SYDNEY AFL GRAND FINAL 2016
Article and Photos by Michael Shillito

A marathon season had come down to one last game. The premiership was on the line as East Coast Eagles took on St George Dragons at Blacktown International Sportspark on Saturday afternoon.
Conditions were perfect. The sun was shining, the ground in great shape. There was a bit of wind favouring the Eastern Road end, but nothing too serious and it was certainly possible to score at the other end.
The Eagles suffered a shock loss in last year’s decider, but had used that to motivate them this year. Dropping just two games, completing the minor premiership and getting through to the Grand Final only playing one final; the Eagles were the favourites. But the Dragons had also enjoyed a successful year, finishing in second place and winning two out of three finals to make it through to the big game.

There were some heavy knocks in the first quarter. East Coast’s Luke Gemmill found himself with 15 minutes in the sin bin after a yellow card; and within moments of his return St George’s Ben Wharton also incurred the wrath of the umpires and found himself banished for 15 minutes after Andrew McConnell was carried off, heavily concussed.
But for much of the opening term, it was a high-scoring shootout. The Dragons scored the first two goals of the game within four minutes, and had plenty of the ball during the first term. But some inaccurate finishing would hold them back; while the Eagles were making every post a winner when it was their turn to be in attack.
It had been an opening term of frenetic action; big hits, quick ball movement and non-stop activity around the ground. With six goals to four, the Eagles were leading by six points at the first change, but it had been a quarter of see-sawing momentum and the game was still very much in the balance.
In comparison to the first quarter, the second started slowly; with the ball travelling around the wings and neither side disturbing the goal umpires for nearly 10 minutes. A few minutes later the Dragons move the ball forward to the square, where Earl Shaw can’t hold the mark but a good second effort sees him re-gather and snap truly to get the Dragons within a kick.
Dragons hopes are raised, but fleetingly; as the Eagles would get the centre break and move it forward for Rowan Bilkey to mark and goal. The veteran Eagle, after playing most of his career as a defender, has re-invented himself as a forward this season; and again showed his ability to come up with goals when needed.
Jamie Vlatko added to the Eagles’ advantage two minutes later, marking next to the goal square, with a resultant 50 metre penalty eliminating what would have been a tight angle. But the Dragons came up with a reply during time-on, as Nick Ryan snapped a tricky goal from the pocket to reduce the margin to 10 points.
It had been two goals apiece for the second term. The Eagles were holding the lead at the break, but the Dragons were still within striking distance. And if last year’s Grand Final, when the Eagles ran out of legs in the final term, was still haunting the Eagles; they knew they had to build up a buffer in the premiership quarter.

Jamie Vlatko on the lead extended the Eagles’ lead in the opening moments of the third term, but the Dragons got it back when Jake Brown was paid a free kick within scoring range. Kicking the goal and signalling to an increasingly vocal group of St George supporters on the hill. Standing with a giant Dragons flag, the St George faithful roared their approval; and as the minutes ticked by with just eight points separating the two sides, the game was delicately poised.
But four minutes of magic from Jamie Vlatko blew the lead out, putting the game beyond the Eagles’ reach. It began with a 50 metre penalty that turned a hard shot into a certainty. A minute later after drawing Dragon defenders, he found an unmarked Damian Charleston. And then from a tight angle near the scoreboard, it was Jamie Vlatko again threading a shot through. The vocal East Coast contingent behind the goals at the railway end were loving it as the lead was suddenly out to 26 points; and nerves in the Eagle camp were steadied.
The Dragons were briefly thrown a lifeline when Paul Sain was paid a free for kicking in danger in the goal-square, but that was cancelled out by a second effort by Rowan Bilkey deep in time-on. 25 points the margin at the last change; and it looked like too much for the Dragons to pull back.
The clouds were gathering, day was turning into night. And the wind was picking up, with the Eagles coming home with it in the final term. There were no shortage of well-wishers around both huddles as coaches Michael Sankey and Terry Mudge pleaded with their charges for one last effort. But the momentum had swung the Eagles’ way.

As the final quarter got under way, the Eagles fans on the hill made the decision to change ends, and a procession along the hill took place. They had barely made it to centre wing before their team had extended their lead as Connor Stewart played on to do the honours. There were wild scenes on the hill as the Eagle procession passed the Dragon Army flag, with security having to separate the two groups; but the Eagle fans got to the goals where their team was kicking to.
And as soon as they got there, James Ford soccered a goal through. A minute later Jamie Vlatko kicked his sixth and the Eagle fans were banging their metallic drum in celebration. And when Jack Dimery scored, he came over to the Eagle fans; a gesture to the crowd and sharing the moment with them.
For St George, the dream of a flag was not to be. A kick in the dying moments was a microcosm of their game, as a long bomb landed in the goal square, then sat up and didn’t bounce through for a goal. They had done so much right this year, but weren’t able to finish it off when it mattered.

The siren sounded, and all the pressure was released; as the fans raced onto the field to celebrate.
Walking across the ground, the emotion on both sides is plain to see. Pleasure and agony separated by just a few metres. Dragon players slumped to the ground, the empty feeling of having come so close; and unable to muster the energy to stand up.
The Dragons will be disappointed. It’s been a long time between flags for them, their last coming in 1994. But they can walk away with pride at what they’ve achieved this year; and if the trajectory of improvement can continue in 2017, they will surely be flag contenders.
Just metres away, the pure joy of the Eagles as players embrace. There’s a massive cast with them – coaches, volunteers, players from other grades, past players, families, supporters. They’re all part of it; and a premiership is for the entire club, not just the 22 players on the day.
It was an emotional win for the Eagles. They left their NEAFL existence two years ago in desperate financial straits, and almost went under. Further pain had come in last year’s Grand Final defeat. But their playing group stood by the club in tough times, and with this flag their reward has come. The unfinished business is finally complete. Some may retire, some may move on; but this is a moment they will always have together.
The Eagles had to dig deep to get this win. On the day, they had to battle a rising injury toll, several players struggling to get to the stage to receive their medals. But they got it done; and the watering holes in the Rouse Hill area are sure to be flooded with orders for celebratory beverages. The last 11 years have delivered seven grand final appearances and four premierships; three out of the four years they’ve missed were when their Premier Division team were NEAFL reserves. We’ve been used to seeing the Eagles on the big stage.
Kieran Emery was awarded the Podbury Medal as best on ground, in what must have been a close call ahead of Jamie Vlatko who finished with six goals. The final margin was 41 points, although the run of play was closer than that; with the Dragons only having one less scoring shot. It had been a hard-fought and entertaining battle worthy of a Grand Final. But there can only be one winner, and on the day it was East Coast who emerged triumphant.

East Coast Eagles 6.0 8.4 13.4 17.5 (107)
St George 4.6 6.6 8.9 9.12 (66)
Goals : East Coast –
Jamie Vlatko 6, R Bilkey 4, J Dimery, D Charleston, B Anderson, E Kruger, J Ford, C Stewart, A Savage. St George – P Sain 2, J Brown, K Merson, D Addison, D Tomlins, E Shaw, N Kenny, N Ryan.
Best : East Coast – K Emery, Jamie Vlatko, R Bilkey, A Drinkwater, J Dimery, D Costello. St George – E Shaw, R Mercer, A Wynn, D Addison, J Mudge, K Merson.
At Blacktown International Sportspark, Saturday 17th September 2016.


Division One Grand Final:
The Div 1 decider would be a thriller, in doubt until the very end.
A physical and low-scoring opening term would see the Bats kick two goals to one to lead by five points at the first change. The Bats had been minor premiers, and first to qualify for the Grand Final; but there wasn’t much in it around the ground.
In the second term, the Dragons would lift their workrate around the ground; but some appallingly wasteful finishing in front of goal would cost them dearly. It was three goals apiece, but the Dragons could have done so much more with the shots that yielded their seven behinds; and should have led by more than the one point margin they did have.
It was goal for goal in the third term, a thrilling arm-wrestle in which both sides had the chance to seize the momentum only for the other to peg them back. Honours were shared with four goals apiece, and the quarter finished as it started, with the Dragons leading by a point.
The Dragons’ inaccurate finishing would again haunt them as they kicked four behinds in a row. Then in a frantic two minutes, the Bats scored two goals and the Dragons got one back. UTS leading by a point, and less than 15 minutes had passed in the quarter. From there, desperate defensive heroics by both sides were featured, but neither side could manage another score. And so the Bats had hung on to take the premiership by a single point.
Edward McConachy, Peter Kilroy and Daniel Crouch were best for the Bats; while David Ryan, Stephen Wilsen and Ben Hodgson stood out for the Dragons. St George would live to rue their inaccurate finishing in a game when they had the better of many of the stats on the day; but the Bats were able to make better use of their chances, making every post a winner. Which was enough to take out the flag.
University of Technology 2.2 5.3 9.4 11.4 (70)
St George 1.3 4.10 8.11 9.15 (69)
Goals : UTS –
J Moyle 3, D Hines 2, M May 2, J Caica 2, T Richards, F Boland. St George – S Wilsen 3, K Anu 2, J Hill, D Cooper, B Jones, M Griffiths.
Best : UTS – E McConachy, P Gilroy, D Crouch, J Moyle, M Izhik, H Winter. St George – D Ryan, S Wilsen, B Hodgson, M Jones, T Martin, D Cooper.
At Blacktown International Sportspark, Saturday 17th September 2016.


Under 19s Division One Grand Final:
The early arrivers to Blacktown saw a tightly-contested match between North Shore and UNSW-ES; in which the Bombers completed a season in which they were undefeated on the field, but not before having a few anxious moments at the hands of the Bulldogs.
The opening term was tense and tight, with both sides held to a single goal. Desperate for an early advantage, two keen sides denied each other in a quarter of football in which easy touches were hard to come by. The Bulldogs led by two points at the first change.
After an early goal in the second term, the Bulldogs were threatening to get on top; but a quick run by the Bombers saw the lead change hands. But when they looked set to run away with the quarter, the Bulldogs came back strongly during time-on. A quarter of five goals to four saw the Bombers hold the lead by eight points at half time; but the contest was still up for grabs.
North Shore were looking good during the early stages of the third term, but were unable to shake off the persistent Bulldogs. The Bombers led throughout the term, twice getting the lead out to 20 points; but the Bulldogs found the goals they needed to stay in touch. A quarter of three goals to two saw the Bombers leading by 13 points at the last change. But a goal to the Bulldogs two minutes into the last quarter saw the lead back to six points; and suddenly the Bombers were vulnerable.
But when the game was up for grabs, it was the Bombers who had the ability to step up to another level. The prize was on offer, but the Bombers grabbed it. A scintillating final quarter of footy saw the Bombers score six goals to three; and a result that looked in doubt early in the last quarter ended with the Bombers completing a comfortable 31-point win.
North Shore Captain Matt Buskariol took out the best-on-ground medal, while Callum Hurst, Ned Campbell and Luke Robertson also featured prominently for the Bombers. For the Bulldogs, Joey Reinhard, Justin Cann and Nick Blakey were their best. It had been a good fight by the Bulldogs, to end a solid finals campaign; but the Bombers had the firepower to pull off back-to-back premiership wins.
North Shore 1.1 6.5 9.7 15.8 (98)
Uni NSW-Eastern Suburbs 1.3 5.3 7.6 10.7 (67)
Goals : North Shore –
M Wright 3, M Buskariol 3, M Thomas 2, H Carr 2, C Sennit 2, A Rankin, N Hurrell, T Curtis. UNSW-ES – J Pawle 2, L Hoy 2, N Blakey 2, J Cann, J Reinhard, J Buckley, H Lewis.
Best : North Shore – C Hurst, N Campbell, L Robertson, M Buskariol, H Carr, M Wright. UNSW-ES – J Reinhard, J Cann, N Blakey, J Buckley, J Bartholomaeus, R Danne.
At Blacktown International Sportspark, Saturday 17th September 2016.


SIGNING OFF FOR ANOTHER YEAR
As the Eagles held up the premiership cup, another season of Sydney footy came to a close. For the Eagles, it’s time to celebrate. For St George, time to plan to go one step better. And for the other clubs, plans of how they can get themselves to be part of next year’s Grand Final will already be under way.
Like every season, this year has had its highlights and lowlights. But the overall trend is a positive one. More people are playing our game in Sydney than ever before. There are challenges; but when we see clubs having enough numbers that they’re wanting to field more teams, that’s got to be a positive for our game.
At the end of the season, there’s people I need to thank for making this column happen. Thanks to you who read it every week. Thanks to the contributors on the forum for keeping the footy talk going. Thanks also to the AFL, to Lauren and Chris and their team, for keeping the league running. And to the clubs, for getting the games going. And to the players and the umpires, and everyone who volunteers their time and efforts into making footy happen.
Have a great off-season. Take care, have fun and have a good break. You’ve earned it. The 2017 season will be upon us before too long.