St Pauls V East Malvern
Saturday 2 September – Springvale Reserve, 2:30pm
Second Semi Final –
St Pauls 11.9 (75) def East Malvern 9.8 (62)
Round 12 –
St Pauls 8.18 (66) def East Malvern 7.8 (50)
Round 3 –
East Malvern 7.12 (54) St Pauls 14.10 (94)
St Pauls and East Malvern began this year hell-bent on making amends for the disappointing conclusion to their 2017 campaigns.
And by 5:00pm on Saturday, one of these two sides will have earned the ultimate redemption as they stand on the dais with the 2018 Division 1 Senior premiership cup held proudly aloft.
The Doggies and the Panthers have proven themselves to be the two best teams in the Southern league this year, and the stage is set for an epic Grand Final – a fitting conclusion to what has been an enthralling Division 1 season.
For East Malvern, Saturday will be their first appearance on the SFNL’s biggest stage, with the club chasing its first piece of silverware since its 2012 Division 2 Senior premiership.
It has a been a dream start to life as senior coach for Nathan Robinson, who assumed the reins following the off-season departure of Ben Lockwood, and the 28-year-old midfield star has from day one held the belief that his side could achieve success.
“I know internally in the group there was a lot of growth, because I think a lot of guys underperformed last year. And although some of the recruits we picked up weren’t well noted, I knew they would bring something to the group and play a role that we needed,” Robinson said.
“So we always had high expectations internally, but obviously the collective but-in from the whole playing group has been phenomenal, so I couldn’t have asked for any more from them really.”
St Pauls, meanwhile, are no strangers to Division 1 Grand Final Day, having been there eight times since 2000. Its last three trips to the big dance have all resulted in premierships – its most recent in 2013 – and no doubt this proud club would be keen to keep this streak going.
They are perfectly placed to do so, having finished the home and away season as minor premiers, three matches clear of the second-placed Panthers, and earned instant qualification into the decider on the back of their hard-fought Second Semi Final victory over Saturday’s opponent.
And having two of the last three weeks off has been a god’s send from a list management perspective, according to coach Jason Heffernan.
“The two weeks has been a blessing, the boys should be absolutely primed which is all you can hope for,” Heffernan revealed.
"You come out of that (East Malvern) game and you have a couple of sore boys and a couple that didn’t see out the game, and you take a deep breath and feel good that they have that week to recover and then a week to train.”
Despite playing three tough finals over the duration, East Malvern will, like St Pauls, head into Saturday with a full and healthy list to choose from – a far cry from previous seasons.
Forward Xavier Linton missed the Preliminary Final with soreness, but Robinson remains confident he will reclaim his spot in the line-up for the Grand Final.
And both sides at full strength will mean a cracking contest between two teams that on their day play a highly entertaining brand of footy.
Each side has plenty of talent on every line, but it is through the centre where the game will be won and lost on Saturday.
St Pauls’ young guns were physically overwhelmed by more mature and experienced sides during the 2017 finals series, and the return of 2013 premiership player Matt Herbstreit has certainly bolstered the side’s strength in the trenches. In tandem with Brad Gilder, the duo’s ability to win the hard ball ensured the side has had a much harder edge in 2018.
The likes of skipper Kieran Knox, Sandringham VFL-listed Lachie Butler, former Seaford jet Curtis Murfett and the explosive Carl Herbstreit all add star quality to the line-up, but it’s not just their prowess with the footy that impresses; the defensive work rate and tackling pressure of this side is second to none and will take them a long way in a Grand Final.
On the flip side, East Malvern’s on-ball brigade is perhaps the envy of every other team in the comp. Littered with a plethora of superstars including Luke Duffy, Ryan Mullett, Steve Brewer, Mark Tyrell and Robinson, it is as formidable a group as you will find.
As two of the most decorated and experience players in the League, three-time EFL Chandler medallist Mullett and former Port Melbourne premiership player Brewer loom as the two players that could have the biggest impact on the big stage.
Ruckman Chris Carey is universally regarded as one of the most dominant players in the competition, and after starring in the SFNL Interleague and Vic Metro sides, he then played several VFL games at Port mid-year, where his presence was sorely missed by the Panthers.
If he can feed it down his midfielders’ throats and give them first use, East Malvern will go a long way to winning the game. As such, St Pauls duo Nick Halliday and Paul Booth have a big job to do, trying to lessen his aerial influence.
But Robinson identified his bolstered backline as one of the main reasons behind its improvement this season.
And the stats don’t lie. In its wins this season, East Malvern have conceded a miserly average of just 44 points per game, with Luke Poustie, Lucas Hall, Dylan Morton and co-captain Nic Barry leading the way.
And they need to be at the top of their game this week to stop the twin forward threats of the dynamic Matt Kreymborg and spearhead Steve Muller. Between them, they have slotted 98 goals for the season, and 17 in three games against the Panthers, however, the concern is that St Pauls can be a bit predictable going forward, which could make it easy to defend.
That said, being able to stop these two jets is no easy feat.
East Malvern, meanwhile, have been able to spread their scoring load a lot more this season, with plenty of versatile scoring options. Linton, Hall, Alex Hywood, Marc Lonergan and Jack Hammond have all been noted goal kickers on their day, with the midfield also pushing forward to impact the scoreboard.
The Doggies, back six, which includes SFNL Interleague defender Will Clarke, Port Melbourne-listed Alex Spencer and 2013 premiership player Christian McCarthy, is well equipped to handle any challenge.
But there a plenty of similarities between the two sides too, which makes them hard to split. Both the Dogs and the Panthers employ a similar attacking game style, as they utilise their skills and outside run to move the ball quickly, take the game on and go forward with purpose. It’s a high risk, high reward game plan that has paid handsome dividends throughout the season.
They are both young sides that are very well coached and well drilled, and both Heffernan and Robinson will be hoping for even contributions from the entire team, with every single one of their 22 playing their role, executing the basics and impacting the contest.
Experience goes a long way in Grand Finals and being able to stand up in the big moments is key. East Malvern, despite featuring 12 players under the age of 21, has plenty of finals and premiership experience within its group of senior players, which could be a telling factor on Saturday.
However, don’t discredit the hunger, commitment and drive of this St Pauls side, most of which have personal points to prove. According to Heffernan, the overwhelming majority of the 22 are former St Pauls juniors or Under 19 players, so they are acutely aware of the sustained success the club has enjoyed over the years and driven to restore the Doggies to their former glory.
The recent head to head to head record makes for grim reading for Panthers fans, with St Pauls saluting in it last five encounters. In fact, Heffernan is yet to be bested by East Malvern in his time at the helm.
However, Robinson is not overly concerned by the trend.
“Each game is on its merits, and realistically we haven’t beaten them this year but you’ve only gotta beat ‘em once and this Saturday’s the most important game of the year,” Robinson said.
“(Heffernan’s) a great coach, they are well structured, they are a well drilled team, and look we are going to have to bring our best to beat them on Saturday, but I give us every chance.”
Similarly, Heffernan believes that while his side’s best footy can win the game, the result will largely be dictated by what goes on between the players’ ears, and whether or not his charges turn up to play.
“I’d just like our boys to think their best is good enough… but on any day, let alone a grand final you have to go and perform. But it gives me a good feeling knowing that if we turn up to play our brand of footy, we should be ok,” Heffernan said.
“That’s the exciting part about it I think from a coaching perspective, we’ve done all we can – (the players) bring your heads screwed on the right way this weekend and you give yourself a great opportunity.”
As with all Grand Finals, whichever side settles first, gets off to a good start and puts scores on the board early will go a long way to winning the game. This will be of a particular focus for the Panthers, given they conceded seven of the first nine goals in the recent Semi Final.
St Pauls have been the benchmark team all season and appear primed to reclaim its crown as Division 1 Senior premiers, however, the powerful East Malvern will certainly make them work for it in what will be a blockbuster Grand Final.
St Pauls by 12 points.