SYDNEY AFL GRAND FINAL 2011
Article and Photos by Michael Shillito

After over five months of footy, the end had come. Months of riding the football roller-coaster as the fortunes of our clubs ebbed and flowed. But the one day in September had arrived, we’d made it to the final. Eagles v Dockers.
The road to this day had been different for the two teams. East Coast Eagles for years have been the benchmark club in the Sydney AFL. This was their fifth grand final in the last six years, the Eagles were going for the premiership three-peat. Well run on and off the field, with a top class facility at Bruce Purser Reserve, the Eagles were coming into the grand final as the hottest of favourites.
For Balmain, 2011 has been a remarkable turnaround. For years the Dockers had languished near the bottom of the ladder. But this year, the Dockers cast off their easybeat status. With former Swan Nic Fosdike at the helm, the Dockers brought in a group of former AFL players, and some well targeted recruits, and adding them to the local squad to produce a giant-killing team. And after some last-minute heroics in the preliminary final, the Dockers had made it to Sydney footy’s biggest day for the first time since 1999.

It was an exceptionally warm September Saturday, the mercury hitting 31 degrees earlier in the day. But the Premier Division Grand Final, the fourth match to be played on the day, was a twilight fixture; beginning under blue skies and sunshine. Blacktown Olympic Park was looking a treat, and a bumper crowd was taking in the action; many of them taking advantage of the sunshine to take a vantage point on the hill.

Balmain won the toss, and kicked to the railway end in the first quarter. The Dockers, after such a long time in the footballing wilderness, may have been sentimental favourites for the neutral supporters; but the Eagles wasted no time in asserting themselves on this grand final and ending any thoughts of a Docker fairytale.
Getting the centre break, the Eagles were on the board in the opening minute. The whistle went for a free kick, Stephen O’Connor played on and kicked truly, and an advantage goal was awarded. Two minutes later, Ryan Silvester sharked the crumbs of a marking contest and ran in to score the easiest of goals.
The Dockers suffered a blow as Ben Taggart copped a bump and had to be assisted from the field, but a more lethal blow was presenting itself in the form of Stephen Doyle. Taking control across the half-forward line, Doyle would take six uncontested marks in the attacking 50 within the first 20 minutes, presenting an avenue between the midfield and the scoring zone. Doyle helped himself to two goals during the first term, also missing a couple of shots and setting up Mark Maher.
At full forward, Jamie Vlatko was also looking good, leading out to take a pinpoint delivery from Ben Physick and kicking truly; and hitting the post on another attempt.
The Eagles were riding a wave of confidence, and goals were coming from everywhere. O’Connor pounced on a loose ball to add another. After Jack Dimery went long to the goalsquare and the ball went to ground, Dean Costello was there to soccer the ball through. Even veteran defender Rowan Bilkey chased the ball down the ground and helped himself to a slice of the goalkicking action.
It took till deep into time-on for the Dockers to get a mark in their forward 50; but finally Jason Saddington stopped the rot, leading out and marking 40 metres from home and making no mistake with the kick. But it had been East Coast who had been totally dominant in the opening term, with nine goals to one and an imposing 51-point lead at quarter time.

The one-sided nature of proceedings would continue as the second quarter got under way. The Eagles were clearing the ball from the midfield at will, and the Dockers had no way to stop the Eagle juggernaut. Forward went the ball again. Jamie Vlatko had a set shot from the 50 metre line, on a tight angle under the scoreboard. His kick didn’t make the distance and went to ground just in front of the behind post, but Stephen Doyle was there to quickly play on to an unmarked Steve O’Connor in the square.
The unstoppable Jamie Vlatko was again in the action, marking and goaling in the pocket. And when Daniel Spiteri on the run kicked another at the 10-minute mark, the Eagles held an imposing 70-point lead.
The Dockers had been struggling, but finally managed to salvage something from the wreckage of the first half. Matthew Edwins, thanks to a free kick for a push in the back, managed to get one goal back for the Dockers, and a snap by Nick Davis added another. Troy Osland blazed away on the run from the 50 metre line, ignoring David Yeomans who was in a better position, but didn’t make the distance, and the ball dribbled out of bounds.
But that was as far as any Docker fightback in the first half would go. Jamie Vlatko soccered a ball through. Ben Physick was run down when running into goal, but managed to dispose of the ball just in time to set up Doyle. The Eagles had their 70-point lead back. And it could have been more, but the Dockers were saved by the bell as the siren sounded with Physick set to run into goal.

Day was turning into night, and the hard slog of a footy game was turning into a premiership celebration. With the game already comfortably won, the Eagles seemingly put their cue into the rack in the third term; and against the run of play from the first half, did not score a goal in the third term.
The Dockers had been shell-shocked in the first half, but put up a vastly improved performance in the third term to at least salvage some respectability on the scoreboard. The Dockers kept the ball on their forward line early, with Nic Fosdike missing a couple of tough shots at goal before Nick Davis slotted one home from a tight angle. At 11 minutes, Troy Osland scored a magnificent goal on the running, finding the big sticks from outside the 50 in front of the scoreboard; and despite the Dockers being well behind on the scoreboard, it was one of the highlights of the match.
Incursions forward were rare for the Eagles during the third term. Trent Baker put on some good play to dispossess his Balmain opponent and evade two tacklers, but having done all the hard work he sprayed his shot wide. At the other end, Jason Coulloupas centred the ball to a pack in the square, which Jason Saddington roved to score.
The Dockers had lifted, but there was no suggested or a miracle comeback. The goals weren’t coming quickly enough, and some shots were going wide. But at least the Dockers had pulled the margin back when at half time it looked set to go to three figures. David Yeomans after the siren cut the deficit back to 44 points at three-quarter time.

The ball was bounced to start the final quarter. The Eagles got the centre break and drove it forward, and Daniel Spiteri was there to mark. Making no mistake, the Eagles had the first goal of the final quarter, breaking their drought.
Around the ground, Eagle supporters were counting down to the siren. The game had long been safe, but the anticipation of the party ahead was growing. The final quarter was evenly contested, three goals apiece; and the margin was 43 points when the siren finally sounded.

Eagle players, officials and supporters embraced. As their team song suggests, they’re a happy team at East Coast; and with a premiership three-peat they have plenty to be happy about. A blistering first half had secured this premiership; and although it took some time to secure the minor premiership, the Eagles had been easily the best team in the competition this season. When they are on a roll, they are close to unstoppable, as shown by their percentage of 230 during the regular season. For years, taking the final step to the premiership had been beyond them, but since they broke through in 2009, the premiership drought has become a flood.
Eagle club stalwart Graeme Merkel took the presentation stage, awarding the Podbury Medal for best on ground to Jack Dimery, in what must have been a close decision ahead of Stephen Doyle; and presenting the Bill Hart Premiership Cup to coach Glenn Garner and captain Jon Vlatko. And as the Eagle players took the stage, wearing their premiership medals and holding up the cup, it prompted the start of a big night of celebrations for the all-conquering Eagles.

SYDNEY AFL PREMIER DIVISION GRAND FINAL
East Coast Eagles 9.4 14.7 14.9 17.12 (114)
Balmain Dockers 1.1 3.3 7.7 10.11 (71)
Goals : East Coast –
Jamie Vlatko 4, S Doyle 4, S O’Connor 3, D Spiteri 2, R Silvester, R Bilkey, M Maher, D Costello. Balmain – M Edwins 2, J Saddington 2, N Davis 2, D Yeomans, T Osland, J Coulloupas, J Howard.
Best : East Coast – J Dimery, Jamie Vlatko, S Doyle, D Spiteri, R Bilkey, B Bourke. Balmain – T Stevens, R Bates, J Maniscalco, J Coulloupas, R Lilly, J Farrell.
Umpires – A Lewis, J Fox, M Baigent.
At Blacktown Olympic Park, Saturday 17th September 2011.


First Division Grand Final
Since the introduction of the divisional structure, senior teams have dominated First Division and have had the edge over the Premier Division reserves teams. The three senior teams took out the top three places this season; and for the third year in succession it was a senior team that took out the premiership.
Manly-Warringah had enjoyed a stellar season in First Division. Taking out the minor premiership, the Wolves had been first team into the grand final; and found themselves taking on Southern Power in the premiership decider.
The Wolves burst out of the blocks and had three goals on the board within the first 10 minutes, but the Power refused to let the Wolves dominate. Manly led by 15 points at quarter time, but were unable to extend that lead in the second term, and the 15-point margin would remain intact at half time.
The Power fought back in the third term, holding the Wolves goal-less; but some inaccurate finishing would cost them dearly. With 1.5 for the quarter, the Power were back to within seven points; and when they scored again in the opening minutes of the final quarter the margin was back to one point.
But the Power were never allowed to take the lead, as the Wolves steadied to kick the next two goals and put the result beyond doubt. The final margin was 10 points after a low-scoring contest; the Power having put up a strong fight but the Wolves having what it took to take out the premership. Ruckman Jacob Graham was awarded the best-on-ground medal.
Manly-Warringah 4.4 5.7 5.10 7.13 (55)
Southern Power 2.1 3.4 4.9 6.9 (45)
Goals : Manly-Warringah –
J Hall 2, B Collins, L Brain, T Armitage, A Buncle, E Burke. Southern Power – J Clarke 2, M Young 2, S Demir, A Fritsch.
Best : Manly-Warringah – J Graham, A Buncle, E Burke, C Pridgeon, W Brassil, B Collins. Southern Power – M Young, R Murphy, S Brierty, M Graham, P Harmer, M New.

Under 18s Premier Cup Grand Final
The hottest part of the day was when the Under 18s were in action. East Coast Eagles were in action against St Ignatius Riverview. The Eagles had only lost one game during the regular season, and made it easily into the Grand Final; while Riverview had to do it the hard way, coming up from the elimination final through three sudden-death clashes to qualify for the big game.
The first quarter was evenly contested, with Riverview leading by five points at quarter time, but the school team threatened to get on top early in the second term and led by 12 points at the 15 minute mark before the Eagles kicked three late goals to take a six-point lead to the long break. And the third term went the opposite way, with the Eagles attempting to break away before Riverview hauled them in to lead by a point at the last change.
Riverview had brought an impressive supporter contingent, wearing their school uniforms; and they would become increasingly vocal, breaking into song several times. And their classmates on the field would respond in the last quarter, a six-goal term seeing the school side establish a winning break and they would take out the premiership by 32 points.
The result was a stunning upset in the context of the season, but there was no disputing Riverview’s superiority on the day that mattered. Matthew Lodge was awarded the best-on-ground honours.
St Ignatius Riverview 3.0 6.3 10.5 16.6 (102)
East Coast Eagles 2.1 7.3 10.4 11.4 (70)
Goals : Riverview –
J Davis 5, Z Salter 3, T Meredith 2, A Jalloh 2, D Robinson, J Pascoe, J Somes, M Woods. East Coast – E Barclay 4, J Dwyer 3, M Nance, N Crowe, N Clinch, D Killworth.
Best : Riverview – M Lodge, J Davis, J Pascoe, A Jalloh, D Robinson, D Gross. East Coast – M Clinch, D Killworth, J Dwyer, J Cutting, B Jago, J Pecqueux.

Third Division Grand Final

Third Division in 2011 has been dominated by the university clubs, and the early arrivers to Blacktown on Saturday were treated to a university derby as UNSW-ES took on Sydney Uni. The Bulldogs had been the dominant team in the division all season, but would find the Students a hard team to shake off during the Grand Final.
The Bulldogs led by three points at quarter time and by 12 points at half time. The Bulldogs would be frustrated, both by the persistent tackling of the Students but also by their inaccurate finishing. And the Students would continue to put the Bulldogs under pressure during the third quarter, with two goals to one to cut the margin back to six points at three quarter time.
The final term would begin well for the Students, as they kicked an early goal and found themselves with a shock one-point lead. An upset was in prospect, but it took just minutes for that threat to be wiped out. In what had been a low-scoring contest, the Bulldogs had scored just five goals until the 5-minute mark of the final term; but the Bulldogs would then score six goals to blow the margin out. The final margin of 28 points was considerably higher than what had looked likely less than 20 minutes earlier; but after having only lost one game all season there was no disputing that the Bulldogs had been the best side all year, and pulling away in the final stages they deserved their premiership win. Ben Camilleri kicked five goals in a best-on-ground performance for the Bulldogs.
University of NSW-Eastern Suburbs 1.4 4.9 5.12 11.13 (79)
Sydney University 1.1 3.3 5.6 7.9 (51)
Goals : UNSW-ES –
B Camilleri 5, S Tagliabue 2, W Swanson, R Stevens, S Powell, S Laughlin. Sydney Uni – J Walker 2, C Boustred 2, T Radford, R Lee, A Herring.
Goals : UNSW-ES – B Camilleri, M Dixon, R Crocket, R Pike, M McAlister, C Peters. Sydney Uni – J Walker, J Huxtable, A Herring, R Barnes, P Younan, C Allworth.


POSTSCRIPT/EDITORIAL
The curtain has been lowered on 2011, the season has come to an end. Congratulations to East Coast Eagles, who once again have proved themselves to be the benchmark club in Sydney footy.
For Balmain, the rags-to-riches fairytale dream of a premiership was not to be, but the Dockers can hold their heads high after a successful season. And nine other clubs will be working hard over the off-season, working out how they can be a part of Sydney footy’s big day in 2012.

Sydney footy’s come a long way in the last few years. In 2004, we had 44 teams in the Premier Division seniors and reserves, First Division seniors and reserves and Second Division. This year we had 59 teams spread over six divisions. In 2004, the Under 18s had 11 teams in a single competition; this year there were 19 teams in two leagues.
More people are playing our game in Sydney now than ever before. We’ve had the divisional structure for three years, and it’s had an effect of spreading the success around the clubs. Our eight competitions this year had eight different clubs taking out premierships.

Facilities have always been an issue for footy in Sydney; but progress is being made. Blacktown Olympic Park is a top-class facility, and it was a treat for our showcase game yesterday; a welcome contrast to some quagmire or dust-bowl surfaces we’ve played finals on in the past. Grounds such as Bruce Purser Reserve, and redevelopment to facilities like North Dalton and Gipps Road, haven’t come cheap but is money well spent. There’s plenty more work to be done, and we still live in dread of those wet weeks when grounds are closed; but the situation is far better than it has been in the past.


But the football landscape is to be changed again; and 2012 will revolutionise the game at both the elite level and in our league.
2012 sees the introduction of the GWS Giants into the AFL; raising the profile of the game in Sydney. A game in Sydney every week will keep the game in the headlines; with the Giants working hard to build support while the Swans will be working hard to maintain their support base.
And our league will be affected by the admission of East Coast and Sydney Uni into the NEAFL. Both clubs will maintain their Premier Division places for 2012, fielding their reserves in Premier Division. But as we’ve seen in the divisional structure, senior teams have usually had the edge over reserves teams; and there’s potential that we’ll see a shift in the dominant teams in Premier Division next season. It’ll be interesting to see how that affects the divisional structure for next season; and which teams get promoted or relegated.

Thank you to the players, umpires and officials for their activities; and to the volunteers at every club who do so much to make our games possible. Thanks to the Sydney AFL for their work in making the competition run. Australian Football is a great game, and is a growing part of Sydney’s sporting landscape; and long may that growth continue.
Thank you to everyone who has read this column every week over the past several years; and to those who have participated in the forum. It’s been a lot of fun.