IT was not so long ago North Gambier was the benchmark side in the Western Border Football League.
The Tigers regained that mantle in style on Saturday with an emphatic 39-point grand final victory over West Gambier.
The two sides faced off at Millicent’s McLaughlin Park, in what was expected to be a tough hit out.
Most pundits had the margin close, but the Tigers pushed hard in the second half of the game to create a healthy margin, then never let up.
In 2018 the Tigers won just three games, but this year they reversed that trend, losing only three in the minor rounds, before a solid effort in the second semi-final against the Roos to advance to the big dance.
They upped the ante on Saturday and while West put up a fight, it was the classy ball use of the Tigers which prevailed in the end.
Justin McConnell returned to the helm this season after several years away and led North on a dream resurgence few could have expected when season 2019 began.
“I am really proud of their effort,” McConnell said.
“From where they came from last year – there has been no magic wand, they have just worked really hard since December, worked together and for each other and got their just rewards.”
After a disappointing 2018, McConnell said it was a well-deserved victory.
“It is an amazing effort,” he said.
“To come from where they have – they really created an environment this year where individuals and the team could flourish.
“We had a lot of guys who played reserves footy last year and a lot of guys battled with form.
“What they were able to do was come together and work for each other.
“More importantly, they had a single focus for the team.”
While the final winning margin was impressive, the game began as a tight struggle.
The Roos led at the first break after a late goal with the wind, but from there it was basically all about the Tigers.
“It was a real arm wrestle in that first half,” McConnell said.
“They started really well, but our guys worked hard to get the game back on our terms.
“It was to and fro for long periods of the game and even at half time there was a similar amount of scoring shots, but we were just a bit more accurate.”
The second term was really the turning point of the game.
Late in the quarter the Tigers began to stamp their authority on the contest.
By the long break a three-point deficit was turned into a 23-point margin and North looked to have the premiership within its grasp.
“In the second quarter we were a little bit more purposeful going inside 50,” McConnell said.
“I thought early we just were not getting the entries we were after.
“This is a real centre-bounce ground – if you can get territory and get it in a dangerous position you can score.
“Our guys really tidied up that area and were able to reap the rewards.”
While the half-time margin was certainly handy, the Roos had the wind in their favour heading into the third term.
They used it much better than they had in the opening term, but still struggled to close the gap to the rampaging Tigers.
“At half time we made a point of were we going to stand up or stand down,” McConnell said.
“To the guys’ credit they played a really good quarter and set the game up.
“From there our fitness and the work we have done all season came to fruition.
“A week off probably helped as well – we were nice and fresh and we executed a little bit better.”
At the final break the margin was 21 points and the Tigers were in the box seat to claim the premiership flag.
The wind blew in their favour and the Roos were up against it.
Despite their lead, the Tigers refused to give any ground.
In a spirited quarter of football North simply stamped its authority on the grand final to leave no doubt its claim on the premiership flag was justified.
“We made a real point at the start of the game we did not want to give intensity and effort just for one contest or one quarter,” McConnell said.
“We wanted to do it time and time again.
“We knew they were going to come hard at us and we wanted to control the game, be really smart with our angles and shift the ball around a little bit.
“We knew we had the run in our legs, we knew we were fit and firing, so for our guys it is a really good reward for effort.”
While McConnell was hesitant to name any stand-out players, he said the big forwards in Tom McLennan and Sam Stafford stood up when the game demanded.
Stafford finished the day with six goals in an impressive display.
“Sam Stafford has been a real beacon up forward for us in the last half of the year,” McConnell said.
“Matt McInerney gave us a bit of bite and so did Jake Stafford.
“We had multiple options up forward, but we just tidied up that last inside 50 kick after quarter time which made a big difference.”
McConnell said he was impressed with the defensive efforts of his back six, which thwarted many of West’s forward forays when the game was on the line.
Those efforts to spoil the mark stifled the Roos’ ball movement, with Jake Schutz working well to secure best on ground honours, which put the Tigers back into attack mode.
The Tigers showed plenty of run through the middle of the ground, with Brett Kennedy standing tall in the ruck and the likes of Nick McInerney, Hamish Telford, Michael Telford and Brett Shepherdson all feeding the ball out.
All that was finished off up forward, with Sam Stafford’s six goals complemented by McConnell’s three, plus Matt McInerney and McLennan with two each.
“It is hard to single any players out,” McConnell said.
“Grand finals are won by the collective and that is what they did.”