Originally written by DEAN MILLARD
IF Saturday’s first ever Western Border Football League under-18 South Australia v Victoria clash is the template for what the concept will provide on an ongoing basis it is going to be a massive success for many years to come.
The exhibition clash at Mount Gambier’s Malseed Park, put together by the league when Geelong and District Football League was unable to send an under-18 side for Saturday’s game, provided supporters with an outstanding clash of under age football, with the home side just snatching a two-point win in the dying minutes of the game.
The interest in the concept was probably evident by the fact the crowd for the day was probably at its peak during the under-age clash, with plenty of space appearing around the fence by half time of the senior game.
The home side started the game kicking towards the town end of the ground and seemed to have a bit more desperation about them for the ball in the early stages.
By quarter time the Vics had fought their way back and were trailing by a single point, but the overall signs in general play were certainly that the hard running home side looked the goods.
SA broke the game open in the second term with some spirited attack on the football and committed hard running in numbers to support and with the Vics caught on the back foot the home side soon established a lead.
The home side consistently got extra numbers to contests through hard running, hitting the front of packs well and at half time it was South Australia ahead by 16 points.
The Vics did some soul searching at half time and with some tweaks to the line up emerged from the rooms with a bit more zest about them.
Billy McNeil and Tim Meulendyks started to really impose themselves on contested balls at ground level for the Victorians, while Kane Millard hit a purple patch of form up forward, presenting for the ball well and also sacrificing himself a number of times to play the team role with blocks and shepherds as the Vics started to operate more like a team.
The effect was obvious on the scoreboard, with SA kept goalless for the quarter and the margin cut back to just three points at the final change.
The crowd could not have asked for much more from the final quarter.
Jake Dowdy lifted his work rate for SA at centre half forward and started to really have an impact, while SA captain Shaun Phillips’ work ethic was also impressive.
Victoria hit the lead early in the term, but Jayden Eldridge bagged two last quarter goals for SA to put them back in front by eight points.
With moments to go McNeil snagged his second for Victoria to cut the margin to two, but the siren sounded as the ball was about to be bounced for the restart, giving SA the win by two points.
Eldridge was named best on ground for SA, earning him the Sungold Milk Medal, while Victorian captain Josh Dawson won the Deakin Uni Medal for best Victorian.
Eldridge was the leading scorer on the ground with three goals, while McNeil and Meulendyks kicked two each.
Others to feature in the best for SA were Phillips, Joe Walker, Chris Wehl, Josh Jones, Gabe Tucker and Joseph Pratt, while for the Victorians Charlie Vallance, Brandon Currie, Meulendyks, McNeil and Cameron Whyte all stood out.
Victorian coach Paul Cleaver said it was an impressive standard of football from both sides and a great exhibition of where the under-18 competition was at.
“It was a pretty high standard and pretty closely fought and I think there were a lot of very evenly matched kids on the ground,” Cleaver said.
“I think we were good, we probably had a few blokes play under their ability and then we probably had equal amount of blokes play above what we thought they would be.
“When you have a game decided by two points it is basically luck, we gave ourselves the opportunity to win it and we were just probably unlucky we didn’t.
“Our kicking probably let us down, both in hitting targets and kicking for goal.
“During the game our field kicking didn’t consistently hit targets.”
He said the run of the SA side was also a key difference in the game, particularly in the early stages.
“They were prepared to run without it to make those opportunities, and they certainly had some speed.”
He said he was rapt the Western Border had decided to play the exhibition game when it was apparent Geelong District would not be sending a side to still allow this year’s crop of under-18 players a chance to play at the higher level.
“I reckon it is a great idea and the league should be given credit for filling the void left by the VCFL interleague falling over.
“A lot of leagues would have said, stuff it, there will be no interleague this year, but I commend them for giving the boys a chance to represent their state when the lack of interleague was there.
“I reckon it is a good format, you get twice as many boys to play for a start, rather than going to play another league.
“You are playing in front of your own crowd, and I think that counts for something too.
“If you travel away to another league to play in these carnivals you can be lucky to get 10 people to travel away and watch you, but with this sort of format everyone in our district gets to see the up and coming good Western Border footballers showcased with that little bit of state of origin edge to it.”