By Will Hunter
The Southern Football Netball League are celebrating their second consecutive Senior Interleague title after defeating Central Highlands Football League in a four-point thriller at Marriott Waters Reserve on Saturday.
On the back of last year’s drought-breaking victory over Ellinbank, the SFNL entered the 2017 Worksafe AFL Victoria Community Championships confident of improving upon their 23rd state-wide ranking with victory over the Highlanders.
However, they didn’t have it all their own way, and came from behind at the final change to grind out a hard-fought 9.6 (60) to 8.8 (56) victory in a nail-biting, albeit scrappy last quarter.
It was largely a game of two distinct halves, with the Southern boys producing some scintillating football in the early stages before it became a war of attrition after the main break.
Speaking on The 5th Quarter on Sunday morning, coach Ben Lockwood said he was thrilled with the result, but was equally full of praise for the tenacity of the visitors.
“Yeah absolutely (happy with the result). Probably wasn’t the greatest game to watch, especially after half time. (CHFL) really came to play after half time and really locked us down,” Lockwood said.
“They probably tagged three or four of our prime movers after half time.
“Unlike generally Interleague footy, which is usually pretty free-flowing, they really tried to shut us down. All credit to them, they were really good after half time, probably the better side after half time.”
Southern made early inroads, with Dingo Dan Farmer commencing proceedings with two goals to give them the early break, but Central Highlands then hit back with a couple of their own to ensure it was a three-point ball game at quarter time.
The second term saw the hosts really asserted their dominance, with wingers Lucas Walmsley and Josh Ferguson among several players to exert an influence. The pair managed to break free from the chain and were simply brilliant, winning plenty of the footy on the outside.
Southern’s slick ball use through the midfield provided plenty of scoring opportunities up forward. Walmsley and Jimmy Dowling were the main beneficiaries, booting two goals each to extend the SFNL’s lead to 13 points at the main break.
Arguably, this lead should have been greater, such was Southern’s dominance around the contests.
But just when it looked like a case of how far Southern, the Central Highlands boys sprung in to action in the third term, putting the clamps on a number of SFNL stars.
Taking full advantage of this momentum shift, the Highlanders booted three goals to one to overrun the home side.
After such a brilliant first half, it appeared the SFNL had stopped to a walk. They lacked the accountability, defensive running and pressure and hardness at the contest that was such a feature of their game in the opening half.
Consequently, the hosts found themselves seven points adrift heading into the last quarter and needed a spark to get them out of their rut.
Enter classy forward Farmer, who produced two minutes of magic to help Southern pinch back the lead early in the term. The second of his two goals was perhaps the highlight of the day, as he swooped on a loose ball and curled back a perfectly struck banana from 45 metres out to send the SFNL crowd into raptures.
The final 15 minutes were a scrappy affair with the ball constantly rebounding between the arcs.
Central Highlands fought hard to force the ball forward on multiple occasions late in the match, but time and again captain Andrew Frost proved the saviour. His ability to provide a timely fist to the high ball thwarted many CHFL forward entries, allowing runners like Ferguson and Rob Rusan to clear the ball out of defence.
The siren sounded at the 22-minute mark of the final term, with Southern holding on for a memorable four-point victory.
Lockwood was full of praise for his charges and the way they responded to the challenge late in the game.
“I think walking into the rooms at half time we should probably have been about four or five goals in front. We were really good in the first half, and then our character in the last quarter when we got headed was fantastic, and it was really player driven,” Lockwood said.
Walmsley was the clear winner of the best on ground medallion, producing a sublime performance that included three crucial goals. His speed was electrifying and had the ball on a string, particularly in the first half.
However, there were several other valuable contributors through the Southern midfield, including Ferguson, Rusan, Dowling, Chris Horton-Milne and Nathan Robinson.
Farmer proved the difference in attack, finishing with a game-high four goals, including the match-winner. He presented well all day, and contributed higher up the ground when pushed into the midfield.
Captain Frost was a pillar of strength in defence, notching several strong intercept marks and constantly spoiling marking opportunities for the Central Highlands forwards, while big Matt Terech cut an imposing figure in the ruck for most of the afternoon.
The win sees the Southern League move up to 22nd in AFL Victoria’s official rankings, and sets up a likely away clash with Heathcote & District FL next year.