EASTERN Ranges booted a goal in the dying seconds to deny an undermanned Gippsland Power an incredible come-from-behind TAC Cup victory at Morwell on Sunday.
Trailing by 35 at three-quarter-time, the home side mounted a spirited fourth term revival and hit the front with minutes on the clock before being denied on the siren.
Both sides had key players unavailable, with the Power lacking Ben Ainsworth, Nash Holmes, Josh Dunkley, Harrison McKay and Christian Bukyx-Smith who helped Victorian Country record its best result in the history of the under 18 national championships.
The Power was also without Sam Skinner, Tate Marsh and Ryan Hearn due to long-term injury while Darnell Grech was kept out by a minor calf problem.
Tom Papley’s absence brought the Power’s MIA list into double figures, with the influential goal kicker among the best for Casey Scorpions in the VFL on the day.
Papley booted three goals, accumulated just shy of 20 possessions and landed five crunching tackles against a Geelong side featuring several senior AFL players, including Brownlow medallist Jimmy Bartel.
It meant the Power could include Kieren Byers for his first game as the Morwell club leant on its depth to fill the ranks.
Before the match, players, umpires, officials and supporters had a minute’s silence to pay their respects to the family and club of Phil Walsh whose tragic death had stunned the national football community and country as a whole.
Power talent manager, Peter Francis, a teammate of Walsh’s at Richmond for three seasons from 1984 until 1986, led the memorial.
With both sides adjusting to new team dynamics, it took 15 minutes for the first goal to be kicked.
The ball was rushing in and out of either 50 metre zone but neither could finish their chances due to a combination of sloppiness and good defence.
A long forward foray by the Power allowed Deven Costigan and Nick Mulqueen to set up Tom Hobbs for the first major of the game.
The Ranges capitalised on some Power wastefulness, and reduced the margin to one point at quarter-time after goaling from a turnover.
Gippsland’s woes were summised by the statistics, which showed 18 forward 50 entries for a return of one goal – their worst effort for the season.
Both sides struggled through the second term with only two goals added by the Ranges to take a 12-point lead into half-time.
The Power again went goalless in the third term after some confusion in attack, allowing the visitor to skip away to a 35-point advantage by three-quarter-time.
Rising to the challenge, the Power made a fist of the fight and finally added its first goal in more than two quarters through Will Leslie.
Josh Patullo then kicked long and direct to find Byers who kicked a fine goal from deep in the forward pocket.
From the resulting centre bounce, Ben Dessent kicked into attack and two metre tall Ben McKay roved off the pack to kick another.
Some outstanding forward pressure by the Power set up an opportunity for Nick Mulqueen to win a free kick and he gave the side its fourth goal for the quarter.
Connor Ambler was the beneficiary of some Tom Hobbs and Kade Renooy forward pressure and brought his side within one kick of the Ranges.
In an immense comeback effort the Power hit the lead with less than three minutes remaining when Hobbs goaled, but the Ranges stole the points with a goal at the death.
The Power will travel to Warrawee Park to face Oakleigh this weekend, bolstered by the return of its state players.
VICTORIA Country finished off its unbeaten national under 18 championship campaign last Thursday, taking the national title with a 32-point win over Western Australia at Geelong.
Gippsland Power and Morwell local Ben Ainsworth booted five goals in the final match to help Vic Country to achieve an 8.15 (63) to 4.7 (31) triumph. Ainsworth was named in the All-Australian side following his efforts throughout the championship.
Vic Country 2.6, 7.9, 8.10, 8.15 (63)
WA 0.3, 1.3, 4.5, 4.7 (31)
Vic Country best: Jarrod Berry (Horsham), Darcy Parish (Winchelsea), Gash Nyuon (Narre Warren), Ben Ainsworth (Morwell, 5 goals), Darcy Tucker (Horsham) and Brandon White (Beaconsfield)