RUGBY UNION: Rockhampton's Duncan Paia'aua produced some second-half heroics to lead Bond University Queensland Country to its maiden National Rugby Championship title.
Country ran out 42-28 winners over the Canberra Vikings in the final in Canberra on Saturday night to claim the title for the first time in the competition's four-year history.
Country trailed 21-7 at half-time but produced a spirited second-half comeback led by Paia'aua and a hat-trick of tries from winger Filipo Daugunu.
Paia'aua scored a vital try with four minutes left on the clock to set up the win. With the scores locked at 28-all, the captain surged between two Vikings' defenders to give Country the lead.
Daugunu then put the result beyond doubt, claiming the restart and racing away to score his third try of the match.
Country scrumhalf James Tuttle, who has played every game for Country since the inaugural match back in 2014, was on song with his boot, slotting all six of his conversions.
Paia'aua's performance earned him the man-of-the-match award.
"It's the greatest feeling in the world,” he said after the siren. "I don't think I've played a grand final, even won a grand final in a long time and it's the best feeling in the world.
"I couldn't be prouder of the boys.”
Paia'aua said despite going into the break trailing by 14 points, the players were confident they could get back into the contest.
The victory capped a dramatic turnaround for Country which finished bottom of the ladder in 2016.
Paia'aua said it augured well for the future.
"We're probably one of the youngest teams in the comp. This is just the start and we're just going to get better and better as the years go on,” he said.
Head coach Brad Thorn said the win epitomised Country's season.
"We came up with a motto for the team 'the hard road', and we had to take the hard road to win tonight,” he said.
"Our loss to Perth in Ipswich meant we finished second and had to play Fiji again, then we had to come down to Canberra and bounce back from a 21-7 deficit to claim the win.
"We've had to use our entire squad as well as players who have been called into the side to get to this point. Every team member has contributed to the result.
"We set about changing the culture of this Country side ahead of the season and it's rewarding and humbling for the entire squad to see their hard work pay off.”
Thorn said the Country team was littered with young talented players who were only going to get better.
"Our whole front-row were all aged 21, we had two 19-year-old locks and a 19-year-old flyhalf,” he said.
"We have talent coming through the Queensland pathway in spades and tonight's win is evidence of that.”