South Launceston coach Leigh Harding has a message for anyone who thinks Saturday’s grand final is a foregone conclusion – it’s not.
The Bulldogs boast a six-game winning streak over their grand final opponents, including their past three finals appearances and most notably last year’s decider.
Bracknell was handed an 86-point defeat in the second semi-final two weeks ago and a 135-point thumping in round four, yet Harding says the stats don’t tell the full story.
“A lot of people - particularly people who haven’t been to our games - are going to look at our last game against Bracknell and think ‘86 points, it's going to be a walkover’, but we’re under no illusions there,” he said.
“I look at the difference from when they played us two weeks ago to watching them last week against Scottsdale and it was a complete back-flip in a lot of ways.
“It was fantastic to win by that margin and get straight through to the grand final, but we erase that from our memory now and Saturday’s another day.”
Both sides are expected to make one change for the grand final, with experienced talls Joel Mountney and Majak Miar likely to force their way into the South and Bracknell squads respectively.
Their inclusions means both sides will have bad news for one unlucky player, but the chance to line up in the reserves grand final between the same two clubs will help soften the blow.
Harding said Mountney had been “running the house down” since having a plate and screws in his thumb seven weeks ago.
“He’ll give us that bit of extra experience and toughness - it’s very likely he’ll come in.
“If someone goes out of the side now it’s going to be someone who’s played senior footy for most, if not all of the year, but what is also pleasing for the club ... is having three sides in (grand finals).”
Bracknell enters the match having fallen one step short in the past two seasons in pursuit of its first silverware since the 1997 Esk-Deloraine title.
“South are a very good side but we’re ready for it,” Redlegs coach Gary Shipton said.
“There’s always a lot of pressure in grand finals and obviously playing in the last two and losing, there’s a lot on this one to win it.”
The NTFA ladder speaks of the same dominant South Launceston, but the magnetboard tells a different story.
Right from the opening seven rounds – where their average winning margin was 95 points – the Bulldogs’ continued supremacy has been led by new blood as much as it has experienced stars.
The retirements of celebrated veterans such as Adam Viney and David Patten paved the way for a host of young talent including Grant Holt, Josh Harris and Ben Tregurtha to emerge, and far from taking a backwards step in 2018, the Bulldogs have powered forward.
“We’ve got 10 changes from last year’s premiership side - when you’ve only got 22 on the ground that’s quite a substantial margin and it’s probably a positive thing for the footy club to fill those voids,” coach Leigh Harding said.
“It’s a bit of revitalisation having some youth, it keeps the fire burning for our older guys which is the extra motivation we need.
“You’ve got to have hunger to be successful and that’s certainly there.”
The Bulldogs have again thrived without an out-and-out forward target, amassing 340 more points than any other team in the roster season courtesy of a spread of goalkickers.
Seven Bulldogs have kicked 20-plus majors this season – a feat achieved by no other team – however, one of them will be missing on Saturday.
Former Launceston star Sonny Whiting, who arrived as a big-name recruit at the midway point of the season, kicked 24 goals in six games before parting ways due to other commitments.
Harding conceded Whiting was a big out, but backed his troops to cover the loss.
“The pleasing thing for us is we were lucky enough to get him to our club mid-year and up until then we were very versatile with our goalkickers.
“You’ve only got to look at our last game against Bracknell and we spread the load and had 12 goalscorers.”
Shooting for their fourth flag in five years – a feat which would replicate North Launceston’s TSL dominance – the Bulldogs have never really looked like stumbling.
The opening seven rounds proved complacency wasn’t going to be an issue, and even when they were tested during the middle part of the season, they found a way to edge out Scottsdale and take a draw at Longford.
Harding said the coaching panel had been careful to keep things fresh for the players during pre-season.
“The major thing coming off a premiership and some successful years was to be versatile with our training methods and what we do.
“We spent a fair bit of time away from the footy ground before Christmas in different environments, we had a training camp in Bridport and a few of our practice games were away.
“I think that’s been the main thing - our game style hasn’t changed a lot but it was important we tweaked a few little things, particularly with different personnel.
“It’s a long season and we do train on our ground a lot so getting away early on has been one of the main things.”
If 21 years is the time it takes to come of age, Bracknell has plenty to look forward to on Saturday afternoon.
Despite a number of recent grand final appearances including 2016 and 2017, the Redlegs have not tasted premiership success since 1997 and are desperate to cap off two ‘almost’ years with a flag.
Gary Shipton’s senior charges will share grand final day with the reserves for the first time since 1990, and can expect all of Bracknell to turn out at Windsor Park come Saturday.
“It’s been a fair while since we last had both our reserves and seniors in grand finals so it’s a big weekend for the club and the Bracknell community,” Shipton said.
“The last couple of years we’ve been trying to finish in the top three and give ourselves that second chance, and to now have three shots at a flag, (it’s been good).
“We’re excited to be semi-successful in two grades as (South) have been with their three grades over the past few years, it’s good to have our club in a good strong position.”
Bracknell has enjoyed a consistent 2018, dropping just five games en route to the grand final.
With the exception of the reigning premiers, the Redlegs have beaten every side at least once and played perhaps their best game of the season in last weekend’s preliminary final against Scottsdale.
Former Launceston and Uni-Mowbray ruckman Majak Miar missed that match, but has performed strongly against South Launceston this season and could return to the line-up for the grand final.
Miar arrived in the pre-season alongside returning trio Matt Lang, Trent Page and Corry Goodluck, all of whom have been major contributors this year.
Shipton said the club’s ability to attract past players back to the club had helped cover the exit of stars like Jackson Chorley, Josh Nunn and Jesse Tunks.
“Jackson Chorley went to Canada to live so he was a big loss to our midfield from last year, and Callum Mulder went travelling so he only played a couple of games earlier in the season and he’s another player with a lot of run and drive.
“But you bring in the likes of Majak - a ruckman we probably lacked last year - Clinton Burn off half-back and wings, Matty Carlile an on-baller and Corry Goodluck who’s a past player and has fitted in well up forward.
“We also missed Matt Lang’s grunt in the ruck last year so we’ve picked up a fair few past players.”
Bracknell’s last win over South came in round 7 last year, when veteran Craig Burling and midfielder Joe Chilcott led the Redlegs to a 17-point win at home.
Grand finals at Windsor Park, Saturday
- Seniors: South Launceston v Bracknell, 2.15pm
- Reserves: Bracknell v South Launceston, 11.30am
- Under-18s: Longford v South Launceston, 9.15am
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