By Nick Creely
Beaconsfield coach Leigh McQuillen knew that his group were left in a tricky spot with a quarter left to play and a potential straight-sets exit on the cards when he addressed his group at the final huddle at AJ Robinson Reserve on Saturday.
Facing up against a tricky opposition in Cranbourne – who has bounced back admirably to really make a splash this AFL Outer East Premier Division finals series after being ravaged by injuries at stages this season – McQuillen knew his Eagles needed to dig deep to advance through to a preliminary final.
And with all to play for after falling to a three-goal deficit in the early stages of the final term, the Eagles found an extra gear, pulling away in a dominant final term to set up a crunch final against Narre Warren this Saturday, 10.18 (78) to 9.9 (63).
With a slight sense of relief and excitement about the growth still left in his group, McQuillen told the Gazette that his players seemed to really relish turning the tables after having their backs against the wall.
“It wasn’t ideal, we put ourselves into a tough position but our belief was rock solid,” he said.
“We’ve come back various times this year and don’t play to a scoreboard, it’s all effort based.
“We constantly reset and focus on what we can control and that’s the next quarter. I spoke at three quarter time about ‘digging deep’ and finding that next gear, and about how much this season means to us and how far we’d come to not leave it here.
“The players were extremely focused and I walked away from that huddle confident they had the fire in the belly to lift.
“Our supporters were very good getting around the boys and being vocal. I find those situations interesting as some coaches scream and yell, some go at individual players, other stay calm and to the point.
“I could sense some frustration from our supporters after kicking 0.7 (in the third term) however I’m with these players all week so I know how they tick and keeping calm and positive is the key with this group, they respond well to that.”
Not a lot separated the two sides throughout an engrossing contest played on a fast deck, with McQuillen’s side holding sway, but only slightly in the first half, taking a six-point lead at quarter time and turning it into a 10-point advantage at the main break.
But a mixture of wasting opportunities in front of goal, combined with an inspired Cranbourne unit – who got a lift from its leaders – namely Shaun Marusic, who slotted two goals in the third term, saw the game flip on its head, with Steve O’Brien’s side putting the onus back on the favourites by opening up a nine-point lead at the final change.
In finals especially, bad kicking is bad football, and Beaconsfield kicked 0.7 to 4.2, a 19-point differential despite registering an extra scoring shot.
And it was the perfect start for Cranbourne, with Stephen Depaoli slotting a major in the opening minute of the final term, prompting a much-needed, and season defining response from Beaconsfield.
Needing to hit the scoreboard and take the game on, the Eagles found its mojo, slamming on the next five majors to come away with a grinding win, despite actually registering 10 more scoring shots.
Kyle O’Sullivan, Scott Meyer, Sean Dwyer and Matthew Johnson (three goals) were all critical in the hard-fought win, while for Cranbourne, Stuart Morrish, Marusic and emerging forward Corey Ellison were all in the best.
McQuillen admitted that it was a tough day for his side, but was proud that his group were able to maintain the intensity for longer and stick to its processes.
“It was a long day in the coaches box as we felt we were in control early without ticking over the scoreboard,” he said.
“The boys played to the plan early which gave us every opportunity however Cranbourne’s backline stood up well.
“Over the past three games we’ve had plenty of scoring opportunities however it shows how vital it is to ‘finish’.
“It’s a focus of ours and I’m confident we’ll get that part of our game right next week. It’d be a different story if we weren’t getting those looks.
“To kick five goals to half-time then six goals in the last was exceptional, and just shows when you follow the plan for longer periods of time it pays off.
“We had a number of players go to another level in that last which is reassuring heading into a prelim knowing how much this means to them and that they’ll lift when needed.
“We know football is very momentum based so to change momentum is the key and we were able to do that after Cranbourne finished the third and started the last so well.”
McQuillen also heaped praise on a tough Cranbourne side, who he said were well-coached and structured, describing them as an extremely tough opposition.
“They surprised us in our mid-week vision with their adjusted ball movement using the width at Doveton,” he said.
“It was very much like how Malthouse coached Collingwood making it harder to score against due to the defence setting up behind the movement and lack of space on the turnover.
“To be honest we would’ve preferred them to finish sixth as they’re always a tricky opposition to play which is a credit to them and Steve O’Brien and the win over Berwick a month earlier was a testament to that.
“They also bounced back to defeat Woori Yallock after dropping games to them during the season. Their top 10 is very handy and underneath that they’re developing some very handy kids.”
With a crunch preliminary final against Narre Warren this Saturday at Healesville, the build of champion big man Scott Meyer continues, with the star ruckman getting through another match unscathed.
“Scott’s such a talent and still performing at a high level even after an injury interrupted season,” he said.
“He’s a team first player who could’ve returned a month ago but placed finals as the priority. He’s 100% and that last quarter against Cranbourne showed how good he is and the level he plays at.
“He’s been training for four, five weeks now so conditioning was never going to be an issue, the match fitness he’s had now has him well placed for the prelim. He played 75 per cent against Narre Warren and 100 per cent against Cranbourne so his game time is right up there.”
Despite a disappointing result against the Magpies only a few weeks ago in a qualifying final, McQuillen said his group won’t focus on too much on the result, knowing all too well how quickly things can change in footy.
“We were extremely disappointed in the Narre Warren game,” he said.
“They came out with more aggression than we did and scored a lot early which meant we played catch up for the rest of the game on a heavy ground.
“At half time it was 7.2 to 2.7 so we need to be on from the bounce this week and the players are driving that focus.
“I’m a huge believer in the ‘blank canvas’ mentality, it’s a new game, we lost to them first time and beat them second time around.
“We were disappointed two weeks ago now we’re back to the same point. Coaching Stony Creek some years back we lost a game to Phillip Island by 100 points in Round 18 and two weeks later we knocked them out of the finals after making one change to the 22.
“Dromana lost to Sorrento in the semi-final by 10 goals and two weeks later (on Sunday) won the flag defeating Sorrento.
“They’re a good side Narre Warren and my guys can’t wait for the opportunity.”