From the opening day of the season it was clear Cora Lynn’s new-look forward line would hold the Cobras in good stead.
The arrival of colossal centre half-forward Troy Tharle from Cranbourne, coupled with the return of premiership star and inaugural West Gippsland Football Netball Competition leading goal-kicker Nathan Langley from Beaconsfield had many tipping the Cobras to be big improvers in 2019.
Yet both were overshadowed in the season opener by another new face from Cranbourne in Nathan Gardiner, who caught the eye with his strong hands, deadeye set shots and general forward craft.
The 24-year-old put competition newcomer Tooradin Dalmore to the sword and finished with a match-winning seven goals and immediately endear himself to the Cora Lynn faithful.
It was a sign of things to come, with Gardiner going on to tally 83 goals in 23 games and he looms as a hugely important figure in tomorrow’s grand final showdown with Phillip Island.
Remarkably, though, the move almost didn’t materialise.
“I decided I wasn’t going to head back to the VFL so I was looking for a club and a good mate of mine Shaun Sparks spoke to me about Cora Lynn but I was a bit iffy because I found out Boo (Langley) was coming back from Beaccy,” Gardiner said.
“I was already the number two at Cranny in (Eagles legend Marc Holt) Holty’s shadow and I wanted to be the number one forward somewhere.
“But Boo spoke to the guys at Cora Lynn and said we would work well together so we made it happen and it’s the best decision I’ve made.”
With Tharle patrolling half-forward, accomplished mid-size forwards Langley and Travis Woodfield providing alterative targets either side of Gardiner and the likes of Lochie Peluso, Jai Rout and Jackson Dalton lurking at ground level, the Cobras boast one of the most balanced forward lines going around.
It enables Gardiner to remain closer to goal and do what he does best – impact the scoreboard.
Gardiner played most of his junior footy at Narre South Lions before joining Cranbourne, making his senior debut as a 17-year-old and splitting time between the Eagles and development opportunities at then-TAC Cup outfit Dandenong Stingrays and VFL sides Frankston and Casey Demons.
After making more than 50 VFL and development league appearances and booting nearly 90 goals in six years, Gardiner made the move to Cora Lynn and he has no regrets.
“I’ve loved it,” he said.
“Form-wise it’s the best season I’ve had and the same goes for enjoyment and I wouldn’t go back.
“Boo’s the best partner I’ve had up forward for a long time and our forward line is definitely one of our strengths. Some days you get the third or fourth defender which is nice.”
But while many would consider trading VFL for country footy a good excuse to take it easy, the change in scenery has neither slowed Gardiner’s drive to improve his game, nor hampered his ability to do so.
A lean patch earlier in the year led to former Cobras champion goalkicker Micky Dillon offering a few tips on kicking technique, which Gardiner was all too happy to take on board, while Cobras senior coach David Main has had a big influence on Gardiner mentally as well.
According to Main, Gardiner’s contribution to the club extended beyond the footy field.
“He’s been outstanding for us,” Main said.
“He works hard on his game and he’s a good mark and a good set shot but he’s also a really likable bloke and he gets around the junior boys at the club as well. They just love him and they treat him like he’s an AFL player.
“It’s good to see the old school full forward is still alive and well in country footy and that’s what brings people through the gate.”
In a season of highlights, one of Gardiner’s most notable moments occurred in the dying seconds of the only other clash between the Cobras and grand final opponent Phillip Island this season, back in round nine.
“A chaos ball came in in the air and I just thought if jumped at it something might happen and it landed in my arms,” he said.
“Dalts (Cobras co-captain Jackson Dalton) came up to me and said to take my time and I was lining up for the drop punt but then the siren still hadn’t gone so I thought I would snap it instead and fortunately it went through.
“It didn’t win us the game but it was still good to get the draw.”
That result is the only blemish on an otherwise perfect season for the Bulldogs heading into tomorrow’s decider and, like any rock star forward, Gardiner has a healthy dose of confidence.
“The big thing for us is our belief,” Gardiner said.
“Each player knows their role and after that draw we lost a few games but I think we’re starting to play our best footy at the right time and I reckon we’ll get across the line.”