THE ability to apply and absorb a high level of pressure will be a key factor for Strathfieldsaye and Gisborne when they clash in the Bendigo Bank Bendigo Football Netball League’s senior footy grand final on Saturday.
When they met two weeks ago on Queen Elizabeth Oval it was Strathfieldsaye which stormed to a 83-71 victory in the second semi-final.
The win put Strathfieldsaye into its seventh grand final in eight seasons and a chance to win the Bendigo Advertiser premiership cup for the fifth time.
At the grand final media conference on Wednesday, Gisborne captain Pat McKenna spoke about Storm’s relentless pressure in week two of the finals series.
“We didn’t adapt and didn’t respond to their pressure as well as we had to,” McKenna said.
“A key will be to start stronger,” said the Bulldogs’ skipper who leads Gisborne into its first senior grand final since 2012.
The Bulldogs showed plenty of fight in a two-point win against Golden Square in last Saturday’s preliminary final.
“We have worked extremely hard to be where we are. In many ways it was a relief to get through, especially after the preliminary final defeats in 2019 and ’14.”
It was intense heat from both teams in the fight to earn a crack at premiership glory.
“We believe that sort of match holds us in good stead,” McKenna said.
“The last 10 minutes was just contest after contest. Our workrate at stoppages was excellent.
“We have to take that level of pressure to another level in a grand final.”
Beaten just twice in the home and away series, and then in a final, the Rob Waters-coached Gisborne has shown a great ability to learn from defeat.
The all-Bulldogs showdown at Golden Square in the 17th round ended in a 10-point win for the blue and gold.
A few weeks later and Gisborne bounced back to beat Square in the preliminary final.
McKenna said Storm’s strength in all parts of the ground meant it would not be just be a case of “shut down” the midfield and it’s a Gisborne victory.
“Both teams are strong in attack, defence, and through midfield.
“We have to play well in all three areas.”
Gisborne does have defender Jake Normington under an injury cloud.
“Jake has come up a bit lame from the weekend, but we will give him every chance to play given he has played every game this year,” said McKenna.
It’s been a remarkable run on the footy field and netball court by Gisborne this season.
The club has all three football teams and three netball line-ups in grand finals.
At Strathfieldsaye, Riley Clarke and Mitch Hallinan face fitness test after both injured ankles in the second semi-final.
“We think Mitch is probably doubtful. You’ve only got to look at him walk to see that, but given he has played some great footy through the year we’re going to give him every chance to play,” said Storm co-coach Darryl Wilson.
“Clarkey, it would be pretty safe to say that he will play.”
A highlight of Storm’s win in the qualifying final was Hallinan’s play in defence against Golden Square gun forward and Ron Best medallist Joel Brett.
Although beaten by Gisborne in both home and away matches by margins of six and 58 points, Storm stunned the Dogs in the second semi-final.
Injuries and Covid meant Storm rarely had its best 22 available for a lot of matches.
More than 40 players have been used in Strathfieldsaye’s run.
Storm captain and gun forward Lachlan Sharp is on the cusp of a fifth premiership victory, along with co-coach and half-back flanker Shannon Geary.
“It’s always an exciting week, no matter how many times you have been in a grand final,” Sharp said.
Storm has a core group of experienced players who have racked up multiple premiership wins, but also many in their first senior grand final.
Sharp said the development of players such as Callum McCarty, James Schischka, Riley Wilson had played a big part in Storm’s run.
“They are hungry for success and play a big part in driving the standards at training and in matches.”
A triple premiership coach at Storm, Wilson said the pressure in this year’s finals had been incredible.
Goalkicking accuracy is what most finalists have struggled with.
“A lot of that is because of the pressure being ramped up,” Wilson said.
“Players are being forced wide into the pockets where it’s not as easy to score from.”
In a career in which he has kicked more than 800 goals for Storm, Sharp is a major focus in an attack that includes Schischka, Caleb Ernst, and Baxter Slater who slotted seven goals in the qualifying final.
Grand final week kicked off with Storm on-baller Jake Moorhead being crowned the Michelsen medallist as the league’s fairest and best.
“Jake is so dedicated, totally professional and works so hard,” said Wilson.
Sharp said Moorhead’s ability to keep charging in and winning the footy had been a big part of Strathfieldsaye’s play for several years.
“He just gets on with the job. He is such an important cog in our team.”
Another important link will be in the ruck where Storm veteran Michael Pilcher takes on the athletic Braidon Blake.
Pilcher was vice-captain of Storm’s first senior team in 2009 which was coached by Clint Whitsed and captained by Jono Gawthrop.
After a journey that included being a premiership-winning coach at Leitchville-Gunbower, Pilcher rejoined Storm this season.
“Pilch wanted to come back to the club. He began this season as an assistant coach and helping our emerging rucks, but that didn’t quite go to plan because of injuries,” said Wilson.
“He always competes really well.”
The spotlight will also be on Baxter Slater who won the George Symons Medal with Gisborne’s under-18s, but is now in Storm colours and a key player roving contests near goal or across half-forward.
Written by Nathan Dole