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 on 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.
Feelings of emptiness reverberated around Gippsland as news of another cancelled round filtered through about 7.30pm, in what was felt by many as the final straw that descended even the strongest willed people to breaking point.
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 sheer consignment from players, coaches and committee members that the football and netball season was as good as gone.
Churchill Football-Netball Club president Michael Johnson said the writing was 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 (North Gippsland Football-Netball 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 have 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.
After three tries and failures, Moe and Traralgon officials had been hoping last weekend was finally the time their match could go ahead. The game, which carried the significance of feature match for Mental Health Round, was instead cursed yet again.
It was also heart-break for a number of players who were set to make their senior debut.
In what must have surely felt like they won the Melbourne Cup only to lose on protest, Moe players Justin Morrow, Caleb Michie and Matt Heywood, along with Morwell trio Zac Bezzina, Brad Brereton and Callum Hutchison had to watch on helplessly as their opportunity slipped by.
The NGFNL was scheduled to begin its finals series last weekend. Traralgon Tyers United was
to be one of the teams taking part, but had to stay put along with Woodside (who 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 Mid Gippsland Football-Netball League had one round remaining in its home-and-away season.
The MGFNL opted to play a round of matches last weekend under Melbourne restrictions, but
was met with the same fate as their Gippsland League and NGFNL counterparts this time
A good story was brewing in Thorpdale before the cancellation, as the Blues had successfully rallied to put a reserves team on the park after travel restrictions completely decimated their stocks.
In netball circles, poor Morwell East veteran Lauren Marks was left on 299 games, while another major milestone is still yet to happen, with football umpiring legend Steven Buhagiar stranded on 999 games.
The man known as ‘Budgie’ has been denied by two lockdowns while on the 999 mark.
There was further drama away from the field and court, as Morwell and Traralgon bakery Out of Dough, which supplies a number of club canteens, was forced to sell hotdog rolls at drastically reduced prices to try and clear stock.
While the term ‘asterisks season’ seems to be doing the rounds in recent weeks, one could argue players, coaches and club committees who have been involved during the last two years should indeed have an asterisks next to their name 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 in a shining light for their displays of resilience, commitment and tenacity in the face of something no other playing group before or quite possibly in years to come has or will ever have to deal with.