By Matt Fotia
They kicked off the AFL Outer East era almost six months ago, and this Friday they close off the first chapter in the new leagues history with one of the more highly anticipated Grand Finals in recent memory.
Berwick watched on last weekend as Narre Warren and Beaconsfield went to battle for the final spot in the decider, after the Wickers overcame Narre Warren the week before to book their place.
It’s nothing new for this Berwick group who had been to four straight Grand Finals before the start of the 2019 season, having won the 2015, 2017 and 2018 versions of the SEFNL, with Cranbourne spoiling a possible four-peat back in 2016.
Returning coach Rhys Nisbet says whilst the whole experience of Grand Final week is nothing different for his group, the excitement levels don’t change.
“It is exciting, definitely exciting, I suppose it’s a lot different because you know what you’re in for and I suppose for myself, it’s not about spending time educating the guys on it,”
“They know what they’re in for, so I can concentrate on our structures and drilling home those familiar messages.”
It’s been an interesting year for Nisbet.
The Wickers scraped home against Narre Warren in the season opener, they went down to Wandin on their first trip up the mountain in an end to end thriller, before going on an extended run of 13 wins and one loss, with Cranbourne the only other side to inflict defeat upon them this year.
They’ve done all of this as rumours swirl about the club’s whereabouts for next season.
Nisbet has kept his and his players noses out of all of that white noise and has kept them focused on the task ahead week after week.
“I certainly haven’t addressed them (rumours) with the playing group, we’ve just concentrated on each week and the opposition that we’ve come up against,”
“I’ve really enjoyed the challenges against the new sides and we’ve really enjoyed meeting the new people,”
“(The talk about moves) is a lot of external noise and the players don’t focus on that at all.”
Whilst this season has thrown up unfamiliar challenges, this weekends opponent won’t be new to the Wickers.
They’ve only played two games in the past month, having earned a week off at the end of the season as the minor premier and after winning the second semi final a fortnight ago.
Both of those games have been against Narre Warren, a side Berwick have watched closely all season, but Nisbet remains wary of the Magpies, who no doubt have some cards left to play.
“There were positional changes (throughout their encounters), but I think their set-ups remain very similar,”
“They may have different things that they’ll roll out this weekend, we’ve kept a pretty close eye on them, but they’ll have something up their sleeve, so we expect the unexpected.”
All that being said about their opponents, Nisbet and Berwick will be concentrating on what they can do, to get their hands on the premiership cup at the Magpies expense once again.
“We’re concentrating on ourselves, it’s important that we get out game going as much as anything,”
“Our defensive pressure is our main focus and if we can get that right, that’ll hopefully shut down their momentum – which they’ve gained in each game that we’ve played them.”
“It’s a hard thing to do, beat a side four times in one season, in a row,”
“We’ve got great respect for Narre Warren, they had a rich vein of success through the mid to late 2000’s (Narre Warren won six premierships from 2006 to 2013), so they’re a very experienced club at this time of the year as well.”
Narre Warren showed their late season experience on the weekend when they ran over the top of a youthful Beaconsfield side at Healesville.
The Magpies travelled out to the Don Road Sporting Complex together, and the weather was looking ominous the whole way there, with strong winds and threatening rain.
Magpies coach Matt Shinners was pleased with his sides efforts in the first quarter as the Eagles took advantage of the wind at their backs.
“It pissed down rain all the way up there, but by the time our game kicked off, there was a nice strong breeze to one end – which they (Beaconsfield) capitalised on – but we got three against it which I was comfortable with,”
Narre Warren struggled to find their best football for the majority of the first half but found something resembling form at back end of the second quarter, to take a three point lead in at halftime.
They then blew the Eagles away in the third quarter managing four goals to two into the breeze and set up the 24 point win. Vice captain Trent Cody booted four goals from the midfield, whilst Mitchell Cox also kicked four, in a timely return to form.
“It was really good for Mitch to play well because his last three weeks haven’t been to his standard, so for him to get his fair share of the footy was good,”
“But we had 22 really good contributors on the weekend, we had to tinker a bit because Meyer was dominating in the ruck, but our third quarter was really good and to go in at three quarter time three goals up despite being against the breeze was fantastic.”
It wasn’t all roses for the Magpies however, with the short turnaround meaning winger Matt Soroczynski will likely miss the decider, after he suffered a hamstring strain in the weekends win over Beaconsfield.
Shinners is disappointed for the Magpies number 19, but hopes the player who takes his spot comes in with the right attitude, something he knows his side will need if they’re to cause an upset.
“There’s going to be one unfortunate player and one fortunate player who gets an opportunity,”
“But when you play a side like Berwick, who are well seasoned, we’ve got to come out with a good positive attitude,”
“And we did that a fortnight ago, but we weren’t able to put enough scoreboard pressure on them, so they were still in the game,”
“If you’re a coach in Berwick’s situation (that day), you go – they’ve had plenty of the ball, but we’re only two goals down and that’s nothing,”
“We kicked a lot better on the weekend though, so hopefully we bring that with us on Friday.”
Shinners is proud of his playing group nonetheless, with the level of togetherness they’ve displayed this season one of the things that he cherishes most, even if they are trying to take each other’s spot.
“The club is in a good position,”
“The camaraderie and closeness of the whole group, both seconds and seniors, is really good and it’s been a lot more competitive with blokes trying to get a game, so there’s always pressure on blokes to perform,”
“I just like the young blokes and their enthusiasm.”
“They have a crack and they listen – you know these blokes are prepared to listen and want to be a lot better than what they are.”
Should his side finally get one over their nemesis on Friday, Shinners believes it could set the club up for years to come.
“It’s the pinnacle of anyone’s coaching aspirations that you can get a group up to experience that (a premiership), some of my boys have been there before but we’ve got so many boys that haven’t,”
“And this could kick-start the next four or five years for them.”
Leo Groenewegen – Berwick by 12 points
The Wickers have too many experienced heads on the field and will just have enough to see off the Magpies once again – in a classic.
BOG – Ash Smith (Berwick)
Matt Fotia – Narre Warren by 7 points
This rivalry strikes me as the Cats v Hawks. The Cats keep pulling the rabbit out of the hat against a pretty good Hawks side. But eventually the Hawks get that win and go on a fairly successful run. I’ve got a feeling that starts today for Narre Warren.
BOG – Trent Cody (Narre Warren)
MR X – Berwick by 6 points after Extra Time
We’ve gone close to having extra time and I think this time we will get it. Travis Tuck to kick the winner from a fair way out too.
BOG – Madison Andrews (Berwick)