NORTH Ballarat Rebels’ top-four aspirations have been dealt a near-fatal blow in round 16 of the TAC Cup.
The Rebels suffered an 11.8 (74) to 10.12 (72) loss to the Tasmania Mariners representative team on Sunday, despite dominating much of the play at Eureka Stadium.
Tasmania trailed at every change, only to kick five goals to two in a tumultuous final quarter to record a memorable come-from-behind victory.
A wasteful first term saw the Rebels kick 3.4 and open an eight-point lead, despite losing centre half forward Keegan Mason with a lower leg injury in the opening minutes.
It was a trend that would follow for the next two quarters as the home side blew opportunity after opportunity in trying to put Tasmania away.
North looked to have gained the ascendancy midway through the third when the best afield Jacob Hopper marked strongly and goaled from 10 metres out to hand his side a 19-point advantage.
Mariners cut the deficit to 12 points at the final change and edged within seven points shortly after play resumed, only for Hopper to reply his third goal and restore the buffer.
A vintage final 10 minutes of play saw both sides hit their peak as they went goal for goal.
James Gow appeared to seal the win for the Rebels with a stunning snap from the boundary at the 23-minute mark, moments before a Tasmania forward equalled his feat from the opposite pocket on his left boot.
The second miracle goal was to be the last of the match.
Rebels forward Matthew Johnston blew a golden opportunity to kick the match winner when he marked strongly from 40 metres out, only to tug his shot left just moments before the final siren.
Rebels coach David Loader was left bitterly disappointed with the result he described as “enormous” in the context of the fight for the top-four.
Loader criticised his side’s lack of work ethic and hinted at several personnel changes when the club returns after this week’s bye.
“A win today gave us a real live opportunity at a top-four finish and a double chance,” he said post match.
“That doesn’t mean that’s beyond the reach now, but it certainly puts us right back in the ballpark.
“We knew what we wanted to do, we just didn’t work hard enough to do it.
“You’d like to think there’s enough character from within the squad to bounce back.”
Loader described Hopper’s 35-disposal, three-goal performance as “outstanding”, and said defender Jacob O’Beirne, forward Tom Taurau (three goals) and the returning Gow were also impressive in their roles.
Rebels will face off against top-two sides Calder Cannons and Oakleigh Chargers in the final two rounds of the home and away season.
As it stands, they sit in fourth spot on the ladder, four points clear of Western Jets, Geelong Falcons and Sandringham Dragons.