Story courtesy Michael Shillito.
Photos from Michael Vettas/Vettas MEDIA.
A marathon season had come down to one last game. The premiership was on the line as East Coast Eagles took on St George Dragons at Blacktown International Sportspark on Saturday afternoon.
Conditions were perfect. The sun was shining and the ground was in great shape. There was a bit of wind favouring the Eastern Road end, but nothing too serious and it was certainly possible to score at the other end.
The Eagles suffered a shock loss in last year’s decider, but dropping just two games, completing the minor premiership and getting through to the Grand Final only playing one final gave the Eagles favouritism. But the Dragons had also enjoyed a successful year, finishing in second place and winning two out of three finals to make it through to the big game. There were some heavy knocks in the first quarter. East Coast’s Luke Gemmill found himself with 15 minutes in the sin bin after a yellow card and within moments of his return St George’s Ben Wharton also incurred the wrath of the umpires and found himself banished for 15 minutes after Andrew McConnell was carried off, heavily concussed.
But for much of the opening term, it was a high-scoring shootout. The Dragons scored the first two goals of the game within four minutes and had plenty of the ball during the first term. But some inaccurate finishing would hold them back while the Eagles were making every post a winner when it was their turn to be in attack.
It had been an opening term of frenetic action; big hits, quick ball movement and non-stop activity around the ground. With six goals to four, the Eagles were leading by six points at the first change, but it had been a quarter of see-sawing momentum and the game was still very much in the balance.
In comparison to the first quarter, the second started slowly with the ball travelling around the wings and neither side disturbing the goal umpires for nearly 10 minutes. A few minutes later the Dragons moved the ball forward to the square, where Earl Shaw can’t hold the mark but a good second effort sees him re-gather and snap truly to get the Dragons within a kick.
Dragons’ hopes are raised, but fleetingly as the Eagles would get the centre break and move it forward for Rowan Bilkey to mark and goal. The veteran Eagle, after playing most of his career as a defender, has re-invented himself as a forward this season and again showed his ability to come up with goals when needed.
Jamie Vlatko added to the Eagles’ advantage two minutes later, marking next to the goal square, with a resultant 50 metre penalty eliminating what would have been a tight angle. But the Dragons came up with a reply during time-on, as Nick Ryan snapped a tricky goal from the pocket to reduce the margin to 10 points.
It had been two goals apiece for the second term. The Eagles were holding the lead at the break, but the Dragons were still within striking distance. And if last year’s Grand Final, when the Eagles ran out of legs in the final term, was still haunting the Eagles, they knew they had to build up a buffer in the premiership quarter. Jamie Vlatko on the lead extended the Eagles’ margin in the opening moments of the third term, but the Dragons got it back when Jake Brown was paid a free kick within scoring range. Kicking the goal and signalling to an increasingly vocal group of St George supporters on the hill. Standing with a giant Dragons flag, the St George faithful roared their approval; and as the minutes ticked by with just eight points separating the two sides, the game was delicately poised.
But four minutes of magic from Jamie Vlatko blew the lead out, putting the game beyond the Dragons’ reach. It began with a 50 metre penalty that turned a hard shot into a certainty. A minute later after drawing Dragon defenders, he found an unmarked Damian Charleston. And then from a tight angle near the scoreboard, it was Jamie Vlatko again threading a shot through. The vocal East Coast contingent behind the goals at the railway end were loving it as the lead was suddenly out to 26 points. And nerves in the Eagle camp were steadied.
The Dragons were briefly thrown a lifeline when Paul Sain was paid a free for kicking in danger in the goal-square, but that was cancelled out by a second effort by Rowan Bilkey deep in time-on. 25 points the margin at the last change; and it looked like too much for the Dragons to pull back.
The clouds were gathering, day was turning into night. And the wind was picking up, with the Eagles coming home with it in the final term. There were no shortage of well-wishers around both huddles as coaches Michael Sankey and Terry Mudge pleaded with their charges for one last effort. But the momentum had swung the Eagles’ way. As the final quarter got under way, the Eagles fans on the hill made the decision to change ends, and a procession along the hill took place. They had barely made it to centre wing before their team had extended their lead as Connor Stewart played on to do the honours. There were wild scenes on the hill as the Eagle procession passed the Dragon Army flag, with security having to separate the two groups; but the Eagle fans got to the goals where their team was kicking to.
And as soon as they got there, James Ford soccered a goal through. A minute later Jamie Vlatko kicked his sixth and the Eagle fans were banging their metallic drum in celebration. And when Jack Dimery scored, he came over to the Eagle fans; a gesture to the crowd and sharing the moment with them.
For St George, the dream of a flag was not to be. A kick in the dying moments was a microcosm of their game, as a long bomb landed in the goal square, then sat up and didn’t bounce through for a goal. They had done so much right this year, but weren’t able to finish it off when it mattered. The siren sounded, and all the pressure was released; as the fans raced onto the field to celebrate.
Walking across the ground, the emotion on both sides is plain to see. Pleasure and agony separated by just a few metres. Dragon players slumped to the ground, the empty feeling of having come so close; and unable to muster the energy to stand up. The Dragons will be disappointed. It’s been a long time between flags for them, their last coming in 1994. But they can walk away with pride at what they’ve achieved this year and if the trajectory of improvement can continue in 2017, they will surely be flag contenders.
Just metres away is the pure joy of the Eagles as players embrace. There’s a massive cast with them – coaches, volunteers, players from other grades, past players, families, supporters. They’re all part of it; and a premiership is for the entire club, not just the 22 players on the day.
It was an emotional win for the Eagles. They left their NEAFL existence two years ago in desperate financial straits, and almost went under. Further pain had come in last year’s Grand Final defeat. But their playing group stood by the club in tough times, and with this flag their reward has come. The unfinished business is finally complete. Some may retire, some may move on; but this is a moment they will always have together.
The Eagles had to dig deep to get this win. On the day, they had to battle a rising injury toll, several players struggling to get to the stage to receive their medals. But they got it done; and the watering holes in the Rouse Hill area are sure to be flooded with orders for celebratory beverages. The last 11 years have delivered seven grand final appearances and four premierships; three out of the four years they’ve missed were when their Premier Division team were NEAFL reserves. We’ve been used to seeing the Eagles on the big stage.
Kieran Emery was awarded the Podbury Medal as best on ground, in what must have been a close call ahead of Jamie Vlatko who finished with six goals. The final margin was 41 points, although the run of play was closer than that with the Dragons only having one less scoring shot. It had been a hard-fought and entertaining battle worthy of a Grand Final. But there can only be one winner, and on the day it was East Coast who emerged triumphant.
East Coast Eagles 6.0 8.4 13.4 17.5 (107)
St George 4.6 6.6 8.9 9.12 (66)
East Coast – Jamie Vlatko 6, R Bilkey 4, J Dimery, D Charleston, B Anderson, E Kruger, J Ford, C Stewart, A Savage
St George – P Sain 2, J Brown, K Merson, D Addison, D Tomlins, E Shaw, N Kenny, N Ryan
East Coast – K Emery, Jamie Vlatko, R Bilkey, A Drinkwater, J Dimery, D Costello.
St George – E Shaw, R Mercer, A Wynn, D Addison, J Mudge, K Merson.
At Blacktown International Sportspark, Saturday 17th September 2016.