THE 2019 Western Border football grand final clash shapes up as one of the most anticipated in recent years, with two former powerhouse clubs in North Gambier and West Gambier set to go head-to-head.
This year has been a turnaround for North with Justin McConnell back at the helm.
The Tigers lost just three games in the minor rounds, then advanced straight to the grand final with a convincing win over West in the second semi-final.
The Roos have rebuilt their roster in recent seasons and lost five games in the minor rounds, then had an extra major-round game to reach the big dance.
Coach Brad Wilson has continued the development of young players, which has started to pay dividends.
Both sides have suffered slumps throughout the year, but appear to be at their best at the business end of the season.
McConnell and Wilson were keen to share their thoughts during the week leading up to tomorrow’s big game.
McConnell said his players had been on a mission this season to atone for only three wins in 2018.
He said that was evident with the commitment shown at training and the work ethic on game days.
“I have been really impressed by their dedication and ability to make sacrifices throughout the year,” McConnell said.
“We have had four really good battles with West this year so I am looking forward to the challenge again.”
McConnell rated West as one of the best teams in the competition, with a strong focus around the stoppage.
“They get numbers back and surge forward,” he said.
“The early part of the season they handled us pretty convincingly, so we know if we are not at our absolute best we are going to be hard up against it.”
North boasts a potent forward line, with the likes of league leading goal kicker McConnell, Sam Stafford, Tom McLennan and Matthew McInerney.
However, McConnell said the challenge would be to find enough dangerous forward-50 entries to apply scoreboard pressure.
“I think the team that is able to get the supply up forward will come out on top,” he said.
“Both teams have good defence and good attack, so whoever gets on top in that mid field battle will have the advantage.”
North’s mid field is certainly up to the challenge, with league best and fairest Mike Telford, Frazer Marshall, Hamish Telford, Nick McInerney and a host of others in good form.
“The mid field battle will be really important,” McConnell said.
“We will be up against the likes of (Lawry) Bradley-Brown, (Tom) Holmes, Wilson, these type of guys.
“It is going to be an arm wrestle.”
To provide first use to the on-ballers will come down to an exciting match up in the ruck.
Tiger Brett Kennedy and Roo Todd Lewis are sure to provide a tough battle.
“They are probably two of the premier ruckmen in the competition,” McConnell said.
“Those two guys have had some good battles throughout the season.
“I think whichever ruckman gets on top, whichever mid field gets on top and gives that supply forward of the footy will go a long way to deciding which team can capitalise on their momentum.”
That momentum is one of the keys to the premiership flag according to McConnell.
“Both teams at some stage will have the momentum,” he said.
“It will be the team which can capitalise on theirs and which can absorb the other’s the best that will have the advantage.”
Much of that momentum will be generated from the back six, where the likes of Tim McInerney, Jake Schutz and Jordan Hollit – among others – will need to be at their best.
One other important factor for the Tigers is a full roster, with all players fit and healthy.
“We had our injuries through the middle part of the season, but we have been able to keep a core group of players together which has helped us,” McConnell said.
“It will be a perfect day for footy with a big crowd, so we just want to get there and execute as best we can and give ourselves a really good chance.”
Wilson said after some lean years at Malseed Park it was good to be back in with a shot at a premiership.
He said his young group of players had worked hard and were now starting to see the fruits of their labour.
“We have a young exciting playing group,” Wilson said.
“It is easy to lose track of how young some of these guys are because they have been playing A Grade for a few years now.
“The rewards started to show a bit last year.
“We also recruited quite well over the summer and it put us in the spot we are.”
While the Tigers have the benefit of a week off to rest, Wilson was not concerned about his side’s extra finals game.
He said the preliminary final against Casterton Sandford probably helped find momentum to carry to the grand final.
“Casterton are hard to stop once they get going,” Wilson said.
“We did our best to respect that at first, but at the same time get our own game going.
“I was pretty pleased with our game.
“The week before North had their way with us a bit, so we know we are up against it a bit this week.
“They are a pretty good team, but coming off the win last week I feel okay about it.”
While Wilson accepted his side lacked a big spearhead forward, he was content with the players who have regularly hit the scoreboard.
“Garrett (Ha) has had a great year,” he said.
“Ben Papps slotted into the team really well for his first year.
“But we do like to share the load up forward and have other guys who will pop up throughout the day.”
Again the battle in the middle of the ground looms as a major contributing factor.
Wilson also noted the impact of Lewis against Kennedy in the ruck.
“Todd has had a good couple of years and I am pretty happy with his season,” he said.
“We will look for a big game from him.
“Kennedy had a good final against us and found a lot of the footy.
“We are quite aware of what he brings to the table.
“That contest might swing the game either way.”
If Lewis can control the ruck with his trademark taps, it will go a long way to success for the Roos, with a talented mid field ready to pounce.
“Dwayne Phillips has been a good in for us there, Jordy Williams has got going and Reid Kuller coming back adds a bit of youth,” Wilson said.
“We have a good mix through there.”
West’s own back six will see the talented Tom Zeitz, the tough Levi Morton and versatile Jesse Pfitzner look to shut down the dangerous Tigers’ forwards.
“North is pretty potent up forward,” Wilson said.
“You can shut down one and another one will get you, so there is no time for slacking.
“But I do not think there is one part of the ground more important than the other the way the two teams match up.”
Rather than dwell on all the possible factors around the ground, Wilson’s plan appears simple.
“For us it is about focusing on our game and making sure our preparation is good,” he said.
“The weather is good this week, so we need to do all the right things, tick all the boxes and give ourselves every chance.”