The Wollongong Wolves are the NSW Men's National Premier League premiers after they secured a hard-fought 2-1 victory over Rockdale on Sunday night.
The match was a fiery affair, with tensions rising at times throughout the game, however Wollongong were able to hold off a fist-finishing Rockdale to secure the premiership with one match to spare.
Wolves coach Luke Wilkshire was thrilled with the determination his team showed to ensure they will head to WIN Stadium next Sunday afternoon with the premiership locked up.
"Coming away from home, it's never going to be easy," Wilkshire said. "They're fighting for their lives to make the playoffs, we know the situation.
"But we've come away, we defended fantastically, the organisation in defence, after the first 10 to 15 minutes we adjusted on the run and after that I felt pretty comfortable."
The Wolves were forced to withstand an early onslaught from a desperate Rockdale side, the hosts needing the three points to keep their slim finals hopes alive.
The enthusiasm translated into early opportunities, with the Suns largely controlling the opening 15 minutes and generating a number of shots.
Despite the early onslaught, it was Wollongong who opened the scoring through the boot of Nick Littler. Pouncing on a loose ball following a Wolves free kick, the defender fired the ball past the goalkeeper in the 16th minute.
It was a goal LIttler was thrilled to snare, but the defender was most pleased with the way his team dug deep to claim the victory.
"It's unreal, winning the premiership, it's a phenomenal feeling," Littler said. "When we came out at the start of the year and thought we could go all the way, to actually do that, it's a wonderful feeling.
"The defensive effort has been massive. Everyone from all the way up front to everyone back to Jusso [Pasfield], everyone's done a role and it's been great to see."
It was Rockdale again who took control following the goal, with the hosts pushing forward into attacking territory. Wollongong goalkeeper Justin Pasfield was forced to make a number of saves however the Wolves defence held firm and slowly the tide began to turn.
As the Suns began to tire, Wollongong were able to make greater inroads and ultimately build pressure. That pressure turned into opportunities, with the Wolves coming close to doubling the advantage throughout the latter stages of the first half.
Ultimately they were able to do so in the final play of the half, with Thomas James converting a penalty kick to ensure the Wolves went to the sheds with a 2-0 lead.
The goal came after a frenetic period of play, with Rockdale coming close to scoring at one end of the field before a Takeru Okada pass put James on the counter attack.
Jostling for position with a Rockdale defender, James was taken to the ground, the referee not hesitating to point to the spot, where ultimately the competition's leading goal scorer made no mistake.
Wollongong opened the second as they finished the first, the Wolves straight back on the attack following the resumption.
This time it was Rockdale who held firm, however, with the momentum eventually swinging back towards the home side.
Like they were in the first half, Wollongong were forced to scramble in defence to deny a number of goal scoring opportunities. Ultimately, however, the pressure proved too much, with Rockdale's Jonathan Grozdanovski cutting the Wolves advantage to one in the 63rd minute.
The goal energised the Rockdale players, with the Wolves forced to defend numerous attacking waves throughout the final 30 minutes of play.
Pasfield was again forced to make a number of desperate saves, while the Wolves were fortunate to avoid conceding a penalty in the 88th minute.
Tensions were running high when the fourth official signalled there would be five minutes of additional time to play out. The Wolves held their ground, however, to secure the tight victory and with it, the NPL premiership.
While you're with us the Illawarra Mercury is offering sport readers 20% off an annual digital subscription. Sign up to stay up to date with all the local sports you love for only $3.00 a week. Terms and conditions apply.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.