Inverell were a kick away from what would have been their biggest win in recent memory in what was one of the games of the Central North season at Ken Chillingworth Oval on Saturday.
The Highlanders looked down and out trailing Pirates 33-20 with 10 minutes to go and with Pirates scrum all over them. But a double to centre Tom Bucknell, the second in the dying seconds, gave them the chance to snatch the points.
But Hunter Barnett was unable to convert and Pirates held on to win 33-32 and cement their spot in the top four heading into the second round.
"It was an ugly win, but a win nonetheless," Pirates co-coach Mick Squires said.
The reaction from the Pirates players when the kick didn't go through showed what it meant to them and how lucky they were.
That said, Squires thought "they worked hard all day to get back in front and worked hard to get the win".
It was an arm-wrestle from the opening whistle.
Pirates had all the play early but were after the week off probably "a couple of steps behind" and it was the Highlanders who opened the scoring through five-eighth Scott Houston.
Pirates hit back through skipper Conrad Starr a few minutes later but winger Osea Namari put Inverell back in front.
Barnett's boot extended the Highlanders lead to 15-7 with just over 10 minutes remaining in the first half. But Pirates turned to their biggest weapon - their scrum - scoring with a-minute-and-a-half to go to make it a one point game at the break.
As they did in the first half Inverell scored first points in the second to kick away again.
But their momentum was short-lived with Pirates scrum starting to really up the ante. The Highlanders were seemingly powerless to stop the charge, the premiers scrumming their way to a penalty try and the lead for the first time 10 minutes in.
When Andrew Moodie crashed over, and then Nick McCrohan scored his second for the day to make it 33-20 with 15 to play Pirates looked well in control.
But the Highlanders continued to attack them and were rewarded when Bucknell stepped his way to the line to get them back within six points and set up a thrilling last five minutes.
Much of that was spent in the Highlanders half. They had a couple of good cracks, before Bucknell snuck through a hole in a stretched Pirates' defence.
Squires paid credit to the Highlanders, and while he felt his side might have "taken a step back", he said he couldn't knock their effort and thought in general there was some good execution in their tries.
"But there's some things we've got to work on moving forward," he said.
They might also be looking at another stretch without Starr after he came off late in the first half with what early indications appeared a reoccurrence of his hamstring injury from earlier in the season.
Highlanders skipper Luther Robinson was understandably disappointed but proud of his side.
"We're disappointed but we won't take it all as a negative," he said.
There's a "a lot of positives" they can take out of it. Aside from the scrum they matched Pirates pretty much everywhere else and showed a lot of character to claw their way back.
"We could have quite easily just gave up then and there (when Pirates got out to 33-20) but we managed to get back within a point right at the end there and we kick the goal we win the game," Robinson said.
It has also shown the competition they are serious contenders.
"In the past we've been sort of been targetted as easy beats, as a walk over, and we're just trying to change attitudes at the moment," he said.
"We've got a fairly young side with a lot of new fellas so I think there's some building stones there for us."
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