By TONY WHITE
TWO Ballina tries inside the final five minutes soared the Seagulls to a 28-22 win over South Grafton Rebels at McKittrick Park yesterday in the Northern Rivers Regional Rugby League competition.
In a see-sawing match with the lead changing seven times, Ballina's hard-fought win shored up a place in the semi-finals.
With Ballina ? and Mullumbimby who sneaked home 40-39 in a controversial thriller against South Tweed ? winning, the Rebels chances of making the play-offs diminished.
Ballina (fifth) and Mullumbimby (sixth), last season's Group One premiers, move to 24 points, six clear of seventh-placed South Grafton (18).
The Rebels certainly had their chance to win yesterday, leading 22-18 with five minutes left on the clock.
However, a pin-point chip kick by Seagulls captain Troy Johnstone inside the Rebels 10m line saw centre Ashley Moran beat a Rebels player to the ball to lock up the scores. Fullback Shaun Laurie converted a cracker from near the touchline to give Ballina a vital lead.
Inside the last minute a smart inside ball by five-eighth Justin Bolt allowed Moran to cross for a double and nail the Rebels coffin tightly shut.
Despite the defeat, the Rebels played much better football than in recent weeks but penalties, poor options and completion rates at critical times let the side down.
Referee Peter O'Conner handed out 18 penalties in the match ? 10 to Ballina and eight to South Grafton. It had a stop-start effect on the game but the close scores enticed excitement.
Many were for head-high tackles with both sides paying the penalty for head hunting.
The Rebels ill-discipline again crept into their game ? they were caned 5-1 in the second stanza.
Despite the defeat Rebels captain Stevie Kirby, who had a great game scoring two tries and was busy from dummyhalf, said his team could hold their heads high.
"That was a great game of solid, hard footy. I've told the boys to hold their heads up," he said post-match.
"Once again a few silly mistakes and penalties cost us.
"We just didn't play the right field position in those last 10 minutes. Lack of completions at important times let us down."
Ballina hooker Matt Temby had a blinder, a point Seagulls coach Chris Binge was quick to pick up on.
"Matt's work from dummyhalf, his defence and vision on the field was outstanding," Binge said.
"He's played that sort of footy all year and I believe is the best hooker in the competition.
"Grant Erickson (prop) also had a great game. He took on a leadership role and rose to the occasion.
"It was one of those stop-start games. We tried to play quick football and they (rebels) tried to slow us down.
"We put in a whole-hearted 80 minutes performance. At half-time we decided concentrate on more disciplined football and play our own game, not theirs and stick to our game plan.
"We are a side that believes in ourselves.
"South Grafton are a good side. Any team that comes comes down here (South Grafton) are going to find it hard to get two competition points," Binge said.
South Grafton led 16-12 at halftime after tries to fine prospect Dan Randall, Andy Bell and Kirby.
Rebels' Scott Mason deserves special mention. After playing reserve grade he backed up with plenty of game time in firsts and was one of the Rebels best on field.
Ray Mercy, Xavier Sullivan, Kirby, Scott Laurie, Randall and Jack Currie gave their all.
Apart from Temby and Erickson, Corey Windle and Tyler Iverson had big games for the Sea- gulls.