Time called on senior football and netball seasons across Gippsland

Liam Durkin

Guidelines updated for community sport

UNSURPRISINGLY, most of Gippsland’s football and netball leagues pulled the pin on senior seasons across the weekend.

The Gippsland, North Gippsland, West Gippsland and Alberton leagues joined the East Gippsland and Mid Gippsland leagues in deciding that too much was running against administrators and more importantly, club volunteers, to facilitate a practical return to play.

The Gippsland League will play a nine-round season, plus three weeks of finals, for junior football and netball. The season will begin Saturday, July 18, with the grand finals the weekend of October 10.

While the NGFNL hopes to play junior competitions this year, the EGFNL decision to abandon its season affects all grades of football and netball.

The Sale and District and Traralgon and District junior football leagues and Gippsland Youth Girls are set to play from Sunday, July 12.

At time of writing, six of the eight Gippsland-based senior leagues have been abandoned, leaving only Omeo and District and Ellinbank and District remaining.

Ellinbank and District appears certain to be called off after the league publicly stated almost a month ago all restrictions needed to be lifted in order for the league to be viable.

There is a chance Omeo and District will press ahead in a compromised format, which will see only four of its six clubs compete after Omeo-Benambra and Swan Reach opted out.

On Friday night, the NGFNL and West Gippsland FNC made the decision to abandoned its senior seasons, while the Gippsland League followed suit the next day and Alberton on Monday.

The decision to abandon the Alberton season could see the end of the 74-year-old league, with an AFL Victoria-commissioned report recommending its clubs join Mid Gippsland next year.

Word quickly got around from various league meetings seasons would not go ahead, as some players and coaches were told in the strictest confidence what was happening before anything was publicly announced.

While the news didn’t come as any great surprise to club members, there was still a period of acceptance for those who had been training since November to allow the reality of the fact that there would be no senior football or netball to sink in.

A number of local players used Saturday night as an opportunity to responsibly get together in small groups to commiserate the season that never was.

For some, having no local sport to look forward to was like a kid finding out there was no more golden tickets left to the chocolate factory.

The Gippsland League had some renewed hope after return to play guidelines did not specifically say restrictions on crowd numbers would be capped, however, the final nail in the coffin could well have come once Pakenham was classed as a high risk suburb.

Given Pakenham’s close proximity to Drouin and Warragul, and the fact a number of Gippsland League players live and study in Melbourne, the risks associated were just too high.

The West Gippsland competition found itself in a similar position, as a number of its member clubs reside even closer to suburbs on the outskirts of Melbourne.

For the NGFNL, its chances were not helped once a case was detected in the Latrobe Valley recently.

Upon making the announcement, the North Gippsland FNL said “we could not justify or envisage a return to ‘business as usual’ and nor are we prepared to risk the health and wellbeing of people nor club sustainability”.

Arguably the greatest barrier in place for clubs centred around the need to allow a one-hour gap between games in order for changerooms to be properly cleaned and sterilised. The situation would have been a huge burden on club volunteers, and potentially could have also meant games did not finish until around 9pm.

While every provision was made to allow some return to play, in the eyes of the majority it was always going to be a tough ask to get senior football and netball back in 2020.

The first Gippsland-based league to make the call was East Gippsland, after member clubs voted unanimously to cancel the season last Wednesday.

Boisdale-Briagolong Football-Netball Club president Ryan Evans admitted the news didn’t come as a great shock.

“It wasn’t really a surprise at all,” he said.

“The league had been in regular contact with member clubs over the past few months so we’ve had a pretty good feel on where the different clubs have been at, in terms of their varying motivations to get back on the field and court this year.

“As the months went on, and restrictions continued, it started to look more and more likely that we wouldn’t see our teams in action this year.

“It probably felt more of a formality when the final decision was made.”

With people now able to get on with other things, Evans said the club would turn its attention to 2021.

“Obviously everyone is disappointed that we won’t be playing any senior football and netball in 2020,” he said.

“We felt that all of our teams were in a very healthy position prior to the onset of the pandemic, and were looking forward to a competitive year. To this end, we were going to do everything that we could do to get our teams back on the park.

“The situation had, however, put an increasing strain on club volunteers and we knew, through the regular surveying of our playing group, that they were starting to lose interest in playing an abbreviated season.

“We had to consider a number of other factors as well, including the fact that there was no certainty that crowds would be permitted this year, the additional burden that would be placed on club volunteers (in attempting to comply with the hygiene protocols), the shortened season length, the impact that a season extending into October would have on a start date of the 2021 season and, of course, the health of our members.

“In the end, the club committee voted unanimously to abandon the season.

“By making this call, we have been able to remove any uncertainty regarding the weeks ahead, which does come as a relief, and already our thoughts have turned to the 2021 season.”

The Bombers won’t be totally off the park this season, with the club’s youth girls team set to play in coming weeks.

Fellow East Gippsland club Stratford is putting a positive spin on things, with a number of initiatives in the pipeline.

“We will still be running training on a Thursday night for our football and netballs sides for those who want to keep up their fitness,” club president Matt Telling explained.

“We are hoping to get our junior football and netballers into a local competition when they start back up.

“As a club we will continue our monthly Swan lotto and hopefully as restrictions ease we can hold some other social functions.”

In a silver lining, the layoff will allow capital works at the Swans’ home ground to be completed without causing any major disruption.

Had the season gone ahead, the Swans could have been facing the daunting prospect of not playing any home games.

“We are looking forward to season 2021 with our new football and netball change rooms and facilities,” Telling said.

As leagues across Gippsland made what would have been a gut-wrenching decision, ultimately, perspective was needed in putting games of football and netball in context to a worldwide health pandemic.

Attention will now turn to various junior leagues and competitions that have been given the green light.

Locally, if the cricket season starts in the first week of October, Maffra Recreation Reserve, which does not have a turf or synthetic wicket, appears in the gun to be called upon to host the majority of junior football finals.