Yarra Man: A half-back’s comparison of the Eastern league and the Ovens and Murray league

By Tavis Perry

Last year I played for Blackburn in the Eastern Football League, which is commonly regarded as Victoria’s premier competition outside the VFL. This year I’ve transferred to Yarrawonga, which plays in arguably the strongest — and definitely the most even — country competition, the Ovens & Murray Football League. Often I’m asked, which is the stronger competition?
Initially, I found it hard to compare the two, mainly because of the dimensions of the grounds. In the Eastern league, grounds average about 150 metres x 125 metres and some of them have unique idiosyncrasies. These include the ground at Lilydale, which is shaped more like a rectangle than an oval, and Balwyn, whose home ground resembles a primary school oval. By comparison, Ovens and Murray ovals are enormous. Yarrawonga has the smallest ground in the competition and I reckon its dimensions would be 175 metres x 140 metres.
Because of the difference in ground dimensions, game are played in contrasting styles. Eastern league sides have a greater focus of dominating the stoppages, because of the many ball-ups and boundary throw-ins. Because space at stoppages is minimal, most sides tend to handball backwards to clear the ball, and the better sides tend to go short to centre half-forward rather than thrust the ball long. If they go long, they find the ball clogged up by defenders who’ve been able to zone off and create a pack. If the ball is delivered short to the centre half-forward, he can then handball off to mid-fielders, who deliver to another leading player or take a shot at goal.
Ovens and Murray sides are more inclined to win the ball around the ground and then use their skill to dictate ball movement. Due to the greater space in which to work, they tend to switch the ball from their backline, then either bring the ball into the corridor or kick long to the centre half- forward, who generally has an abundance of space to work in. From here sides typically go long again to give their full-forward a chance to go one-on-one with his opponent. Ovens and Murray backmen don’t have as much help as defenders in the Eastern league.
Body shape differs. Eastern league players have a greater focus on size and strength, whereas Ovens and Murray players concentrate on improving pace and endurance.
The contrasts between the two leagues make it difficult to determine which has the edge over the other. In short, the Eastern league is more physical, with teams frequently laying a hundred tackles a game, whereas Ovens and Murray sides would aim for fifty tackles a game, but run significantly more.
I’ve played at half-back for both Blackburn and Yarrawonga. As I suggested earlier, in the Eastern league I was expected to zone off my opponent and help out my fellow backmen. I found that I could give my opponent a lot more latitude, especially when we were about fifty metres from the opposition goals, mainly because there was no space up the ground for him to lead into. My opponent’s main endeavour was almost always to try to crumb goals. Knowing this gave me an opportunity to position myself to advantage.
Zoning off in the Ovens and Murray league is fraught with danger. On a few occasions, I’ve not appreciated that the extra space my opponent enjoys enables him to become an option to kick to. On a few occasions I’ve given my opponent too much scope to gain possession. Hence I’ve struggled in the Ovens and Murray league compared to my performance in the Eastern league.
One of the main differences between the two competitions is the calibre of player at the elite end. Former AFL players who dominate in the Eastern league include Joel Smith, Patrick Bowden, Kris Barlow, Aaron Fiora, Adam Vogels, Nick Smith and Allan Murray. The Ovens and Murray’s former AFL guns include Matt Shir, Johnny McCormick, Mick Stevens, Craig Ednie and Joel Mackie. To put it into perspective, the Eastern league players I’ve named have a combined AFL games tally of more than 600, whereas the combined total for the Ovens and Murray’s AFL contingent is about 100. This is not to say that the Eastern league would automatically win an interleague game between the two competitions. Depth, talent, structure and professionalism would also play their part.
Given the difference in ground conditions in the Eastern league and the Ovens and Murray league, it to would be easy to conclude that home-ground advantage would determine the winner of an interleague battle. But given a neutral surface and all things considered, I believe the Eastern Football League would win.


  1. Rod Gillett says

    I found this a very interesting piece; especially given that it provided a contemporary insider’s view of an age-old debate about the particular merits of respective leagues.
    As you have also played in the Goulburn Valley League (for Rochester), I’d be interested in your comments of its standing vis-a-vis the Eastern Football League and the O & M.
    I note that the O & M beat the GVL pretty comfortably in their country championship fixture on the weekend, but rep. footy is usually pretty different to club footy week-in/week out.

  2. Matt Cowan says

    I enjoyed this piece too. I grew up playing footy in the Murray League with Numurkah and the grounds there are generally pretty big too, particularly Numurkah’s, Tocumwal’s and Cobram’s. And, it is true what Travis says, the CHFs play a big role in games in those leagues because of the sheer space that they can work into and the distances that the ball has to cover from CHF to FF. I’m not sure what surface and playing conditions are like down there in the Eastern League, but with the fog in the dead of winter and the rock hard cricket pitches in the middle that can turn into quagmires pretty quickly, I reckon the old Murray League (at home) could give the Eastern League a bit of a rattle…for a quarter at least, until the fog lifts!

    P.S. I still have fond memories of the day the MFL defeated the GVFL at Deakin Reserve in Shepp about 15 years ago…that shut a few Shepp blokes up!

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