Half time in a Grand Final and we’re 31 points up….

Two years ago, I sat at the local Picola League Grand Final, watching on as the excitement from all around the ground reverberated onto the field and into the actions of the players partaking in the game. Having played eight seasons at the Waaia Football Club throughout my junior years and winning an estimated total of about 15 games from those seasons, I concluded that I would never get to run through the banner on a sunny Saturday in September, and I would never get to experience the thrill of having the extreme hopes of the faithful pinned on you for two hours of football. It was a depressing day, and as a result I’ve never really enjoyed the theatrics that go into the big day that brings a whole league together.

Last year, I decided to take a year off from playing footy. Combined with the workload of Year 12 and the loss of passion for the game, I didn’t think I would miss it. I was right for a while. However, seeing the team that I would’ve been a part of if I chose to play win their way through to the Grand Final was devastating to watch. They went on to lose, which fortunately for me eased the heartache of seeing my ex-teammates, so used to losing each weekend, playing in a game in front of 1,000 people for a premiership cup. Determined, I tussled in my head over whether I would return to the field in 2013 or not.

Seeking a change, I decided to substitute my old red and black for the red, white and blue. The Strathmerton Bulldogs have always been a club I loved playing against, due to it being close to home and having a lot of friends from school on the team. With my girlfriend already playing netball there, the move was the only logical choice. Not sure what to expect form-wise, I was pleasantly surprised when we won a stretch of the games to the start the season, and we were soon established as one of the teams to beat in the competition. We had two sides above us on the ladder that we just weren’t good enough to beat, but as the season went on, we gained skill and belief that we could knock those teams off. It came to a head when we played Jerilderie in Round 16, two rounds before the start of finals. Having been beaten by them twice already, a resounding 72 point victory filled the team with confidence. We were all of a sudden second on the ladder, and heading into a finals campaign full of steam. Two more thumping wins to end the season saw us finish in second position with four losses and a whopping percentage of 355.29%.

In our first week of the finals, the Bulldogs again came up against Jerilderie. It would be a tough task to repeat the effort from a few weeks earlier, but a five goal victory only added more merit to the claim that we were in the top two teams in the competition. We won our way through to a play-off against the Deniliquin Rovers, the side that finished on top of the ladder, and the side that defeated us twice during the year. They were the team to beat. A win would guarantee a Grand Final berth with a week of rest, while a loss meant another hard week of training with a Preliminary Final to come. On a glorious Saturday afternoon, Strathmerton kicked three goals to nothing in the first quarter, before the answer back from Deni saw us lead by just three points at half time. A superb second half, in which the Bulldogs kicked 7.2 to 3.8, set up an unlikely 21 point victory, and we had one hand on the premiership cup. But which team would the other hand belong to? We had a week to find out.

The Deni Rovers came out firing against Blighty in the penultimate weekend of football, thrashing them to the tune of 77 points, setting up a re-match. Not only did the Reserve grade make the Grand Final, but the Under 14’s, Under 17’s and Senior sides also advanced, while A and B Grade in the Netball were also playing for a medal around their necks. As a result, Strathmerton were awarded the ‘Champion Club of the Year’ award, while Jade Shannon, a silky midfielder in the two’s, won the league best and fairest. Tim Cantrill went from not being able to run out a lap in the pre-season to kicking 84 goals, the best in the competition, while we had two more players finish in the top five for the league’s best player award. The town was abuzz in the week leading up to the Grand Final, and I had to pinch myself a few times to remind myself of how my dream two years ago was quickly becoming a reality. It had been 39 years since the Strathmerton Reserves last won a premiership, and the enormity of it all was exciting and nerve-wracking at the same time.

The Grand Final was to be played in Deniliquin, so our opponents had the home ground advantage, although arriving at the ground you would think otherwise. A massive camp of supporters cheering on all four Bulldog sides on the footy field ensured we wouldn’t suffer from a lack of support. The Under 14’s lost a game they were favourites to win, not playing hard enough and not working for their teammates in a fairly unspirited display. The Under 17’s won a fairly easy encounter against Jeriliderie, and soon it was time to get ready. I nearly forgot while I was watching the junior grades that I wasn’t just a supporter on Grand Final day like previous years. The build-up to the game was actually no different to any other game, save for an especially-inspiring speech from our coach, Shannon Edgar. Once the final siren went for the 17’s, we felt ready. Jogging out onto the ground and through the banner covered in red, white and blue streamers, again I had to pinch myself. It was 20 degrees, the sun was shining and the oval was picture-perfect, save for the odd kangaroo droppings, appropriate given the Deni Rovers wore the blue and white stripes similar to North Melbourne in the AFL. The game was underway, and we were on top right from the first bounce. The calm, cooling pre-game speech seemed to spark us into action, while the angry, sweary shouting the opposition coach gave his troops in the changing shed next to us seemed to be having the opposite effect. We kicked four goals to one behind in the first quarter, before adding another three majors after quarter time to lead by seven goals. Trying not to think ahead of myself, I imagined the medal we’d all be receiving in an hour or so. Then the tide turned. The umpire seemed to be awarding all of his free kicks to the Rovers, and they kicked consecutive goals heading into half time to give them momentum.

Still with a handy 31 point lead at the main break, the oranges and lollies were handed out aplenty as we seemed to struggle with the heat. Deni were quick to get a run-on again in the second half, and were awarded a double-goal penalty after one of our players showed an undisciplined act in the defensive goalsquare. They soon had the lead, and going into three quarter time, we were somehow seven points down, even after all the hard work and controlling of the play we did to start the game. We kicked the first goal of the last quarter to give us hope, but the Rovers once again took control of the play, and snuck through a few late goals to really hammer home the embarrassment and disappointment of losing in such a fashion. Our star goalkicker Cantrill was his usual self up forward booting five goals, but by the second half, the supply had well and truly run dry. Nothing was dry over in the Rovers camp, with water, powerade and beer flowing in celebration of the premiership, and we were left slumped to the ground. The irony at the time of getting completely overrun by a side wearing blue and white stripes wasn’t lost on me, and I cursed a wasted season of football, both at local level and the AFL from a Kangaroos perspective. But all too keen for next year to come around again.

About Josh Barnstable

21 year old North Melbourne supporter from country Victoria. Currently living in Melbourne studying a Bachelor of Sports Media. Dreams of becoming a sports journalist and broadcaster.

Comments

  1. Peter Fuller says:

    Josh,
    Bad luck to lose in such circumstances. It’s great to see you back writing on the Almanac, where I don’t think we’ve seen you this year. I hope that you have been advancing your career in sports media, which seemed promising in its development stages when you previously informed the Almanac community about it. I’m also pleased that you’ve returned to playing, and hope that both the hint of success this year plus the disappointment of the GF fuels you for a big 2014.
    I can claim to feel your pain. The most recent occasion when one of my sons saw final action was about five years ago in the Ammos. Our team led by 56 points at half-time in the first semi, but contrived to lose to a very well-equipped opponent, when they couldn’t sustain the first-half intensity. Their conquerors went on to win the Prelim and GF to take out the flag. Sadly, our mob didn’t recover and dropped from 4th to bottom two the following season, for the first of successive relegations. It’s only this season that the ship has steadied, and they have won promotion, despite losing the GF, after winning the 2nd semi. Alas, my son is no longer playing.

  2. Rocket Nguyen says:

    Bad luck Josh. Next year you’ll have Strathie’s old rival from the Murray league, Toc to compete with. Go Bloods!

  3. Andrew Starkie says:

    The footy Gods will punish more than reward.

  4. Josh – tough day at the office. Well told yarn.

    A Starkie – spot on. Talking of the footy Gods, there’s a lot of chirp coming out of Hawthorn this week. Again. Just like the previous eleven times.

  5. John Butler says:

    Josh, some understandable sentiments there, but I would urge you not to regard the season as wasted.

    What a great journey it is to reach a grand final in any competition. Not something to take for granted because many never get the chance. We get too carried away with winning being everything (rich, I know, coming from a Carlton supporter).

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