GRAND FINAL REVIEW – Pennant Hills victorious
Pennant Hills – 1.2 4.4 8.4 10.6 (66)
Sydney University – 3.5 4.7 5.10 7.18 (60)
Goals : Pennant Hills – N Hey 3, M Carey 2, J Peatling, J Boag, J Stern, R Ediriwickrama, T Wales. Sydney Uni – W Stratford 2, N Foster, S Ryan, J Cole, L Vella, M Vicic.
Best : Pennant Hills – R Ediriwickrama, M Carroll, J Stern, C Lee, L Shepherd, M Carey. Sydney Uni – J Cole, M Fogarty, R Bottin-Noonan, K Murphy, H Morrison, M Krochmal.
Written by Michael Shillito.
The end of the 2017 XBlades AFL Sydney Men’s Premier Division season came on Saturday afternoon at Blacktown, as Sydney University and Pennant Hills took to the field for the Grand Final.
It was an afternoon of sunshine, but by the time the final siren sounded, heads were shaking in disbelief and the question being asked by so many was, ‘how did that happen’?
Pennant Hills have pulled off unlikely Premierships before. Just two years ago, when East Coast were unbackable favourites, the Demons ran them down. But this Sydney University side was stronger, and this year’s Demons side didn’t look as good. By the end of July, their chances of making the finals looked grim. Now, suddenly, they are premiers. Even with the odds stacked against them, they got it done.
Sydney University had been the dominant force for most of this season – racing to the top of the ladder early in the year, and leading all the way to the finals. They hadn’t won a premiership at Premier Division level since 1992, but with a settled and star-studded lineup, this was their big opportunity.
Pennant Hills had to struggle to make the finals, but got there – they came from the Elimination Final, won three finals and came from three goals down in the Preliminary Final. The Demons, it was thought by many, would be competitive but only the most optimistic Demon diehard would have expected them to win.
It was a subdued opening, with a full 10 minutes passing before either team troubled the scorers. But a Demon goal seemed to spur the Students into action and the ball spent most of the remainder of the first quarter in the Sydney University forward line. During the time-on period the reward for effort came, with Will Stratford’s unorthodox run-up to a set shot, which resembles climbing a stepladder. The Students had achieved three goals to one for the opening quarter and were leading by 15 points at the first break.
But the game deviated from the Sydney University script in the second term, as the Demons hit back hard. Two goals within a few minutes and suddenly the game was back within a kick. Although the Students were getting the ball inside their 50 metre line often enough, the Demon defenders were resolute, and there was no way through.
Much of the quarter was a battle of the defences, both sides putting numbers back, with goals were hard to come by. The Demons would win the second quarter by three goals to one, and although most of the stats in general play suggested that the Students had been the better team, they only had a three point lead to show for it.
The first half had been played to the backdrop of the chirping of vuvuzelas from a raucous Sydney University crowd on the hill at the railway end, their chants led from a megaphone. But as the second half got under way, the hill was stunned into silence. Instead, it was the Pennant Hills faithful in the grandstand, who had waited patiently through the first half as their team had held out, who found their voice.
In no time at all, the Demons had the lead. With the first three goals of the Premiership quarter, suddenly they were 15 points ahead. Now the Students knew they had a fight on their hands. The natural light was beginning to fade, and the lights had been turned on. Was the sun setting on the Students’ Premiership ambitions?
The Students had to change their strategy. Now they had the attack, but their goal-kicking radar, which had served them so well during the season, let them down when it mattered most. The Students would eventually penetrate the big sticks to kick their only goal of the third quarter, but the Demons would get a reply in the final moments of the third term to lead by 12 points at the last change.
A goal apiece to start the last quarter, and the Demons still held the two-goal buffer. For the Students, it was now or never, and they kept coming. Time and again the Students got the ball inside their 50, going long to within reach of the square. Shot after shot aimed at the big sticks, but the direction was off target.
The Demons were under siege, but stood their ground magnificently. The tension among the fans around the ground was at fever pitch, while the nerves were rising for the players, with the fate of the match potentially riding on every kick. As the Students found their second goal for the quarter, the margin of the game was within a kick. The Students kept coming, and the Demons threw everything they had at holding them out.
The game was calling out for a hero, someone who would put their hand up and prove himself to be the decisive edge. Cometh the hour, cometh the man, the man they call ‘King’. Matt Carey has been with the Demons for well over a decade. He has played in Premierships before, won a Phelan Medal, but never in his career has one kick made so much difference. Conquering the nervous tension that the occasion inevitably provided, his shot was long enough, high enough and straight between the big sticks. With barely a minute to go, the Demons were home.
The clock ran down to zero, and the Demons had once again pulled off an unlikely premiership. Six points separated the two sides. It was close, but the Demons had got it done.
As the final siren sounded, the contrast in the field was pronounced. Two feelings, physically just metres away from each other but emotionally separated by a galaxy. Every year the teams change, but the sentimental value of the moment is the same.
For the losing side, players slump to the ground. It’s an empty feeling. They’ve had a good year to get there, they’ve given it everything they had. But in the moment, that counts for nothing. Tears are shed, players sit alone. Nothing but the passage of time can console the hurt.
And next to the agony is the ecstasy.
Players embraced in triumph and were then joined by the coaches. Then, jumping the fence comes the rest of the club. Family and friends, players from other grades, injured players, committee members, past players – they’re all part of it. Every embrace is pure joy. Every drop of sweat in pre-season, every niggling injury, every tough moment is vindicated. This is the aim of everyone who plays the game.
Sydney University have had a good season. Many Students players have taken the next step in their footy this year. Going down in the Grand Final hurts, and that hurt will never be erased, but they will surely use that as motivation to go one step better next year.
Josh Cole, Michael Fogarty and Ryan Bottin-Noonan were best for the Students, and they continued to fight hard all day. But in the end, they fell agonisingly short.
To the winners go the spoils, and once again the winners are Pennant Hills. As the players climbed the stage to receive their medals, each had their own story of how they got there. Some are still young and their star is still rising. Some have been playing for a long time but maybe not for much longer. Some have come from elsewhere and found a home at the club. Some have moved away and returned. Some have overcome adversity along the way.
But all of them have this moment in common and whatever the future holds, it is something they will always have.
Ranga Ediriwickrama, Michael Carroll and Josh Stern were Pennant Hills’ best. But everyone in the team played their role and played a part in getting the flag to the Demons.
Their season is over. But their Premiership celebrations have barely begun.