A hat trick from Terrance Williams saw Atlanta Rhinos pick up their first-ever domestic championship, as they defeated New York Knights 32-18 to take the Grand Final at Life University, Atlanta.
In an enthralling encounter in front of a packed crowd, the Rhinos came from behind to make history, captain Nick Newlin commenting: “This was the toughest game of club rugby league I’ve ever played in. This is all we wanted, we’ve been here for four years and this is what we’ve been playing for.”
Atlanta started slowly and quickly found themselves behind when Alex Foster opened the scoring for the visitors finishing off a fine expansive move, Jovanny Perez converting to establish a 6-0 lead.
The hosts gradually played themselves back into the game, Nick Barthel crossing for the first of his two tries and they built a 16-6 lead at the break with further scores to Max Pierce and Williams’ first.
Neil Thorman’s try and another Perez goal narrowed the lead back to four points just after the break, and the Rhinos were further handicapped when Tomu Osborne was sent off. But despite that and the heat, Atlanta extended their advantage as Barthel and Williams again crossed, Joe Cowley converting both to make it 28-12.
USA Hawks international Curtis Cunz gave hope to the Knights when he went over to bring the deficit back to 10 points, but Williams had the final say with his treble to see the Rhinos home.
Atlanta’s Hiko Malu was named MVP and their outstanding forward Salesi Tongamoa announced his retirement from the sport as he collected his winners medal.
“It was a high quality game, as you would expect in a national championship,” said Atlanta head coach Jordan Smedley. “I couldn’t be prouder of the group. Our attitude and commitment to each other, especially defensively, was outstanding. To win a national championship having to play with 12 men for the best part of 40 minutes typifies just how resilient we are. It was an historic moment for our great club, to win a national championship in only our fourth season is incredible.”
ATLANTA RHINOS 32
Tries: Terrance Williams 3, Nick Barthel 2, Max Pierce
Goals: Joe Cowley 4
NEW YORK KNIGHTS 18
Tries: Alex Foster, Neil Thorman, Curtis Cunz
Goals: Jovanny Perez 3