A country footy day for the ages…

On a day that produced everything - both on field, and from Mother Nature - the boys from Phillip Island cemented their Gippsland footy legend in an astonishing end to the 2019 season. Picture: RUSSELL BENNETT



By sports editor Russell Bennett

At about 1.45pm at Garfield earlier today (Saturday), Queen and David Bowie’s classic ‘Under Pressure’ was reverberating throughout the home change rooms just minutes before the undefeated Bulldogs walked out to meet their fate.

They’d conquered all before them in season 2019 – all except the Cobras, who drew with them in spectacular fashion in Round 9, their only other meeting of the season.

This was their final hurdle – the final obstacle standing between them and Gippsland footy immortality.

All eyes from within the bubble of Gippsland footy were on them. Would they stand up, as everyone expected? Or would they crack, right when everything was on the line?

Right there at the front of the pack was the tough as nails, ballistic Brendan Kimber – the skipper, tasked with leading the way against the very club he’s a former captain-coach of.

It was a scriptwriter’s dream for his 100th game in the red, white and blue.

But footy rarely goes according to script. Instead, it’s got a habit of tearing it to shreds.

The reserves decider between two-time reigning premier Kooweerup and neighbouring rival Tooradin-Dalmore set the tone.

While the Seagulls’ netball arm continued its premiership dominance, it was the reserves footballers who made a piece of their own history in the most remarkable of ways – benefiting from a 50-metre penalty and slotting a clutch set-shot after the siren, courtesy of Jake Genoni, to claim their club’s first ever seconds flag – 4.7 (31) to 4.3 (27).

How could the senior game possibly come close to reaching those heights?

The near 5000-strong crowd soon witnessed just how, on a day when Mother Nature threw everything at the Beswick Street ground – and the Beswick Street ground had all the answers.

After a full day’s footy in the wind, rain, and blistering cold, it barely looked like a game had been played on it.

It was a credit to the Stars, for a day that will rightfully go down as one of the genuine landmark days on Gippsland’s 2019 footy calendar.

The start of the senior game, though, hardly pointed to a classic.

Kimber slotted the first goal in remarkable scenes – into the teeth of a strong breeze in the forward pocket at the Beswick Street end.

He’d already set the tone with his trademark hardness at the contest, and his ability to impact the scoreboard early spelled trouble.

Nathan Langley goaled somewhat against the run of play soon after – courtesy of great mate, and one of the Cobras’ two co-captains, Jackson Dalton.

But that was followed by unanswered majors to Alex Duyker, Jordan Patullo, and Billy Taylor (the latter with goals either side of the quarter-time break) to extend the margin out to 5.4 (34) to 1.1 (7) early in the second.

It would have been easy for the Cobras to roll over – to go into their shells. A lesser side, facing that kind of deficit against such a champion side, would have done exactly that.

But this Cora Lynn group is no ordinary side. Still littered with senior premiership players – multiple times over in many cases – David Main’s group responded.

It was through smaller steps at first – containing the margin to 20 points at the half, 6.7 (43) to 3.5 (23) Phillip Island’s way.

It was down back where their resilience and refusal to die wondering was most obvious.

Withstanding forward entry after forward entry from the Bulldogs, they launched a number of counter-attacks of their own.

Shaun Sparks, Mitch Wallace, and Dalton’s co-captain Tim Payne were chief among them.

And through that – and the simply brilliant efforts of the Billy Thomas and Troy Tharle tandem against the Island’s (and the WGFNC’s) most dominant star this season in Cam Pedersen – the Cobras not only stayed in the contest, they gripped tight to a very real chance of snaring a famous premiership.

A massive Billy Thomas goal during the second, barely a minute after a strong team effort resulted in a major to Dalton, cut the margin back to 15 points.

But cometh the moment, cometh the man.

Hayden Bruce, who had been outstanding – along with the likes of Jaymie Youle and Kimber in setting the tone in the early going – kicked the timeliest of goals to restore some of the Dogs’ hard earned buffer.

It was a key moment in the contest, because the Cobras were right there with them – about to launch another strike.

Through his ability to stand strong right when he was needed most – particularly in the first half – the classy, yet lethal Bruce was ultimately awarded the best on ground medal.

But in the opening three minutes after half-time, Jordan Patullo looked to have launched another potentially fatal blow to the Cobras’ chances.

He kicked two majors in that stretch to extend the margin out to 32 points – the latter of those goals a ridiculous snap from the pocket closest to the clubrooms.

But when Nathan Gardiner responded just a few minutes later, that sparked a run that would have the whole crowd in attendance wondering “what if…”

The scenario was playing out in front of their eyes – with goals to Heath Briggs and Jai Rout to the far end reducing the deficit to just 14 points.

The final term – in its own way – was breathtaking, as potentially defining plays filled just about every minute.

A Zak Vernon goal six minutes in pushed the Island’s lead back out to 22 points, but Tharle and Dalton responded within the next five minutes to peg that back to just nine points – still with more than a half of the final quarter to play out.

But one of Phillip Island coach Beau Vernon’s key messages is to “embrace the suck” – to not only stand up in the toughest moments, but to relish them.

And in the game’s dying stages, that’s exactly what they did – particularly down back.

With all the momentum Cora Lynn’s way – particularly following Dalton’s breathtaking bomb from near the paint of the 50 – it was the Island that refused to buckle, that willed itself home as a collective.

And it’s that, which will be its biggest calling card of this year’s finals series – not capping off an undefeated season.

That previously undefeated season would have counted for nothing if they didn’t stand strong, right when they needed to most.

The pure heartbreak on the faces of the vanquished Cobras was there for all to see following the final siren of a game that the Island survived by four points, 9.11 (65) to 9.7 (61).

And the utter jubilation on the faces of the boys from the Island was just so stark.

This was truly a game that had two deserving winners – it was obvious to all who watched it. The word ‘brave’ can be used all too often to describe a side in a defeat, but it’s the first – and prevailing word – to describe the Cobras. They knew how close they’d come, and so did the boys from the Island – who proved their own quality, yet again in extending their unbeaten run to 448 days, since 16 June last year.

Following their Round 9 draw – to paraphrase Anthony Hudson following the West Coast Eagles’ 2006 AFL grand final win – who would have thought the sequel would be just as good as the original?


Click below to watch the boys from the Island belt out ‘Sweet Caroline’ – followed by their famous song, after an incredible 2019 WGFNC decider against Cora Lynn…