The invincible Bombers take North Gippy crown

Dukes: Best-on-ground Jye Neilsen takes a strong grab on Grand Final day.





THE 2023 North Gippsland Football-Netball League senior Grand Final may well go down as the most ironic ever.

Two teams, in Traralgon Tyers United and Woodside, who had kicked goals with ease during the season, struggled to find the middle for most of Grand Final day.

The final scoreboard read 4.14 (38) to 2.8 (20), making for one very scrappy affair in Heyfield.

TTU didn’t score their first goal until midway through the third quarter. Woodside didn’t score any after halftime.

The Wildcats, who had often put up scores of more than 200 during the season, were kept to the lowest score ever for a North Gippsland FNL Grand Final.

In fact, Woodside’s final score was the exact same as what wooden spooners Gormandale had managed against TTU in a game this season. There is surely some irony in that.

Of all the statistics associated with the Bombers’ unbeaten season, that stat above might just be the one that demonstrates how strong TTU really was this year.

Not that the Wildcats didn’t have their chances, and in such a low-scoring game, they were well and truly in with a show up until three quarter time.

There was just too much irony.

For much of this season, commentary had surrounded the Bombers being on the edge of their player points.

Points were again a talking point for TTU in the Grand Final, albeit by the number of behinds they registered on the scoreboard.

Bombers co-captain Jye Neilsen took out the best-on-ground medal, but he too wasn’t sparred the irony of contributing a number of behinds to the overall tally, not to mention a couple missing altogether.

That he sealed the premiership for TTU with a major right on the goal line perhaps stopped any potential for a cruel, ironic twist that can sometimes meet a team entering a Grand Final undefeated.

The Bombers had to overcome worrying signs in windswept Heyfield. The Wildcats, with the weight of sentimentality on their side, kicked the only two goals for the first half, and led by 10 points at the main break.

Woodside had wanted a dogfight, and they had one. The Wildcats second goal came after a neat handball from co-captain Ryan Foat was collected by fellow leader Dan Missen, who curled it home in the breeze on the eve of halftime.

Little was anyone to know that would be the last time the goal umpire extended both arms for Woodside.

TTU was denied a couple of chances before the break, with the ball rolling into the post out of congestion at the 33-minute mark.

A second quarter lasting the best part of 35 minutes showed just how congested the contest was.

There was more of the same in the third term, as the ball was sent from end to end between the arcs. In some ways, it was country footy personified; man-on-man, no 45s, kick it to a contest and hope someone wins it.

With no one daring to attack from the top side of the ground, Bombers defender Liam Michie decided to take a punt from a kick in. He took one bounce, and another before sending the ball to the wing. Again, somewhat ironically, the Bombers’ first goal came from the top side, when league best-and-fairest winner Liam Willaton found some space from a hit up, faced up, and smartly used the wind to swing the ball through from left to right at the 12-minute mark.

That goal sparked some life into the game, and TTU hit the lead at the 20-minute mark thanks to Ricky Cochrane.

Cochrane had missed the semi-final, and was brought back into the team for the decider. What a time to repay the faith.

While the scoreboard wasn’t becoming an issue, Woodside had some issues around the ground as the Bombers controlled possession.

A rare Wildcats inside 50 for the term was thwarted when a set shot from Shaun Cusack didn’t make the distance. Woodside might have been a bit frustrated at this stage, as a downfield free kick was paid to Guy Sinclair, who added another behind to the total.

Come three quarter time, with TTU ahead by one goal, the Bombers were instructed by playing-coach Jack Brown to stick to the man-on-man method that had served them well the previous term.

Brown had the final say, leaving fellow coach Jamie Aitken (non-playing) to dissect the magnets.

Brown may well have been feeling slightly conflicted, as his Morwell premiership teammate Michael Duncan was addressing the Woodside team at the same time.

The sight of their Morwell premiership coach Harmit Singh helping the Wildcats however might have even spurred Brown on further.

TTU got away to the perfect start, with a goal to Sinclair in the first minute.

The goal umpire made him wait to see if his snap shot on the run was touched, before cueing a huge celebration when it was given the all-clear.

Sinclair set off on a victory lap toward the TTU bench who were right nearby.

Having played at TTU for many seasons, and been in-and-out of retirement, the outpouring of emotion was understandable for Sinclair as it looked as though the red and black faithful would soon be cheering their first senior flag in nearly two decades.

On a day where there was a noticeable amount of floaters kicked, the Bombers thought they had another goal when Hayden Willaton kicked truly and was then flattened.

The kick was recalled by umpire Lachlan Floyd, who to his credit, wasn’t falling for anything as a few players flopped for free kicks amid a bit of push-and-shove.

The Wildcats battled on, but looked out on their feet by the 15-minute mark, the result of perhaps playing four finals in as many weeks, compared to the Bombers who had only played one.

With the margin 12 points at the 20-minute mark, Woodside went for glory, kicking long straight down the middle.

The sealing play however came when Michie mopped up inside defensive 50, handballed it to Liam Willaton, who well and truly showed why he is nicknamed “Magic”, finding his brother Hayden with a neat pass inside 50 on a tight angle.

Hayden kicked toward goal, and much to TTU’s delight, saw the ball marked on the goal line by Nielsen, who ensured the premiership cup was going to be making its way down the only road leading into Tyers.

They won’t be saying T.T Who anymore.

When the final siren sounded, and spectators poured out onto the arena, the U in TTU was well and truly on full display.

The senior team was joined by their reserve counterparts, making it a double-delight for the Bombers, who had also achieved the rare feat of finishing a season as premiers and champions.

Those not in the 22 put on a brave face, but looked happy nonetheless for their teammates. TTU forward Caleb Michie was perhaps the hardest luck story, after injuring his hand late in the season. The youngster graciously declined an offer to play in the reserves, believing it wouldn’t be fair to take someone’s spot. Having done the running on the day, he rightfully took a spot on stage for the premiership photo.

Not far from the action was Andy Theissling, TTU’s head of stats, who’s volume of work had proved invaluable to the coaching staff this season.

A diehard Essendon fan, he was surely beaming to see a team in Bombers jumpers hold up a premiership cup.

While he already joined the list of players coached by Singh to go on and be a senior coach, Brown took a place higher up, as he is now the only one to also coach a senior premiership.

A packed contingent made their way into the Heyfield home rooms. Most know the words to the Bombers’ AFL song, although TTU change the line to “but they can’t contest”.

After going through a season unbeaten, it is hard to argue otherwise.

Neilson, Sinclair, Liam Willaton and Cochrane all played well for the winners, as did Tom Fleming and Mitch Mustoe.

Matt Dyke, Rowan Missen, Ryan Foat, Jeremy Morgan, Bailey Tatnell and Lee Stockdale put in good performances for Woodside.

Leap: TTU’s Nick Fox and Woodside’s Jai Williams fly for a mark.
What a difference 12 months makes: Liam Michie joined the Bombers this season, and is now a senior premiership player.
Play on: The North Gippsland Grand Final was a tight tussle.
Victory is ours: TTU captains Jye Neilsen and Mitch Mustoe hold up the premiership cup alongside co-coaches Jamie Aitken and Jack Brown. Flanking them is AGL Loy Lang General Manager Christo van Niekerk. Photograph Zoe Askew
Well played: North Gippsland Football-Netball League president David Kyle congratulates Jye Neilsen on winning the best-on-ground medal.
Kick away: Oscar Aliotta avoids a would-be smother. Photographs: Zoe Askew unless stated
Party time: TTU players celebrate their premiership in the clubrooms. Photograph supplied
Within reach: TTU coach Jack Brown addresses the group at three quarter time. Photograph Liam Durkin