And then there were two
After 20 weeks of battle across more than 3000 registered players just 180 will this week get the opportunity to be the first to play grand finals on Mars Stadium. Through discussions over the past weeks it has become very clear that this lure of being the first grand finals on Ballarat’s new AFL stadium was driving many to work that bit harder and the excitement is just as great amongst the spectators. A district league grand final in a boutique stadium which will seat undercover virtually all those who attend is going to be a superb spectacle and create an enormous atmosphere. The Central Highlands grand final has traditionally been the largest grand final in the region with crowds almost twice as large as any other league in the area and this week shapes to potentially take this to a new level. As well as the interest built around the new stadium there is plenty of great stories arising from the match up of teams which have fought their way to the ultimate matches for 2017. Beaufort and Hepburn finished the season first and second on the ladder after the home and away season and this has proven to be a true reflection of their form and they now have made it through to see who this year’s champion is.
These two clubs have never played each other in a grand final in the CHFL even though both of them have been reasonably successful across the past two decades. Beaufort have won two flags, back to back in 1995 and 1996, shortly after they joined the league form the Ballarat FL.
Since then they played in one other grand final in 2002 when they were defeated by Buninyong.
Hepburn on the other hand has a very rich recent history of being one of the power houses of the league. This week they are aiming for their ninth flag since the league was formed in 1979, with the last of their eight victories in 2013. As a club they have been outstanding in how they have retained their locals who in all occasions has been the majority of their side and then topped these very good players with some keys which might have been lacking. This has always proven to be the most effective approach in any community football and Beaufort has been able to take this same approach of recent years and after two elimination final defeats they have added some keys who are taking the club to a new level.
It is through this make up of their teams that it makes this grand final an absolutely fascinating clash which shapes as a very competitive clash. Beaufort has come into the grand final after a much easier win over a battle weary Springbank who were not able to fight their way into a fourth successive grand final and potentially a hat trick of flags.
After quarter time the Tigers were not able to compete with enough vigour and they never retained the football for any long periods of time and when they got into the forward line they were bereft of scoring options. The Crows controlled the game through the vigorous attack on the football whenever it was in dispute. Tom Stapleton has been one of the recruits of the season playing through the half back and mid fields for Beaufort. He is strong enough to win his own football and has the defensive skills to limit the opposition ball extractors to have their usual impact. On Saturday he is very likely to have plenty of contests with Hepburn’s veteran Dan O’Halloran who has been amazing this season fighting back from a serious back injury early in the year. In Hepburn’s very hard 15 point win over Buninyong on Sunday O’Halloran was at his best in getting hold of the football and most importantly very quickly providing it out to his excellent running teammates.
Alex Petrie, Joseph Mason and Mick Foster are all very good players generally at the centre bounce for Beaufort and they have had a good season making sure that the ball heads in their direction. In the past four weeks this has been topped off with the return after injury of Jacob Garvey into the key ruck role. Garvey is a skilled ruckman who was able to provide plenty of momentum to Beaufort from stoppages last week.
He will have a tough task this week though because Michael Watt has been an excellent contributor for Hepburn all season in this same role.
Watt probably has a bit more influence around the ground than Garvey but whichever one of them gets control at any stoppages should be able to give his team an advantage. Who gives these two a rest will also be an interesting point at the time of selection particularly at Beaufort. The contest between Josh McDermott and Scott Howard for the second ruck spot will be eagerly observed when teams are announced. McDermott has held the position for the finals so far but Howard who may provide an additional tall forward option was looking ready to go in Beaufort’s reserves win over Waubra last week and it might be enough for him to get back into the senior team. Brendan Howard will also be a key in the defence for Beaufort where he will probably have the very dangerous Lee Cox.
Cox is clearly past his best, where for almost a decade he was the most dangerous forward in the league and just two years ago he was the leading goal kicker in the Central Murray FL, but he can still have a major influence over a game.
Last week in the preliminary final his three goals were vital, and his strong marking and accurate kicking will be vital if it is a close match. Brendan Howard though has rarely been beaten throughout the past two seasons and should be able to at least break even. Another key defender who rarely is seen but is just as rarely beaten in his contest throughout the match is Finn Anscombe from Hepburn. Anscombe usually starts at Centre Half Back and along with Segifili Asa Leauasa and Alan Ware they provide a miserly defensive unit. A key aspect is their ability to retain their shape across half back even if their opponents push well forward of them into the other half of the ground.
Unless their opponents are prepared to run the ball all the way back into their forward line then the three across the back will cut it off and send it back with interest. Beaufort plays a high press and tries to flood their forward line. This could play right into Hepburn’s disciplined structure.
Last week Beaufort was able to overcome this risk by running the ball hard through the middle of the ground. Quick hands and chains of handballs were a key in how they set this up. Jarrod McCorkell, who has come back from seven weeks overseas in ripping shape, is a class player who sets up this whenever he gets his hands on the football. In contrast Hepburn is probably faster over the ground than Beaufort and this might provide a key advantage to the Burras.
Jarrod Trigg has been a vital fix it man for the Crows throughout the year and may have a key role of being a tall target in the forward line and provides some supply to a lethal small forward line which has kicked well over 100 goals for the season. It is a big weekend for Beaufort as they also have their reserves in the grand final against Buninyong. The Crows twos are looking for their second premiership in three years and the Bombers are aiming to break a five year premiership drought at reserves level. Their longest break in reserves premierships since 1997.
Saturday is the first time which Beaufort has its seniors and reserves both in a grand final on the same day since 1965, when they were part of the former Lexton FL. The Under 18 and Under 15 grand finals bring together Hepburn and Springbank in each game.
In the Under 18s Hepburn has been dominant all season and quite a few of their team have been strong contributors at senior level during the season. Based upon their performance in a big win in the preliminary final they will need to really slip up to let this flag get away from them. The Under 15 match though shapes as a close encounter with Hepburn defeating the previously undefeated Buninyong last Saturday by three points. Whereas Springbank hung on to win against Learmonth in strong winds on Sunday. Both teams have the potential to win this match and whoever gets the early break will take a great deal of catching.