the first down.  The defence followed up that turnover by sending the Outlaws three and out on their next series and, when Lions defensive tackle, Fred Gaitau, recovered a fumble on the Outlaws’ next possession, it was clear the Lions defence had taken control.
The offence moved the ball and took time off the clock but was still searching for the knock-out blow into the fourth quarter.  Twice the Lions went for it on 4th down but came up short; handing the ball over in scoring range both times.  However, after gaining the ball on the 32 yard line following the Gaitau fumble recovery,  the offence drove down to the goalline – every yard being made on the ground – and put the ball into the endzone as Snagg followed pulling guard David Allen around left end.  Again, the officials took a Snagg touchdown off the scoreboard and marched the offence back ten yards.  Not to be denied, the offence drove back to the one foot line where, on 4th down, Stephen Dunne coolly called for the field goal unit to put the Outlaws at least three scores behind.  Anthony Clow split the uprights and the Lions were up by 17 points.
As the game wound down, co-MVP Dan Kelen was rewarded with an early night.  Kelen had directed the team faultlessly, hitting 17 of 32 passes for 140 yards and 3 touchdowns with no interceptions.  Fittingly, the game ended with Fady Aoun sacking the Outlaws quarterback for a big loss.
There was genuine euphoria on the Lions’ sideline.  The Lions had lost the last three Waratah Bowls, so the victory was a fitting reward for a team that had kept coming back better and harder than before.  The Lions were now at the start of a record run of consecutive wins and championships – but it all had to start somewhere.  And it started in 2003, with the breakthrough.