Bulldogs mount stunning comeback for 2018 title

Men’s Premier Division Grand Final

Written by Michael Shillito

UNSW Eastern Suburbs Bulldogs vs. Sydney University – Saturday, September 15 at 3.00pm at Blacktown International Sportspark

After a marathon season, we made it to the finish line on Saturday afternoon, as the UNSW Eastern Suburbs Bulldogs took on Sydney University in the Premier Division Grand Final.

The two sides had finished second and third after the regular season. The Bulldogs defeated the Students in the Qualifying Final and backed that up with a win over North Shore in the Major Semi-Final to make the final match. The Students, after that loss to the Bulldogs, had to do it the hard way, but got up over Manly-Warringah and North Shore to make it through.

The game was played under sunny skies at Blacktown International Sportspark, and it would be a thriller.

Both sides were feeling each other out in the first quarter, a term of footy that produced two goals apiece. James Pascoe bagged an early one, pouncing on a loose ball, but this was cancelled out by some fancy footwork  by Sam Gilfedder to get around some defensive tacklers and land a goal. Tristan Davies, coming off a six-goal haul in the Preliminary Final, signalled his intentions with a strong mark at the edge of the square to give the Students the lead, before Tom Banuelos restored parity with a long bomb from the 50-metre line. The Students were leading by a point at quarter time, but they would make their move in the second term.

This season has seen the ascension of Morrison into a leadership role, and Harry, wearing number 9 for the Students, was leading the way as the second quarter progressed. A mark and a set shot in the early exchanges was followed up by an outstanding effort on the run, completing a coast to coast move by bouncing a goal through to put the Students 14 points ahead. When Michael Nettheim – returning to the field with a new number after a blood rule earlier – snapped a shot through the middle, the Students were 21 points to the good at half-time and looking good.

Three minutes into the Premiership quarter, Harry Morrison slotted his third goal through, stealing the ball out of a contest and grubbering it between the big sticks. The Students were 27 points ahead, and their fans in raucous voice as they scented the chance of Premiership glory. It would be a long way back for the Bulldogs, but they weren’t done yet.

The Bulldogs needed a spark, and James Pascoe delivered at the six minute mark as he converted a set shot. Four minutes later, he went close to adding another as he ran towards an open goal, but took one step too many and was tackled from behind and the chance looked gone. But the free kick went off the side of the Student defender’s boot, straight into the arms of Justin Cann, who gleefully accepted the ball and banged it home.

Three minutes later, Bulldog coach Steven Pollock marked strongly within range and put it through. Suddenly the game was back to 10 points, when just a few minutes earlier it had looked like the Students were coasting to victory. Suddenly there was tension, suddenly the brakes needed to be applied by Sydney University.

Neither team troubled the scoreboard attendant or the goal umpires for the remainder of the quarter. But there were highlights, most notably a speckie by Tristan Davies as he soared over a pack of defenders in the forward-50 and pulled the ball down. Nothing came of the resultant move forward, but those few seconds of marking flair is one of the highlights of our game.

The Students led by 10 points at three quarter time, but the Bulldogs were within striking distance. There was plenty of nervous energy and also plenty of noise as massive numbers of people gathered around both huddles of players as Steven Pollock and Tony Overall addressed their troops before one last quarter of battle. The words they used were different, but the underlying message the same. That if you put in everything you have and leave nothing in the tank, you and your 21 teammates can have a memory they will cherish forever.

The Bulldogs were first to get on the board, as Jesse Aish led and marked within striking distance and kicked truly. The margin was back within a kick and the Bulldogs were full of running, while the Students were visibly tiring. They needed a buffer, and three behinds in a row wasn’t going to be enough. But from the third behind, Michael Nettheim pounced on a turnover from the kick-in and put it through. Would 13 points be enough safety margin?

The minutes were ticking by. 15 had gone, and the Students were clinging to the narrow lead. But the error came, as Morrison, so brilliant all day, was ran down in the backline. “Ball!” came the roar from the grandstand, and the umpire obliged sending Matt Rawlinson to line up the free kick 20 metres from home in front of his former teammates from Sydney University. The ball sailed through, and it was back to a seven-point ball game.

The Bulldogs kept coming but missed to cut the margin to a straight kick. Pascoe went perilously close to levelling the scores but it was touched on the line. Pollock had a set shot with the clock well into time-on but hit the post. Four points the margin, the crowd roaring itself into a frenzy as the Students were hanging on for dear life.

The kick-in found its way to Jesse Aish. Not the easiest kick at the best of times, but when it would decide the lead in the final moments of a Grand Final, the nerves were intense. Anyone who wants instructions about how to kick under pressure will wish that they had Jesse’s goal, as he calmly put it through. The Bulldogs had the lead with just seconds to go.

The Bulldogs got the centre-break. A goal would make sure of it, but they could only manage a point. The Students could have time, maybe, for one more twist in the tale. If they could quickly move the ball coast-to-coast.

Quickly they moved it forward into the forward-50. Forced into desperate defence, the Bulldog backline had to act. “Hit the boundary line”, the famous line from St Kilda’s flag, came to mind. The ball went out. A massive roar for deliberate from the entire Students camp rang out, but the umpire was unmoved. Every player on the field was within centimetres of the throw-in. The pack formed. A call for holding the ball fell on deaf ears and the siren sounded. The Bulldogs had won.

Within seconds of the siren sounded, there were hundreds of jubilant Bulldogs faithful on the field. Players injured or not selected, players from other divisions, past players, volunteers, family and supporters. They’re all part of it, and they’re all sharing the moment.

And just metres away are the Sydney University players. It’s an empty feeling, and they can’t summon the energy to stand. Slumped to the ground in disappointment, as a prize that had looked theirs for most of the day was taken from them. The second year in a row they have been pipped at the post in the Grand Final.

But this moment belonged to the Bulldogs, as they lifted the Bill Hart Cup for the first time since 2012. Every one of them had a different story of how they got there, and their paths will separate in the future, but this is a memory they will share and celebrate forever.

Justin Cann was awarded the Podbury Medal as Best on Ground, while Jesse Aish and Darren Pfeiffer also featured prominently.

Nick Bertino, Harry Morrison and Adam Birman were best for the Students. But in the end, they feel the heartbreak of defeat. Something they must, and will, use to motivate them in their quest to go one better in 2019.



UNSW EASTERN SUBURBS GOALS – J Pascoe 2, J Aish 2, J Cann, M Rawlinson, S Pollock, T Banuelos

SYDNEY UNIVERSITY GOALS – H Morrison 3, M Nettheim 2, T Davies, S Gilfedder

UNSW EASTERN SUBURBS BEST – J Cann, J Aish, D Pfeiffer, L Essenstam, K Reynolds-Erler, D Cordell

SYDNEY UNIVERSITY BEST – N Bertino, H Morrison, A Birman, M Valastro, A Clarke, D Johnson

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