By TONY WHITE
THE Lower Clarence Magpies' Northern Rivers Regional Rugby League semi-final dream was shattered at the hands of the Ballina Seagulls at Maclean Showground yesterday.
Needing to win to keep their slim finals hopes alive, the Magpies had only themselves to blame, going down 42-26 in a spiteful match.
There were numerous penalties for illegal play, with both captains called into the middle by referee Will Constable for a general warning in the 23rd minute after a series of head-high tackles. Late in the second half, Ballina's Ashley Moran and Magpie Darren Blackett were each sin-binned for 10 minutes.
The Magpies paid dearly for vital missed tackles and a lack of cohesion and talk in defence.
Twice the Magpies climbed off the deck to get back into a winning position only to see Ballina lift their tempo and in the end run away with the match.
"There just wasn't the same urgency there was in the past couple of weeks," a disappointed Magpies captain-coach Jason Hebbard said post-match.
"We were still in the game at halftime, then crawled back into the game in the second half but the basic stuff up the middle, our defence, just wasn't there.
"Our talk was down and that goes back to enthusiasm."
Ballina clearly won the battle in the middle, with their forwards, led by man of the match James Rix, dominating the Magpies six.
Seagulls coach Chris Binge agreed his hard-working and tough forward pack laid the foundation for the team's win.
"Our forwards got on top and the backs capitalised," Binge said.
"We did the hard work first before opening up.
"I'm really happy with the team's performance. We're playing semi-final football week in, week out, and we've set our sights on making the play-offs.
"We're lucky here (Ballina) to have a great group of young kids like Buckley (James), Miles (Robert), Kelly (Clarence) and Rix.
"Rix was outstanding. He's only 17 and has a really bright future.
"All these kids, and Mitch Orbison who comes back from Australian Schoolboy duty soon, put their hands up and their enthusiasm at training and on the park rubs off on the older blokes.
"Lower are a good side, they put it to us."
The Magpies have two major injury problems with five-eighth Adam Elliott nursing a wrist injury, Aaron Murray leaving the field before halftime, Hebbard a damaged ankle and Luke Mapperson a corked thigh.
Ballina led 12-10 at the break after a double to smart five-eighth Jason Bolt.
Veteran centre Darrin Essex and replacement Aaron Taylor scored for the Magpies, but the home side also had two tries disallowed ? Galvin held up over the line and Luke Many was ruled to have his foot into touch near the try line.
A minute after halftime halfback and Ballina captain Troy Johnstone scored, then hard-working backrower Matt Slattery scored the first of his two tries and Trent Gasnier crossed to shoot Ballina to a 28-10 lead after only 47 minutes.
Elliott and Taylor then scored for the Magpies in the 51st and 55th minute to give the Magpies a sniff at 28-22.
However, when Ballina ran in three unanswered tries, the match was gone.
Magpies' Tom Freebody scored with less than a minute remaining.
Mapperson, Galvin, Elliott and Freebody, stood out for the Magpies while Rix, Bolt, Slattery, Buckley, Moran and Windle were Ballina's best.