Liam Durkin and Zac Standish
Local football and netball suffered what may well be the final nail in the coffin after community sport was cancelled last Friday night.
The intrepid 2021 season came to an abrupt halt after the state government asked sporting leagues to cancel all sport for the weekend, before plunging the entire state into lockdown from 1pm Saturday.
With cases rising in the regional town of Shepparton, most pundits around Gippsland football and netball kept a close eye on the situation with a degree of trepidation, but were cautiously optimistic they wouldn’t be affected.
That optimism quickly turned to despair just as players were packing their bags to play on Friday night.
Misery reverberated around Gippsland’s sporting community as news of another cancelled round filtered through about 7.30pm, in what many felt as the final straw.
For this reason, it is believed the majority of teams and club group chats focussed their attention on sticking together rather than sticking to a return-to-play date.
Apart from the lateness of the announcement, what differed to this one compared to others earlier in the year was the widespread agreement from players, coaches and committee members that the football and netball season was as good as gone.
North Gippsland Football-Netball League club Churchill was preparing to play in a final when the announcement was made.
President Michael Johnson believes now the writing is well and truly on the wall.
“Everyone I have spoken to at the club is absolutely devastated about it, but what lies ahead of us now is how we can work around it because we are running out of time to play a finals series,” he said.
“I think we have one last ditch effort, albeit finals would have to be pushed out by three weeks now, but if we don’t open back up on September 2 it is all over.”
Johnson was hopeful there would still be some football and netball this season, but said there was still a great degree of uncertainty.
“I am really hoping this is not (the end) and I know the league is working incredibly hard to get something underway — but with sport off until September 2 at the minimum, all your facilities get handed over to the cricket club at a certain date so if all those underlying factors become too much I’m not sure,” he said.
“The league had done a great job in arranging what they did, but it is now just so disappointing to have the rug pulled out from underneath us.”
Given lockdown is slated to continue until at least September 2, there appears little to no hope of staging what could be considered a reasonable season, especially given the Gippsland League and North Gippsland Football-Netball League has not played for six weeks.
The Gippsland League still needs to complete one home-and-away round to reach a stage where all 10 member clubs have played each other once — a stipulation the league has maintained is its minimum aim.
Before the round the league’s member clubs had agreed on a change to the finals series, with the top six teams to earn a ticket to the post-regular season action in place of the traditional top five.
Team selections were a major talking point in the lead up to the Gippsland League’s final home-and-away round, as restrictions in Melbourne meant city-based players could not be chosen.
Most Gippsland League teams had at least half a dozen changes in the outs column.
Amazingly, Wonthaggi, a club generally considered to be within close proximity to metro shires Casey and Cardinia, only had four players missing.
The Power would have been without coach Jarryd Blair for its clash against Sale, but retained genuine stars in Aiden Lindsay, Jordan Staley and Jack Blair.
Sale also seemed to be hardly affected by the Melbourne lockdown, and on cursory glance its team appeared close to full strength.
The Magpies’ starting midfield of Jack Johnstone, Shannen Lange and Jack McLaren, as well as Luke Di Ciero, Will Leslie and Jack Leslie across half back, would mount a strong case as two of the best lines in the competition.
Maffra had James Huts, Ed Carr, Kim Kantilla, Ben Brunt, Josh Edey and Lachlan Allman listed as out for their match with Drouin, but by the same token had some prominent names as inclusions.
Experienced Eagles’ senior campaigners Winston Gieschen, Daniel O’Brien and Josh Davis were among the ins, as was Curtley Nettleton, who had surprisingly only played one senior game this season despite averaging close to four goals a game in the reserves.
It was terrible timing for Maffra defender Sam Walker, who was set to play his 200th senior match before being left stranded.
If the season’s finals series do not go ahead, Maffra will remain the league’s reigning premier, despite only picking up three wins this season.
The NGFNL was scheduled to begin its finals last weekend. Traralgon Tyers United was to be one of the teams taking part, but had to stay put, along with Woodside (which had the week off in any case), Yallourn Yallourn North, Churchill and Yarram.
TTU senior coach Jamie Aitken said another cancellation presented no shortage of challenges.
“It is obviously very disappointing and probably more frustrating than anything,” he said.
“You get locked down and then come out and the boys start training again and you get to the Friday night before you play and you are shut down again.
“I was so excited for the players and the club to get back out and play; it was going to be a nice day and to see the boys out there running around doing what they love again was going to be the best part about it. We had been training with this carrot of a final in front of us and to have that pulled away at the last minute … it is really devastating.
“If the lockdown is for two weeks and players aren’t able to train I think it is curtains. You can’t make a decision now because you don’t know how long lockdown is going to go for — with players not able to touch a footy for that team I can’t see footy coming back this year.”
The East Gippsland Football-Netball League had one round remaining in its home-and-away season.
Although the final four is mathematically assured, the positioning of teams within the four could still change with one game to play.
Stratford, on top, would have had last weekend off as it was drawn to play Paynesville, which has forfeited the remainder of the season.
Boisdale-Briagolong, in third but equal on points to the Swans, was to play Lindenow in fourth.
The Bombers would have gone into the game without any match fitness as they won on forfeit the previous week to Paynesville.
Where things get interesting is in the percentage column.
Boisdale-Briaglong was given the percentage of the highest winning margin of the round in the week it was supposed to play Paynesville, which was 97 points.
Had the Bombers played Paynesville, there is a good chance they would have won by more than 97 points, and as a result now be higher on the ladder.
The same would have applied to Stratford, who could have fallen from top spot without being in control of their destiny.
While the term ‘asterisk season’ seems to be doing the rounds in recent weeks, one could argue players, coaches and club committees who have been involved during the past two years should indeed have an asterisk next to their names in order to stand out in generations to come.
Although officially players and coaches won’t have many games to show for it in the record books, they deserve to be remembered for displays of resilience, commitment and tenacity in the face of something no other playing group before or in years to come will probably ever have to deal with.