After 18 rounds and three weeks of finals, the Eastern Ranges and Oakleigh Chargers are the two remaining teams left in the hunt for the 2015 TAC Cup premiership.
Both sides are no stranger to success, having won the last three premierships between them, with Eastern winning in 2013 and Oakleigh tasting success either side of that year, in 2012 and 2014.
Apart from the obvious recent success both sides have had over the last few years, this grand final is particularly interesting for the fact neither side finished in the top four. Much is talked about the importance of the double chance in modern day Australian rules football, but at TAC Cup level, producing four strong weeks at full-strength can snag a flag from anywhere in the eight.
One must spare a thought for the Vic Country sides, holding the top four positions at the end of the home and away season, only for the Murray Bushrangers and Geelong Falcons to be bundled out in straight sets and the North Ballarat Rebels and Dandenong Stingrays to follow suit a week later.
For those unaware of the TAC Cup system, some metropolitan teams, in particular the Oakleigh Chargers and Sandringham Dragons, lose players to the Associated Public Schools (APS) football, with many players who attend illustrious schools on scholarships, meaning APS football takes priority over TAC Cup football.
At the end of the year, those players who have missed a number of games, return to their sides, bolstering the metropolitan sides’ finals chances. This might be one of the reasons we have seen two metropolitan sides make the grand final from outside the top eight.
In saying that, both the Eastern Ranges and Oakleigh Chargers have produced three sensational performances in a row to make it to the grand final and regardless of personnel, they must receive credit for that.
Both sides will have names that will graduate through to AFL ranks at the end of the year, while others will play at state level, for their local club or return to the TAC Cup as an over-age player next year.
In this grand final preview, there will be some key players, big issues and what both sides need to do to win the ultimate prize.
Win/loss ratio: 10-6-1
TAC Cup premierships: Two (2002, 2013)
Coach: Darren Bewick
Captain: Liam Jeffs
How they got here:
EF: defeated Calder Cannons by 34 points.
SF: defeated Geelong Falcons by 54 points.
PF: defeated Dandenong Stingrays by 28 points.
Ryan Clarke – 186 cm, 84 kg, outside midfielder
Ryan Clarke is a name that not many may have heard of prior to this season, but they certainly do now. He burst onto the scene in round one this year and has never looked back. While he had a quieter patch mid-season, he has been back to his blistering best over the finals series, suffering leather poisoning week after week.
Clarke hunts the footy from around the packs and is the player who receives the handball and just runs away from the contest. He will often find space on a wing or drift to half-back, where he can set up Eastern’s ball movement forward. He finished top five in the Morrish Medal, indicating his successful season.
Blake Hardwick – 181 cm, 78 kg, small forward
Blake Hardwick is classified as a small forward by Champion Data due to his 181cm height, but you would be forgiven for thinking he was a third tall type. Hardwick has a sensational vertical leap, leads like a tall forward and is not afraid to leap over a pack when required.
Hardwick has also shown to be unselfish, often too much so at times. Even when in good positions, he’ll pass to a team mate to get him into the game. Hardwick is a reliable kick, however, winning the leading goal kicker award in the TAC Cup this year. While Eastern do not have a dominant tall, Hardwick is the one Ranges players look to when kicking forward.
Bryce Batty – 183 cm, 80 kg, inside midfielder
Bryce Batty is one of those players coaches love, he is not afraid of the hard ball and you know exactly what you are going to get from him each week. Finding him at the bottom of a pack is not uncommon and he knows how to win the football.
While he often might not have the game breaking ability of Ryan Clarke or class of Jordan Gallucci, Bryce Batty is your workhorse in the middle that just racks up clearances and never throws the towel in. A big bodied mid, Batty is the one shovelling it out to the Clarke’s more often than not.
Jordan Gallucci – 182 cm, 73 kg, outside midfielder/small defender
Jordan Gallucci is the Rolls Royce of the team. While Eastern have a number of big bodies who force the ball forward, Gallucci is that smooth mover who rarely wastes a possession and does so much damage off the half-back line.
While Gallucci does not find as much of the ball as his teammates, his pinpoint accuracy and special awareness has made him an important player for the Ranges. He will often drop back into the hole in the backline and pinpoint a target on the wing to set up another attack. He has also shown at times his ability to go into the midfield and win it out of a stoppage with a sidestep and classy kick.
Jack Maibaum – 192 cm, 86 kg, key defender
Jack Maibaum is another name that many might not have heard of, even before this finals series. In the last two weeks he has nullified Geelong’s Charlie Curnow and Dandenong’s Jonathan Freeman, holding both players goalless.
He is a strong one-on-one player and can play on the athletic types, forcing them wide and corralling them into tight angles. His ability to cover space is good and he reads the play well. A spoil-first defender, Maibaum is not eligible to be drafted until next year, so it will be interesting to see how he develops in the next 12 months.
Win/loss ratio: 9-8
TAC Cup premierships: Three (2006, 2012, 2014)
Coach: Mick Stinear
Captain: Ben Crocker
How they got here:
EF: defeated Gippsland Power by 78 points.
SF: defeated Murray Bushrangers by 6 points.
PF: defeated North Ballarat Rebels by 32 points.
Ben Crocker – 185 cm, 81 kg, medium forward
Ben Crocker is an interesting talent. He is that medium forward who has a strong vertical leap, velcro hands and a reliable set shot for goal. His ability to win the ball above his head might remind Oakleigh Chargers fans of Jack Billings a couple of years ago.
Crocker has been a damaging forward this season and while he was not as dominant in the last two weeks, he can pop up, kick a few goals and turn the contest. He is that player who could take the clutch-contested mark and kick the match-winning goal after the siren. A true leader of the football club.
David Cuningham – 183 cm, 79 kg, balanced midfielder
David Cuningham has flown under the radar this season compared to other Vic Metro midfielders, but his finals series has been sensational. He has great burst speed and sees plays before they happen.
A trademark move he has completed a flew times is standing on the outside of his opponent at the centre stoppage and a hitout is knocked in his direction, where he has grabbed it on the run, and not looked back. One particular instance against Murray Bushrangers, he did it in the tight third quarter, kicking a goal from 55 metres out in sensational style.
Jack Firns – 194 cm, 90 kg, key defender
Key Position defenders often do not receive the plaudits that other players around the ground do, but Jack Firns has earned a reputation as a reliable player. He can win one-on-one contests or drop back and set up plays on the last line, he is someone who earned a place at the draft combine for his efforts this season.
In a draft where key position talent is thin at the defensive end in particular (outside the Stingrays), Firns has stood up for the Chargers, getting the job done against quality forwards. He will have another tough task this week against one of the strongest forward lines in the league and will be a key to stopping Eastern in the match.
Tom Phillips – 184 cm, 74 kg, medium utility
Tom Phillips is an underrated player compared to a lot of players in this draft, considering his flexibility and potential. He earned a spot in the TAC Cup Team of the Year and has gone from strength to strength in this finals series.
His most damaging attribute is his ability to play anywhere – half-back, half-forward or through the midfield, just simply getting the job done. He creates off half-back, nails important goals up forward and is someone who can find targets up forward running from the midfield. A big grand final performance should see his stocks rise even further.
Daniel Beddison – 189cm, 80kg, medium defender
Daniel Beddison is an important cog in Oakleigh’s defence, usually the man chopping off intercept passes inside 50 and moving the ball on quickly down the wing. Not a huge ball winner, Beddison does exactly what is required of him: stopping his man and putting the ball to a teammate’s advantage.
Beddison is one of those players who could impress at Etihad, similar to Daniel McKenzie last year and get a big tick from AFL recruiters if he was in the ‘maybe’ box at this stage. He has been a reliable, consistent player and will continue that this weekend.
Blake Hardwick vs. Ben Crocker
Now while these two will not stand side by side at any stage in the grand final, both play a pivotal role in deciding the match. They are their respective sides’ key goal kickers.
Both are strong overhead, reliable set shots and read the play well to present to teammates up the field. Whichever player can have more of an influence on the match could go a long way to deciding the difference between the sides.
Kade Answerth vs. Bryce Batty
Both these warriors just love winning the football and can find a lot of it. They will battle each other so see who can extract the ball from the stoppage and hand it off to their respective outside runners.
Clearances and contested possessions are so important in today’s brand of football, with both these men key players in the midfield and will be expected to get the upperhand in that duel.
Ryan Clarke vs. Tom Phillips
If these two players matched up on each other, it would be a dream come true. Both can play anywhere on the ground, both have a great offensive mindset and both can cause some serious damage to the opposition.
Clarke started up forward a few weeks ago and then played back and on a wing in the last fortnight, while Tom Phillips started back a few weeks ago and has drifted forward on a number of occasions to kick clutch goals when required. For the viewing public, these two going head-to-head, using a Bruce McAvaney term, would be delicious.
Beau Mitchener vs. Michael Wenn
The game starts in the ruck and both these players are more than capable of winning hitouts to advantage. Mitchener had his colours lowered to Mark Kovacevic three weeks ago, but starred against Geelong and nullified star Stingray Gach Nyuon last week.
Wenn has been impressive throughout this finals series, picking up a knock in the first final but did not miss a game and has been important since. Good below his knees for a ruck, Wenn gets across the ground well both up forward and down back.
What do Eastern Ranges need to do to win?
1. Keep doing what their doing.
Eastern Ranges have been sensational the last three weeks, playing sides well above them and by half-time or certainly three quarter time, they have been in positions that have not required much nail-biting.
While Oakleigh are ranked lower than their previous two opponents, there will be no complacency from the Ranges, who will be keen to just get the job done.
If they continue to move the ball well, hit targets up forward and nullify the linkes of Ben Crocker and Tom Phillips, they will be halfway there. Playing four quarters will be the first test as they have not yet done it, despite being in dominant control.
2. Make the most of their chances.
Eastern had its foot on Dandenong’s throat last week but continually failed to stomp, with behind after behind in the third term. When Jacob Weitering booted his second consecutive goal in the final quarter, Dandenong had cut the margin to 20 points.
Eastern should have been about 10 goals up and preparing for next week, but inaccuracy from usually reliable goal kickers gave them headaches and caused them to work more than they needed to in order to ice the game.
Kicking goals when required is a must for them to win, because Oakleigh, like themselves have proven this finals series that they can quick goals in quick succession.
3. Play simple football.
The grand final is no different to any other game and while Etihad Stadium is usually larger than any other grounds they are used to and the crowd is certainly larger than the players are used to, the gamestyle should not change.
Sometimes players and teams are caught out trying to play stylish football in order to impress the recruiters, but often, the simple things work. Pinpoint passes and fierce goal-saving tackles will also be given a bigger tick over a huge mark or miraculous goal, except by the crowd.
Eastern just need to keep it simple and hit up their targets going forward and defend well. If they can use Ryan Clarke off half-back and get the ball into the hands of Jordan Gallucci more often than not, they will be fine. No need to be fancy, just do what you do best.
What do Oakleigh need to do to win?
1. Nullify the Clarkes
While Ryan Clarke’s ability has already been noted in this preview, his brother Dylan is another one who needs to be nullified. He is a strong defender who wins many one-on-one contests but also sets up the play similar to Ryan.
While he does not have the complete flexibility Ryan does, Dylan can move into the midfield, because his athleticism allows him too. Likewise, while he may not be as flashy as Ryan, he does all the one percenters and Oakleigh must be aware of this. Dragging him back to the goal square could be an option, but Eastern are likely to rotate defenders in that instance, with Kane Keppel a more suitable option at full-back, as is Jack Maibaum.
Stopping Dylan is important to reducing the set-up from half-back. Stopping Ryan is critical to slowing the Ranges down and limiting his influence on the contest. If Ryan gets at least 30 possessions, the Ranges will usually win. It’s not his disposal that neccesarily hurts, its his run and carry from half-back to half forward and while he is not an elite kick, he is reliable enough to hit targets.
If the Chargers can stop the Clarke’s, they can reduce the run. Something vital in this contest.
2. Clear out the 50 for Crocker
Oakleigh should play Ben Crocker one-out in the square and open up the 50 similar to what Dandenong Stingrays did with Jacob Weitering against the Ranges last week. While Crocker is not quite as tall or strong one-on-one with a bigger opponent, he will be too quick for them, or too strong for a smaller one.
More importantly, Crocker will win in the air nine times out of 10 and Oakleigh need to allow that to happen with one-on-one contests. Players like Ryan Clarke, Jordan Gallucci and Dylan Clarke will drop back to try and cut his leads off, but Oakleigh need to make sure he benefits from as much one-on-ones as possible.
Harry Thompson is another player who could be used as a one-on-one or decoy forward for Crocker, while taking strong grabs and kicking a couple of goals as a reliable target. Oakleigh have won games without Crocker’s influence, but if Crocker fires, the Chargers are usually in for a good game.
3. Have a man behind the defensive 50 stoppages
Eastern Ranges are arguably the best team for cheap goals. That is not saying they do not deserve the goals, it just means they get to the right spots forward of the contest. If you’re wondering what a cheap goal is, it is usually a dribble ball out of a forward contest when a player has been standing waiting in the square.
Eastern Ranges’ Callum Brown is the absolute king of this. At nearly every forward stoppage, he hunts the offensive side of the pack and the moment his teammates win the ball, he’s off, waiting for a forward handball or for the ball to spill free. Jaidyn Stephenson is another who has benefited from this, but Eastern players are aware they are waiting for it, so they will shovel a handball out forward expecting one of their smaller forwards to swoop on it.
Oakleigh must be aware of this tactic if they are to be any chance. At least three goals last week against Dandenong were scored this way and full credit to the Ranges. When goals are hard to come by, scoring them in any way you can is important. But Oakleigh must be aware of their smalls and stand side by side at every contest. If it’s within 30 metres of their defensive goal, place a player in the goalsquare to ensure there are not any sneaky goals. In a close match, that could be the difference.
What to expect from this game?
This game is likely to be a fast paced game, with both sides wanting to go end-to-end rather quickly, and while sometimes decision making may become dangerous, the way in which they attempt to run and carry will be a delight for the fans.
While both teams set up well in defence, do not be surprised if there are plenty of goals kicked, because both sides are offensive in nature, with the ability to back themselves and their forwards. Surprisingly, neither side has dominant talls, but serviceable ones, led by a smaller brigade of forwards and floating midfielders who achieve the majority of the side’s score.
Predicting the winner of this game is like flipping a coin. Either side could genuinely win it and if it lives up to expectations, the match could finish as a thriller. Right now Eastern Ranges will go in favourites, having completely dominated the games they were not expected to, while Oakleigh have just got the job done each time.
In this match, Eastern are my tip with absolutely no certainty.
Eastern Ranges by one point