We’ve got a South Gippy showdown





THE member for Gippsland South can only hope it is a good game this weekend.

A South Gippsland Showdown will determine who takes home the Gippsland League senior premiership this season.

Wonthaggi and Leongatha will meet at Morwell Recreation Reserve for season 2023 glory.

From a historical viewpoint, the contest carries a number of subplots.

It will be the first time since 2012 a ‘local derby’ will be staged to determine the Gippsland League premiership.

It will also be the first time since 2014 that the Power will feature on Grand Final day, while for Leongatha, it is their seventh consecutive Grand Final appearance, equalling the record held by Traralgon from 1960 to 1966.

Wonthaggi are yet to win a senior flag in the Gippsland League as Wonthaggi Power, or even Wonthaggi Football-Netball Club for that matter.

Wonthaggi Blues played in three major league Grand Finals in the early 2000s (2001, ’02, ’04), while Wonthaggi Rovers mainly played in the now extinct Bass Valley league (colloquially known as ‘Bash Valley’ for obvious reasons).

The two clubs put their rivalry aside in 2005 and merged to form the Power, which went on to dominate the Alberton Football-Netball League, before being ordered to leave by the then Victorian Country Football League to join the Gippsland League.

Since joining in 2010, the Power has experienced mixed fortunes. The 2014 Grand Final hit something of a sweat spot either side of a three-year window as the local desalination plant had just opened and was in full swing, bringing a number of people to the area for work.

Wonthaggi didn’t lose many games between 2013 and 2015, but they didn’t win a flag either. Just as the Power was on the decline, their opponents this weekend started their dynasty.

Under favourite son Beau Vernon as coach, the Parrots went from outside finals in 2014 to the Grand Final a year later – and they’ve just kept making Grand Finals ever since.

Leongatha lost two before they won one – by one point in 2017, before going back-to-back. They very nearly completed a hat-trick, only to lose following some controversy in 2019 as what looked to be a late intercept mark wasn’t paid. Then came COVID, but the Parrots showed their immunity, going through last season undefeated.

By contrast, the Power operated at opposite ends either side of the pandemic. Wonthaggi missed finals every season from 2016 to ’19, and even sought to move to the West Gippsland Competition at the end of the 2010s.

But then along came Jarryd Blair.

The Collingwood premiership player and Wonthaggi boy was given the ultimate homecoming for a local footballer, granted the position of playing-coach of the town’s footy team.

Since taking over in 2021, Blair has made the Power a force in the Gippsland League competition, finishing top-three in each of his seasons in charge.

The Power narrowly missed the Grand Final last season after losing to Leongatha by two points in the second semi-final, but now get their chance 12 months later.

Wonthaggi crept under a lot of peoples noses during the early stages of this season, before a near-90 point demolition of premiership fancy Traralgon in Round 8 showed their destructiveness.

The Power’s only two losses for the year actually came in the first three rounds, meaning they will enter the Grand Final with an amazing 16 wins under their belt.

Under Blair, the Power has played a ballistic style of game, highlighted by ultra-quick ball movement and equally manic defence.

This has been complemented by the form of players such as Ryan Sparkes, who won the Gippsland League’s most valuable player award by some distance.

Wonthaggi added Cooper McInnes from minor league club Tarwin this season, and the investment has so far paid off as he has kicked more than 50 goals. Blair was also able to use his Collingwood networks to get Isaac Chugg across, just a year out of the AFL system.

Shannon Bray, Toma Huther, Aiden Lindsay and Jack Blair (younger brother of) are the remaining survivors of the 2014 Grand Final, and would dearly love to get some redemption almost a decade on.

The Morwell ground offers a different dimension to those Wonthaggi and Leongatha are accustomed to playing on, being more of a traditional oval rather than having long, straight wings.

Whether or not this makes much difference remains to the seen, although Leongatha has probably fared better playing on Morwell Recreation Reserve in recent years.

The Parrots could hold some advantage by the fact their reserves are also playing in the Grand Final, which will no doubt add to overall club morale at training this week.

In a decider between a team that knows how to win Grand Finals against a team that has only known winning for the last five months, it is shaping as an intriguing battle.

Maffra coach Anthony Robbins has said Wonthaggi had been the team to impress him most this season, and on the available data, the Power look like they will certainly take some beating.

While Wonthaggi’s speed has been their strength this season, it could also potentially be a weakness Leongatha will look to exploit. The Power have generally tried to blow teams off the park in the first half through their high octane run and carry, and given this will be impossible to maintain for four quarters, the Parrots could find themselves in with a show if they are able to slow them down until the main break and then try to run over the top of them.

It might take three quarters, it might take four, or it might even take until the last five minutes.

That being said, 16 wins in a row might just too good a form to deny. But then again, every win brings them closer to their first loss.

Tip: Wonthaggi by 15 points.