By Russell Bennett
The scenes at Gembrook last time the hometown Brookers faced off against neighbouring rival Emerald were, simply, unprecedented.
Just days earlier, on 30 June, the local community was rocked by the tragic loss of three young lives – Sharn Walker, Jason Breakwell, and Felisha Allen – in a horror Avonsleigh crash.
In an incredible coincidence, the Brookers and the Bombers were fixtured to play on 4 July.
Instead of calling the clash off, the two clubs came together in one of the community’s darkest hours and wrapped their arms around each other – figuratively, and literally.
It was about so much more than football and netball, and that day’s clashes – then in Division 2 of what is now the AFL Yarra Ranges competition – proved it.
What happens on the field or on the court fades into insignificance at times like those, but sport itself can offer an outlet for binding a whole community together in its darkest hour and provide an overwhelming amount of support for those doing it so tough.
After Gembrook Cockatoo defeated Emerald by just three points in the wet, every Brookers and Bombers player stood arm-in-arm next to an opponent or an opposition club person – forming a ring around the centre circle.
Caillin Porter’s side had just lost the hard-fought contest, but his words in that huddle summed up the underlying respect between the two clubs perfectly.
“The one thing I want to hear is Gembrook going in and singing their song, and I want to make sure it’s loud,” he said.
“We’re here to celebrate this game we play, and we’re here to celebrate each other.
“We’ve spent our time in silence, and Gembrook has every right to sing that song loud, and with passion.”
This rivalry isn’t fabricated. It’s genuine. It stems from schoolyard friends at Gembrook, Cockatoo, or Emerald primary school – and later Emerald Secondary College – shaping up to each other on field and on court with pride on a Saturday, and earning bragging rights for the following week in the classroom.
As much as the two clubs don’t get along on-field, they’re made up from the same community off it. They’re rivals, and they’re mates, and that’s what makes every single encounter between them so intriguing. The players on-field and on-court come and go, but those club people who bleed Brooker green or Bomber red and black remain.
This Saturday, as part of the Anzac Round, is the first contest between the two clubs back in Division 1, after the Brookers won a memorable Division 2 flag last year.
Brookers coach Matt O’Neil can’t wait for the game, and is expecting a bumper crowd at Gembrook.
After a less than ideal pre-season numbers-wise, the Brookers will look to kick-start their 2017 campaign against the Bombers in the wake of a heavy Round 1 defeat to a powerhouse Healesville side. Emerald, meanwhile, will be looking to capitalise on its impressive first-up win over Monbulk.
The Brookers went in to their game against Healesville as a distinctly younger group than that which won the 2016 Division 2 flag. They had well in excess of half a dozen fresh faces, who’re again set to line up this week.
Matt Templeton, Mitch Freeman, Dean Smith, and Darcy Williams all debuted on Saturday, while Sean Gramc played his first game for the Brookers alongside his brother Paul.
The Brookers are hell-bent on not dropping straight back to Division 2 and will potentially have Adam Mitchell and James McLean-Brunton return this week. The likes of Nathan Leversha and Luke Frazzetto, meanwhile, will return from long-term knee injuries by mid-year.
O’Neil said his side was aiming for a fiercely-contested first term, which the Brookers hope will catapult them to victory.
“But they played really well against Monbulk,” O’Neil said.
“They’ve got a lot of tough, young kids and they’re meant to be one of the up and coming sides of the competition.
“There’s plenty of hype around them but we made a bit of a name on winning close games last year and we’ll show plenty of spirit on Saturday.”
Ricky Causer, Dan Leversha, Daniel Welsh, and Riley Wilson are just some of the key Brookers to watch this season as the side improves its fitness base.
The opening bounce of the senior game on Saturday at Gembrook is just after 2pm.