By Russell Bennett

Though 2017 marks the return of the West Gippsland name into local footy circles, Saturday of last week marked the dawn of a new era – one where the majority of the best players from two former competitions have come together under the one interleague umbrella.
Not all the big names were available on the Saturday for the WGFNC’s showdown against Riddell and District at Macedon, and that was for a wide range of different reasons. Indeed, it’s the case with any interleague team across Victoria.
But what made that day so unique – and the weeks building up to it – was that it ushered in a new culture, one shaped by some of the best leaders anywhere in Gippsland footy.
Tom McQualter took the reins as senior coach of the WGFNC despite never having coached a senior side in his own right.
But his footy experience, across a range of different levels throughout Gippsland, speaks for itself – as does his roles with ‘TMCQ’ and ‘The Leadership Conservatory’. His day job is quite literally in leading leaders, and his passion for developing people and organisations guides him.
That made him the perfect person this year to bring together a group of more than 30 people – including players, coaches, and support staff – from across West Gippsland and have them working together as one for the first time.
Some of them didn’t know each other’s names. Many of them had never met. Most of them didn’t know a single thing about each other except for the clubs they belonged to and the colours they wore.
Yet along with his assistant coaches, Ben Soumilas from Inverloch-Kongwak and David Main from Cora Lynn, he got them reading off the same playbook and willing to genuinely work and care for each other.
It started with the first training session out at Beswick Street in Garfield.
Of course, many players from the initial nomination list weren’t there, but those who did attend were treated to a masterclass in teamwork.
Soumilas and Main are two of the – if not the two most – respected coaches involved in the WGFNC.
Soumilas’ reputation has been forged over a long period of time at the helm of a range of different sides, and in different leagues – including the original West Gippsland. When this school teacher talks, people – particularly young people – listen. He’s got an obvious way of relating to each and every person he talks with.
Main took over the senior coaching role at Cora Lynn from former mentor Travis Marsham at the end of 2015 and in many ways he was on a hiding to nothing. He’d taken on a group that had won two straight premierships and the expectation was they’d pull off the three-peat. It was more than an expectation – it was an assumption. But Main excelled under the pressure. Running the same gamut of emotions and experiences that any leader of men – specifically a football coach – would experience, Main led the Cobras to a memorable premiership last year. This year marks a new challenge, and he’s tackled it head-on with a new-look Cobra group.
The professionalism of both he and Soumilas in setting up many of the interleague training drills at sessions at Garfield, Korumburra, and Cora Lynn in the past couple of weeks was obvious. But so too were their ability to relate to players they’d never spoken with, and to follow a leader – in McQualter – who’d never led them.
Before the group had even kicked a footy in a drill, the players were put to the test – asked why they should be selected in the final side.
Then, as the sessions progressed, at the end of specific drills, they were asked seemingly random questions – like singing a line from a favourite song, or performing a go-to dance move. It sounds strange on the face of it, but it these were devices clearly designed to break down barriers and awkwardness between players who’d built up walls as opponents previously.
Jaymie Youle was ultimately chosen as the skipper of this year’s senior side, and that was done by a player vote on the night before the game. At that point, each member of the final group had got to know his team-mates enough to make an informed decision on who’d be their best leaders.
Youle was named skipper for the fourth time in as many interleague campaigns (the past three with Alberton), while three-time Cora Lynn skipper Tim Payne was named his deputy.
Following the game, Youle admitted there was a strange feeling of ‘us versus them’ between the former Alberton and Ellinbank league players who made up the group. They were out to prove themselves, and in the past they were out to show which league was best. It wasn’t all that long ago that Alberton and Ellinbank went head to head at interleague level.
But over the sessions leading into last week’s game, that feeling was eased completely.
How? By working together in smaller, combined groups to achieve one common goal.
The senior group stayed together at the Mantra Hotel in Tullamarine the night before the game.
After disembarking the bus, they headed straight to the hotel’s conference room for more team-building and a team dinner. The players, coaches, and support staff were split into groups – competing against each other in a variety of tasks. Each group was made up of a range of players from a range of clubs and backgrounds. The first task was to build a self-standing structure out of nothing but tape, uncooked spaghetti, and marshmallows. That was followed by a player from each team tasked with holding a hoola-hoop above his head, spinning around, and – with no hands – drinking a cup of water out of a straw.
Soon after … ‘two truths and a lie’ – where a representative from each team had to tell the room two truths and a lie about himself. The task was to guess which anecdote was the lie.
Isolated, all of these tasks from throughout the training sessions and the team building night at the Mantra would seem a little odd, but together they formed the basis of a new culture – one that would remain in coming years as other players join the WGFNC interleague fold.
Though West Gippsland lost to Riddell, the boys who represented both the junior and senior sides showed what can be achieved under a spirit of mateship and genuine teamwork.

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