MATCH REVIEW: Premier Division Grand Final
Written by Michael Shillito
UNSW Eastern Suburbs Bulldogs vs. Sydney University – Blacktown ISP on Saturday 14th September
After 18 home and away rounds and a finals series, it had come down to this. One day in September. And for the second year in a row, it was a university derby; with UNSW Eastern Suburbs taking on Sydney Uni under sunny skies at Blacktown International Sportspark.
The two sides had met three times this season previously. The Bulldogs had got up every time, twice during the regular season and again in the Major Semi-Final. But the Students had another chance to make it to this match and they managed to get there after hanging on in a thriller against a fast-finishing Pennant Hills.
The Students made the early front-running. A minute into the game, Damien Bonney had a free kick from the edge of the 50 metre line, and his kick found Malcolm Picken 15 metres from home. Making no mistake, the Students had the start they were looking for. They kept coming, and had the ball in their forward 50 for much of the next ten minutes. But against the run of play, the Bulldogs had the answering goal. After some push and shove on the wing resulted in a 50 metre penalty to the Bulldogs, forward Cooper Kilpatrick converted the opportunity and had the Bulldogs on the board.
A strong mark by Sam Gilfedder 20 metres from home saw the Students add their second goal at the 14 minute mark, putting them eight points clear. Just moments later, James Pascoe stood tall in a marking contest to get one back for the Bulldogs.
Despite the Students enjoying the bulk of possession, the Bulldogs were staying on pace with them on the scoreboard. The Students knew they still had plenty of work to do to have something to show for their superior run in general play. They kept coming, but Denim Loffley’s long shot fell just short and was marked on the line. The Bulldogs then controlled the last few minutes of the quarter, but could only manage three points for their efforts. And that was enough to give the Bulldogs a one-point lead at the first change.
The second quarter was shaping as an arm-wrestle, as the minutes ticked by and the defensive work by both teams tightened. Numbers were shifting back, and neither team was able to establish a clear advantage around the ground that they could exploit to create chances. It took 11 minutes to break the deadlock, but eventually Harry Annear crumbed a boundary throw-in and snapped truly to put the Bulldogs a goal in front; his kick just evading the desperate fingertips of the Student defenders.
Two minutes later the game was back on level terms, when the helmeted Luke Vella found Picken on the lead. A long way out, but his kick was long and straight. The Sydney Uni crowd in the grandstand was becoming increasingly vocal, as another tight contest was unfolding.
From end to end the ball was travelling, both sides taking it in turns to move it through the midfield only to be thwarted on the forward lines as miserly defenders teamed up to clear the ball out of the danger zone time and again. Something had to break, but it took till the dying moments of the quarter; and it came when the bespectacled Michael Nettheim held a mark 25 out, backing into his Bulldog counterpart but holding on to the pill. Making no mistake, the Students took a six-point lead back to the rooms at half time.
The shadows were lengthening across the field as the third quarter got under way. And within moments, Darren Pfeiffer converted a set shot and the game was back on level terms. The teams came together, fists flew and tempers were flared. And from the melee, Pfeiffer was awarded a free and his second goal within 30 seconds turned the Bulldogs’ six-point deficit into a six-point lead. A moment of fury would cost the Students dearly; as the half time advantage was lost.
The Students were under siege, but stood their ground as the Bulldogs fired the ball forward again and again. A chance for a critical blow came as James Pascoe marked on the edge of the square, but a free kick behind play gave the Students a stay of execution. It was becoming a hard and physical contest, and there was plenty of niggle between two willing combatants.
It was all happening. Ben Hawtin had a chance to level the scores, only to spray it wide from point blank range. Then James Pascoe flew high, but his marking attempt wasn’t paid.
And out of nowhere, the Students were back in front. Denim Loffley was the star of the moment, coming down with the ball when sandwiched between two Bulldog defenders and snapping it truly. The Students led by a point deep in time on. This was another thriller. And as Fletcher Rowe came bullocking through the centre, setting up Jesse Aish, the Bulldogs had a chance but couldn’t convert. Scores were level. Then John Pawle marked 40 from home, and his booming goal at the 25 minute mark gave the Bulldogs a six-point lead. Jesse Aish had been quiet, but he got into the action with a slips-catch mark and goal two minutes later.
The Bulldogs led by 12 points at the last change. For much of the quarter, the teams had matched each other around the ground. But the final moments of the premiership term had been decisive; as the Bulldogs had broken away to establish a two goal lead.
The coaches had plenty to say to their charges during the break. Massive crowds of vocal well-wishers stood around each huddle. The message was loud and clear, that the next half an hour would go a long way towards establishing their place in history. Nothing in the tank, go for broke. This is the time to stand and deliver. It’s now or never.
The Bulldogs extended their lead early in the last, with another mark and goal to John Pawle. Pumping his fist to the crowd, unleashing his inner Lleyton and the Bulldog faithful responded with a rousing roar. After such an even contest for nearly three quarters, the Bulldogs could feel the momentum swinging their way.
The Students weren’t going down just yet, and Malcolm Picken had a chance to get a goal back for the Students with a set shot from 35 out. It looked good off the boot, but just sailed wide. A dribble from the pocket was cleared on the goal line. Then Picken had the sit in a marking contest 25 out in front, but just couldn’t hold it.
After absorbing so much pressure on the backline, the Bulldogs cleared. And Jesse Aish marked in the pocket and kicked truly. The Students’ chance was gone, the Bulldogs held a 22-point lead, and victory was assured.
The Students kept working, but could only manage three behinds in a row. And then Mitchell Thompson snapped truly. The clock was only just in time-on, and the margin was back to 13 points. Maybe they could have snatched it had they converted some of their many chances in the last quarter. But it wasn’t to be, and the Bulldogs steadied in the final moments to deny the Students a chance to get any closer. Harry Annear’s second in the dying seconds was the icing on the cake, triggering scenes of celebration.
The final siren sounded and within seconds the Bulldog faithful had jumped the fence and the celebrations were on. There were players from other grades, volunteers, past players, family and friends all sharing the moment. There’s more than 22 players that are part of a premiership. It’s a whole club effort, and the whole club is part of the scenes of joy.
Just metres away physically, but in another galaxy emotionally, are the Student players. Slumped to the ground. It’s an empty feeling, contemplating what might have been. Three years in a row they’ve lost after leading at half time. Three years in a row they could have won. In time, they’ll look back with pride in what they have achieved this season and they have much to be proud of. But it’s no consolation in this desolate moment.
Errol Gulden took out the Podbury Medal as best on ground, while Hayden Nichols and Dean Towers also featured prominently for the Bulldogs. For the Students, Wes Greenaway, Thomas Byrnes and Luke Vella were the standouts.
It had been a close and exciting contest to bring the season to a close. For the Bulldogs, a season to remember. Only one loss, and that was back in April. They’ve been the clear best team all season, and worthy back to back champions. And they’ve set a benchmark that nine other teams will be looking to match and surpass in 2020.
The Bulldogs will need to lift to another level again to take out a three-peat. But first, it’s time to party.
UNSW Eastern Suburbs Bulldogs – 2.3 | 3.6 | 7.8 | 10.9 (69)
Sydney University – 2.2 | 4.6 | 5.8 | 6.15 (51)
UNSW-ES Goals – D Pfeiffer 2, H Annear 2, J Pawle 2, J Aish 2, C Kilpatrick, J Pascoe
Sydney Uni Goals – M Picken 2, D Loffley, M Nettheim, S Gilfedder, N Bertino
UNSW-ES Best – E Gulden, H Nichols, D Towers, L Hoy, J Byrnes, B Jack
Sydney Uni Best – W Greenaway, L Byrnes, L Vella, A Clarke, B Hawtin, N Bertino