GIPPSLAND Power travelled to Bendigo last weekend and emerged victorious over the Pioneers in the under 18 boys' football competition.
The 12.10 (82) to 8.10 (58) win was achieved as a result of intense application of hard-nosed football.
A minor shin injury to key tall player Charlie Comben put added pressure on his fellow big men in the aerial duels. However, the return of Sam Berry, Tom Fitzpatrick, Mason McGarrity and Chance Doultree more than balanced the books in the Power's favour in terms of team balance and competitiveness.
Conditions at the historic Queen Elizabeth Oval were ideal for football with a strong wind blowing from the west. The Pioneers had this advantage in the first term but it was the Power who took the early initiative and Sam Berry kicked the goal of the match with the vision and poise of a super star. Some excellent forward pressure created an opportunity for Fraser Phillips and he took full advantage of it.
Instead of building on the initiative shown in the first half of the term, the Power allowed the Pioneers to get some system into their play.
An unnecessary turnover by the Power allowed the Pioneers to goal and then they kicked another from another error. As if this wasn't bad enough, the Power defenders over-used the ball and went wide and short to gift the Pioneers with another.
By the first change, the Pioneers led by nine points but had done so by luck rather than beating the Power in general play. This was exactly why the Power had lost to the Stingrays the previous week, when similar errors gave them four goals rather than them outplaying the Power to earn them.
Coach Rhett McLennan had plenty of things to be pleased about but, and it was a huge but, the team needed to be far more thoughtful and skilful if it was going to be rewarded for thr hardness all over the ground.
The Pioneers kicked the first goal of the second quarter via a dreadful umpiring decision and it put the Power under extreme pressure. To add to this scenario, the Power wasted hard-won scoring opportunities and it took some skill by Trent Baldi to break the self-imposed deadlock off the pack.
Caleb Serong had been in the thick of the action and added to his value with a stunning goal from outside the 50 line.
The Power's pressure had shut down the Pioneers' ball movement and what did get through was squashed by the tight and disciplined Power defence.
An intercept mark by Luke Williams typified this and he went forward long and direct to find Kyle Dunkley on the 50 metre line. As expected, Dunkley sent it through the middle and the Power went to the long break four points up.
It was obviously better than the first term, but McLennan called for continued focus of purposeful play in the second half.
Just to emphasise this point, the Pioneers goaled first and had the Power on the back foot as a result.
Not to be outdone, Harry Pepper kicked truly on the run after being set up with great skill and vision by Josh Smith.
Another unnecessary turnover gave the Pioneers another and then the Power made this even worse by wasting their own opportunities. This wastefulness was accentuated even further when the Power's inability to go long out of defence and the Pioneers went further ahead.
Some of the side's renowned hardness in every contest set up a chance for Serong to take a strong, contested mark and he kicked truly.
Josh Smith had stepped things up and won a vital possession and then cleverly found Will Papley who goaled to put the side eight points up late in the term.
If the costly umpiring decision had been hurtful in the second term, then another howler had Power fans totally perplexed as the side was only two points up at the last change.
To add to this worrying situation, the Pioneers kicked a simple goal from the opening bounce of the quarter to regain the lead and let the Power know that they believed it was "game on".
Just when it was needed, Sam Flanders went long and direct to set Smith up for a free kick and goal. Despite dominating much of the general play due to their hardness and focus on the game plan, the Power began to miss gettable opportunities to put the issue beyond doubt.
As a result of their intense pressure and more direct attacking, the ball was in their attacking zone but goals were proving hard to come by.
A clever intercept mark by Harvey Neocleous deep in the pocket was capped off by a skilful goal and the Power seemed to have finally seized the momentum when it mattered most.
More opportunities were wasted but, Phillips applied forward pressure and goaled from the resultant free. More good defence resulted in a free downfield and Phillips was again able to kick truly.
By the final siren the Power's winning margin had extended to 24 points, but its dominance of the quarter was shown by looking at more subtle issues.
The Power had had nine scores to the Pioneers' two but, more importantly, as the term progressed it had run the Pioneers into the ground with their persistent pressure all over the field. The Pioneers' midfield was cramping and the Power were able to keep running freely in stark contrast.
AFL academy member Caleb Serong demonstrated his talents in the midfield and when moved up forward. His hardness in the tightest contests put pressure on opponents or won his many vital possessions.
Fellow academy member Sam Flanders also had a stunning impact in the midfield unit. He too won many vital contested possessions as well as applying intense pressure with his ability to tackle fearlessly.
After being a key to the side's effective defence in 2018, Ryan Sparkes has relished the chance to move into the midfield area. He applied his trademark pressure in every contest and, importantly, had the confidence to win and effectively use many possessions himself.
Up forward, Fraser Phillips had to play a more central role due to the loss of Charlie Comben. He responded manfully to the challenges involved and not only kicked three important goals but, far more crucially, was able to contest the aerial duels and work hard at ground level as well.
Brock Smith again showed why he is the team's captain. He takes on the opposition's key attacking players and has the skill, self-belief and discipline to shut them down as well as win important possessions himself. He put himself in the thick of the action with his ability to read the play with great purpose.
On baller Zac Skinner had a huge task as he was challenged to do about seventy percent of the side's ruckwork against skilled opponents. Not only did he respond manfully and win many of the key contests, but also had the confidence to be effectively involved in contests at ground level.
The Power will have this weekend off, with the majority of the squad returning to their home clubs. The more elite members of the group will be involved in state squad duties under former Power coach Leigh Brown.
The Power will next play the Greater Western Sydney academy team in Sydney on April 27.
The Power will be will be without Caleb Serong, Sam Webb and Chance Doultree, who be required to play school football for several weeks.