A magical flick pass from centre Nathan Smith eight minutes from full-time sealed Illawarra's second straight Country Championship title on Saturday, edging out Newcastle 22-20 in a thriller at Tamworth.
As Illawarra trailed 20-18 deep into the second half, Smith's round-the-corner ball which laid on the try for Jason Raper proved to be the match-winning play though the defending champions had to tackle their way to victory as the clock wound down.
Coach Gavin Clinch paid tribute to his side's courage in scoring two second-half tries with possession and field position against them.
"It was very tough - both teams just threw everything at each other," Clinch said.
"Towards the back end, there we were just holding on but it was great defence in the end to win it.
"They were under the pump, just continually tackling throughout the second half, but I thought Eamon [Hillen] and [Jarrod] Boyley's kicking game stood up in the last half hour.
"Our long kicking game, particularly Boyley's, was outstanding in the second half.
"He just kept turning them around from our own half; that got us there in the end."
Illawarra started slowly, allowing Newcastle five-eighth Riley Brown to dummy his way over from close range after just four minutes for a 4-0 lead.
In a tight contest, Newcastle trailed at one stage but snatched the advantage with a try just before the break to lead 14-12.
Interchange Sam Clune then took control. He put Blake Phillips into space who found Helensburgh teammate Hillen who put Illawarra ahead.
Royce Geoffrey hit back for Newcastle when he charged on to a Riley Brown short ball to score, taking the score to 20-18 with just 10 minutes to play.
As the title began to slip through their fingers, Illawarra marched up the field, of which they'd seen little in the second stanza, with Smith's freakish flick pass laying on Raper's try with eight minutes left.
Despite three consecutive sets on their opponent's line, Newcastle couldn't find the match winner as Illawarra tackled their way to the 22-20 victory.
Despite the impressive victory, Illawarra were surprisingly edged out by Newcastle at the Country firsts selection table.
The Rebels had seven players chosen to Illawarra's six, with five in the starting line-up to Illawarra's three.
Hillen claimed the No 7 jumper while skipper Jarrod Thompson and Blake Williamson earned starting berths in the second-row with Clune and Jacob Hind named on the bench.
Smith, named 18th man, lost out out on a starting berth to opposite Simon Williams despite a clear points decision over the Wests Newcastle three-quarter in the match while man-of-the-match Boyle missed out.
Blake Phillips also missed out despite an outstanding display on the right edge.
Clinch said he was baffled by their non-selection.
"Unbelievable really. I don't understand it," he said.
"Blake Phillips was one of the only forwards on the field who played the 80 minutes. He just kept getting through so much work and to not even get on the bench I was very surprised and Boyley got man-of-the-match and didn't even get a go.
"I thought we would have had up to nine or 10 guys after winning it two years in a row but that's out of our control really - we'll just have to keep winning."