Brilliance of the ‘Baby Cobras’

Ryan Spierings is congratulated after his goal by fellow Cobras youngster Chase Blackwood on Sunday at Inverloch. 184499 Picture: STEWART CHAMBERS



By Russell Bennett

The twists and turns of a remarkable second season of the West Gippsland Football Netball Competition continued on Sunday as the reigning premier was stunningly bundled out on home soil in the elimination final.

It was a 2017 grand final rematch on paper, but in reality this clash between Inverloch Kongwak and Cora Lynn was anything but – with six ‘Baby Cobras’ playing their first ever senior footy final.

But whether it was lead-by-example skipper Tim Payne readying himself for his 31st senior final for Cora Lynn (having not missed one in 13 years), or Ryan Spierings, Tom Stiglich, Chase Blackwood, Tristan Fernandez-Phillips, Brendan Pullen, Darcy Jones preparing to play their first – there was that familiar confident vibe surrounding the group, the kind of confidence that has seen Cora Lynn into a grand final every year since 2014.

This wasn’t a side haunted by the ghosts of last year’s 95-point grand final loss. It looked every bit a side hell-bent on creating its own piece of history.

The win-loss ledger was firmly the Sea Eagles’ way prior to Sunday, with five wins and just one loss from their six previous encounters.

But that loss was from their most recent clash, and that’s what buoyed David Main’s group.

Their confidence in being able to get the job done and stun the competition wasn’t misguided or naïve – it came from a place very, very real.

“The expectation among this group is completely different to the expectations that everyone else has of us,” Payne reminded his side as they prepared to step out on to the ground to meet their fate.

“Our expectation is that we win every game we play, and if we work hard enough we’ll be good enough.”

Former champion spearhead Ryan Gillis – still a genuine heart-and-soul figure of the club – stood front and centre as this new Cora Lynn group left the rooms. Right there with him was Brady White – the tough-as-nails midfielder who embodies a genuine team-first ethos. White was missing through a soft tissue injury, but took his place in the coaches’ box for the day.

Again, on paper, that was another factor working against the Cobras – an already young group (with an average age of less than 21) facing the Sea Eagles without one of their most experienced, calm and collected heads.

But it was clear from the early going that these young players feared no one.

Despite star Inverloch forward Toby Mahoney kicking truly in the opening minute of the game, it was the Cobras who made more of an impact through their attack on the contest.

Ruckman Billy Thomas set the tone in the middle – not afraid to throw his weight around – while AFL draft prospect Heath Briggs shone both in and around the contest.

Fresh off a best and fairest-winning season in Haileybury’s successful 2018 APS campaign, Briggs was nothing short of brilliant. In trying, wintry conditions, his ability to break the lines was instrumental – likewise Jeremy Monckton out wide, while Chris Johnson continued his breakout campaign right in the heart of the engine room.

It was the Sea Eagles who made uncharacteristic errors. It was the Sea Eagles who seemed panicked. And it was the Sea Eagles were out of answers, right when they needed them most.

An avalanche of forward 50 entries didn’t manifest in scoreboard pressure for the visitors, but they did lead by a point at quarter-time. It wasn’t the margin that was significant, it was how the Cobras were playing – steadying down back with intercept mark after intercept mark through the likes of Shaun Sparks and Payne, and moving forward relentlessly through composed and positive ball movement.

Ben Soumilas was his usual positive self in the quarter-time huddle – with his side just a point down despite kicking against the breeze. Though the execution was at times awry, the intent was there.

But Payne’s co-captain Jackson Dalton (three goals) proved every bit the genuine game breaker – particularly from that point on.

His explosive repeat leads from inside forward 50 to around 60 metres from goal typified the enthusiasm of the group that was fueled by the efforts of some of its least experienced members – such as Pullen.

Though the Sea Eagles led by five points at the half, a fired-up Soumilas knew the task in front of his group – the Sea Eagles had to apply more physical pressure, and they had to make their possessions forward of centre count. More than that – they had to be smarter.

They’d given the Cobras a sniff, and that was all the visitors needed.

In a low-scoring clash, they were brilliant in the third – booting four unanswered majors in the final 20 minutes of the term.

Two of Dalton’s goals – the first from 50 after a tackle leading to a holding the ball free kick – were particularly telling.

The Sea Eagles had the better of a tense, low-scoring thriller of a final term but their two unanswered goals weren’t enough to snare the win. The benchmark of the competition’s first two seasons had been matched, with the Cobras snaring a famous seven-point win – 6.9 (45) to a wayward 4.14 (38).

An emotional Cobras coach Dave Main embraced each and every one of his players individually following the win – a reaction befitting the result, given this is a ‘rebuilding’ year for his side. Maybe, just maybe the build for their next era of success has taken just 12 months – knowing that potential recruits would stand up and take real notice of what the side has already managed to accomplish this finals series, and the vast majority of this year’s group has already re-signed for next year.

“Coming into this game knowing we won last time, that gave us that belief and realisation that what happened last year (the grand final loss) was in the past,” Main told the Gazette after the game.
“This is a completely new group and it’s writing its own history.

“I thought they (Inverloch) settled better than us early – it took us five to seven minutes to get into the game – but we were consistent for four quarters with our pressure, which is probably something we’ve lacked all year.

“At the end of the game they came at us and had a lot of momentum and ball in their forward 50 – we had to shut it out and close the game out, which we did unbelievably.

“Like most sides, they set up their drive from the half-back line and if one guy got out we had a big emphasis in closing down where the ball was going to next. That was really pleasing today – instead of them kicking it, we forced them into handballs and that’s when we pounced.”

While the Cobras lost rising star key defender Rylan Smith in the second quarter with what proved to be a broken hand, Sea Eagles star – and reigning league best-and-fairest – Andy Soumilas was well below his best physically throughout the clash and spent significant time inside forward 50.

Following the clash, reigning premiership coach Ben Soumilas – one of the most respected figures anywhere in Gippsland footy – announced he was stepping down from the Inverloch helm. Perhaps now it’s the dawning of their own new era.


Click below to watch the Cobras belt out their song following their elimination final win: