Fine margins have been a hallmark of the Alex Scott & Staff West Gippsland Football Netball Competition and that is not expected to change when Phillip Island and Koo Wee Rup lock horns in this weekend’s grand final.
The two sides, along with Nar Nar Goon and reigning premier Inverloch-Kongwak, could only be separated by percentage at the end of the home and away season and both have cause for optimism heading into the decider at Garfield Recreation Reserve.
The Island took some time to find their feet under new coach Beau Vernon but are unbeaten since round 10 and took a direct route to the grand final with a win against Saturday’s opponent.
The Demons had to navigate three weeks of finals but did so with two impressive wins against The Goon to book their place.
Should the Demons triumph it will be third time from four meetings they have beaten Phillip Island this season, while defeat would mean the Bulldogs had bested them on the big stage on both occasions during the finals series.
Phillip Island coach Beau Vernon has experienced the highs and lows of grand final day, having coached Leongatha to the past three Gippsland League deciders for one win.
Vernon joined the Island this season and was relishing another opportunity to be involved on the final day of the season.
“It’s just about focussing on the right things and making sure we play our brand of footy,” Vernon said.
“From a club point of view we’re excited to have six teams in there on grand final day and there’s a really good feeling about the place.”
Vernon said playing one game in three weeks could be challenging but was confident the pros outweighed cons as far as his side’s preparation was concerned.
The Island are set to regain defender Mark Griffin, who was only held out of the second semi-final as a precaution, following his recovery from an ankle injury that has kept him sidelined since round 16.
Koo Wee Rup are sweating on the fitness of star midfielder Dom Paynter who suffered a knee injury in last week’s win against Nar Nar Goon, but look set to regain champion Luke Walker.
Demons coach Ben Collins said the club resisted the temptation to rush him back for the preliminary final to ensure he was cherry ripe for grand final day – a risk that paid off.
Should Paynter and/or Walker not get up, Jesse Hand and Ben Miller and among those in the mix to step in.
Conditions could yet be a major factor, with predicted wet weather likely to play into the hands of the bigger-bodied Bulldogs.
However, the surface at Garfield is more forgiving than most and Collins was hopeful his side’s run and gun approach would not be too affected.
“It looks like it’s going to be wet so that’s an advantage to them but Garfield is a better deck so we should be able to keep our feet better than we did in the second semi-final,” Collins said.
“They were better team and deserved to win but we’ve come front behind to beat them in our two other games this year and we felt we had opportunities to do that in the semi-final as well.”
The Demons got back within 11 points before a couple of quickfire goals to Aaron Edwards put the game out of reach and Collins and co turned their attention to the preliminary final.
If Koo Wee Rup is to win on Saturday, it will end a 37-year wait for a flag, but Collins said that would just be a bonus.
“The drought is the footy club’s drought not ours,” he said.
“If we can break it, fantastic, but we’re not going to take that on and put too much pressure on ourselves.
“I’ve been involved in a few flags and if you beat yourself up and build things up too much you’ve got no chance.”
Over on the netball courts, the A Grade grand final looms as an ultimate battle of youth versus experience.
Dalyston may be the reigning premier, but the loss of Jarney Thomas, Tess Angarane and Jessica McRae meant coach Jenny McRae had her work cut out if the Magpies were to be any chance of retaining their crown.
Up stepped Gemma Thomas and Grace McRae into the starting seven and the likes of Abbey Kirk and Chloe Bramley grabbed their opportunity to join the senior list with both hands.
Coach McRae expected more of the same on Saturday.
“If the kids stay steady and don’t panic we’ll give them a good run for their money,” McRae said.
“They are the most determined bunch of girls I’ve ever worked with and they just never give up and know how to wear their opposition down.
“They are very excited and they know it’s going to be a tough game but can’t wait.”
The Magpies face a Phillip Island side that will welcome back some big names for the decider.
Kelly O’Neill and Chelsea Connell return to the side following football commitments, while Steph Sivori is fully fit after nursing a sore thumb through the semi-final.
Island coach Kate Steel admitted she was in awe of what Dalyston’s young team had been able to achieve but was determined to put a stop to the Magpies’ rise on grand final day.
“Excited doesn’t even describe it. It feels like we’ve won just getting there but at the same time that certainly doesn’t mean we’re satisfied with just getting there,” Steel said.
“Given we only lost by a goal two weeks ago and we haven’t played them with our full side yet we’re going in confident.
“We’ve just got to get our goals in. Our defence is more than capable of turnovers so we just need to make sure we convert our chances and if we miss we get the rebounds.”
In other games, Koo Wee Rup will be out to defend its premiership against Inverloch Kongwak in the reserves grand final.
The Demons finished on top of the latter, were comprehensive winners against the Sea Eagles in the second semi-final and will go into the clash as red-hot favourites, led by recently crowned league best and fairest Matt Cameron.
In the thirds grand final, Cora Lynn meets Phillip Island in what promises to be a fantastic contest.
The Cobras head in as favourites, having taken out the minor premiership and secured a spot in the decider with a 34-point win in the second semi-final, but the Bulldogs are the only side to have beaten them this year and will take confidence from that result in round eight.
The Island will also be in action in the fourths grand final, where they meet Koo Wee Rup.
The Bulldogs have won all three clashes between the two sides this season, including the second semi-final by 15 points, but the Demons should not be taken lightly, with the likes of league best and fairest Nick Prowd in their ranks.
Over on the netball courts, Dalyston faces Koo Wee Rup in the B Grade grand final and top two sides Phillip Island and Inverloch Kongwak do battle in the C Grade decider.
In the 17-and-under grand final, Bunyip will meet Dalyston, which reached the grand final from fifth place.
Korumburra Bena and Phillip Island will contest the 15-and-under grand final and Cora Lynn is pitted against Inverloch Kongwak in the 13-and-under decider.
Photos courtesy of Pakenham Gazette, Yvonne McMahon and South Gippsland Sentinel-Times