By Russell Bennett
More than almost any other sport, footy has a real sense of theatre.
Inverloch Kongwak coach Ben Soumilas and younger brother Andy both played pivotal roles in the last game of the former West Gippsland-La Trobe Football League at Cora Lynn back in 2004. That day, they were wearing Garfield colours as the Stars – coached by Ben – defeated Warragul by five goals in the Western Division grand final.
On Saturday night, the Soumilas boys were back at Cora Lynn – this time in the gold, white and blue of Inverloch – for the first game of the new era of West Gippsland footy… the West Gippsland Football Netball Competition.
And the Sea Eagles made it a night to remember, toppling the three-time reigning premiers of the Ellinbank league, the Cobras, by six goals – 15.11 (101) to 9.11 (65) in front of a massive crowd.
It was the first community footy game played for four premiership points anywhere in Victoria this season, and the fans came from far and wide to soak it in. What they saw was a performance sure to put the league – at least in the early rounds – on notice.
In the stifling conditions, it was the visiting Inverloch that settled first – taking a 16-point lead into the first change. The Sea Eagles’ forwards had plenty of space to work into, and their elusive – and super fit – midfield gave them plenty of quality inside-50s to work with.
New Cobras ruckman Billy Thomas was outstanding in the centre for the home side and will clearly benefit from the changes to the third man up rule, but the Inverloch mids were just that much cleaner and more decisive – particularly by foot.
They backed their high-pressure game from the start, and knew any lapses could well see the powerful Cobras storm over the top of them.
But the Sea Eagles had what looked to be a clear fitness advantage – led by the evergreen and chiseled Andy Soumilas, former Gippsland League star Shem Hawking, Josh Purcell, and Toby Mahoney – who was lethal forward of the centre with five goals.
The Cobras knew they needed to boost their two-way running after being shocked to life in the first quarter but they found themselves desperately low on bench rotations after a hip injury to star on-baller Nathan Gillis, followed later by a knee complaint for Rylan Smith, and a nasty concussion suffered under friendly fire in the goal square by Nick Helsby.
The game was delayed as Helsby – who, in the opening term, slotted the first goal in West Gippsland’s new era – was taken from the field in the second, and later taken by ambulance to hospital. It’s believed he’s battling a skull fracture and punctured eardrum.
The visitors capitalised and, although they only led by 11 points at the main break, the margin seemed much bigger in reality.
The Cobras stormed back in the third as Ryan Spierings showed his class through the midfield and skipper Tim Payne stood tall down back. Doveton recruit Andrew Green also had a huge impact, as did Chris Johnson, and Nathan Langley (despite being wayward in front of goal).
But just cramp started to take hold of the Cobras, the Sea Eagles switched it up a gear. A brilliant set shot goal from Dan Houston hard up against the boundary after the three-quarter time siren ensured his side retained the momentum heading into the last.
The vast majority of their seven final quarter goals stemmed directly from stoppages.
“Look at the difference in how we ran the game out compared to them,” Ben Soumilas said in the packed Inverloch rooms after the game.
“We feel we haven’t had the greatest pre (season) but our key players have prepared their bodies so well.
“They’ll learn so much from this tonight and they’ll come back with a vengeance.
“There’s no risk of us becoming complacent because they’ll be coming for us.
“We play in a competition now where you can not take the foot off.”
Later, Soumilas told the Gazette just how his side approached the game.
“We felt as though they thought we might not be able to keep the pressure up for four quarters, so we were really committed to playing a four-quarter game of the way we play,” he said.
“That meant you couldn’t come out and play two good quarters of pressure footy because they were waiting for us to stop.
“It was critical for us to come out in the second half and continue it because when you’ve got those flat periods in a game where no one is doing anything much, and you’re put under the pump a bit, we were able to fight again.
“I was just really happy we could keep responding because focused on it.
“I felt that, either way, if either side wins by four goals, that’s no big deal because it lets you know you’re still around the mark. For us it’s more about knowing we’re around the mark. For them it’s not – they’re the top dogs.
“If the margin is within six goals though, you probably have to scratch your head and think there’s a bit of work to do.
“We know it’s only Round 1. We totally respect them and this won’t really matter other than knowing we’ve now woken the sleeping giant. We bank the four points, but it doesn’t mean we have an advantage for the year.
“The whole thing with this competition is that if you’re not on, you’ll lose.”
Lastly, in a hell of a night for symmetry for the Sea Eagles, Jarvis Pryor and Lachlan Scott both made their senior debuts on Saturday night – 29 years after their fathers Brendan and Pete did.
Click below for video of the boys from Inverloch Kongwak belting out their famous song…