For a club that rivals only the Calder Cannons in terms of top-line quality on its list, the Sandringham Dragons have had somewhat of a mixed bag this season, owing to the huge numbers that missed a bulk of the year due to school football.
Sandringham flew out of the blocks early, winning five out of its six opening games, including wins on the road to Gippsland and Queensland. However, question marks surfaced at the midway point of the year, with heavy losses to Calder in round four (59 points), Oakleigh in round seven (78 points) and North Ballarat in round nine (89 points), all of whom finished top four this year.
The Dragons endured a severe form slump mid-year, and didn’t register a win until round 12 since their last win in round six, overcoming the Geelong Falcons with a 40-point win, reinstalling belief they could match it with the top sides. Despite school football, AIS and Vic Metro duties taking a heavy toll on the Dragons’ first-choice 22, it was pivotal in terms of giving its list of 72 players experience at the top level.
After the round 12 win, a spirited Dragons outfit went on to defeat Bendigo, before a big upset win against the Cannons on the road by 16 points in round 14 threw the Dragons back into premiership contention. However, it was short-lived. They were embarrassingly shown up on their home turf against rivals Dandenong, only kicking two goals for the afternoon in a 42-point loss, and delivered more of the same in round 16 against the Western Jets who were too missing an array of first-choice players, going down by 53 points.
At full strength the Dragons showed their best football is capable of being well within flag contention, and came home with a wet sail to defeat the Power and Ranges, taking in winning form into the finals series to finish the season fifth on the ladder.
But, such is the landscape of TAC Cup finals, anybody from first to eighth can take home the flag. There is no home ground advantage with all games played at Visy Park, but importantly teams will include their best available, and with Dragons boasting the most amount of players invited to this year National Draft Combine, you can guarantee they’re set to shake things up this finals series.
Coach: Justin Plapp
Talent manager: Ryan O’Connor
Captain: Brayden Maynard
Leading goalkicker: Harry Dear (18 goals)
Final place: 5th
Best win: Round 14 win against Calder Cannons at Highgate Arena
Poorest loss: 78-point loss to Oakleigh Chargers at Trevor Barker Oval
Finals threat: Oakleigh Chargers – haven’t managed to beat them in 2014
The gun: Angus Brayshaw
They don’t come more tougher or courageous than Angus Brayshaw. The club’s star has played just the nine games this season due to AFL-AIS and Vic Metro commitments. Nonetheless, Brayshaw forms the backbone of Sandringham’s star-studded engine room who can often be found burrowing in under packs, or tucking the ball under his arm to clear the ball from a stoppage. The high-production midfielder has an outstanding capacity to win and use the ball, and has shown he can be a scoreboard threat kicking 14 goals this year to be Sandy’s leading goal kicker. Tipped to go early in this year’s draft, Brayshaw is the type of player who relishes the big stage, and the son of Mark and nephew of James will be raring to go come Saturday.
The smokey: Tom Wilkinson
Sandringham’s running machine and secret weapon is unstoppable thanks to his big engine and blistering speed. Wilkinson is a goal-kicking midfielder who has been named in the best seven out of a possible nine occasions this year, in what could be described as a super-consistent season. The Melbourne Grammar student showed how devastating he could be, winning 30 disposals and six clearances for Vic Metro against Western Australia at the National Championships earlier in the year, and is a real dark horse to make a big statement in the first elimination final. Wilkinson has kicked a total of 15 goals this year, and despite being overlooked for the National Combine, the man who runs a 16.8 beep test has a bit of a point to prove in front of big crowds including plenty of club scouts and recruiters.
Mr Consistent: Taylor Grace
The great thing about 19-year old Taylor Grace is that you just know what you’re going to get from him. Polished, poised and Sandringham’s spare parts man, Grace is as versatile as they come, and offers the ability to slip comfortably into any role handed to him. Grace has played 13 games for the Dragons this year averaging 31 disposals at 70% disposal efficiency, but more importantly has tasted senior VFL action for the Zebras on six occasions and has handled the step-up in bodies and intensity to a tee. Not too dissimilar to North Melbourne’s Nick Dal Santo in the way he plays his football, Graçe’s left foot is a weapon, as is his calmness under pressure. As a senior member of the team, the Dragons will be looking upon their Mr Consistent as a real cornerstone of their finals assault.
The x-factor – Josh Clayton
Clayton, who is father-son eligible to the Lions this year, has only played the nine games this year after a successful undefeated campaign at Brighton Grammar this year, but presents the biggest x-factor within the Dragons’ line up. Clayton, who stands at 190 centimetres, is the tallest midfielder on Sandringham’s books, but he’s shown throughout the year he’s more than capable playing an array of positions that have extended up forward, on a wing, down back and even through the ruck, such is his leap and innate aggression. Averaging a fraction under 20 disposals, Clayton has arguably the most Scott Pendlebury-like well-weighted handballs, and like Pendlebury, has an uncanny ability to slip through tackles and congestion and push forward to goal, where he’s kicked 10 goals from his past five games.
Under the radar: Will Fordham
The durable Will Fordham has played every game for the Dragons this year, and importantly his numbers have progressively improved throughout the season. Despite an invite to the National Draft combine, Fordham continues to float heavily under the radar, but he’ll cause plenty of headaches should a team not appropriately pay him their respects during the finals series. Fordham has had two best on ground performances this year against top-four sides Geelong and North Ballarat. Against the Falcons he collected 28 disposals at 95% disposal efficiency, including 12 handball receives and 10 marks. Fordham offers drive off the wings, and despite not presenting as a huge scoreboard threat, he wins enough of the ball in dangerous positions to warrant concern. He’s somewhat in the shadows of Sandringham’s bigger names, but that hasn’t concerned him this year. He is averaging near 30 disposals per game from his last month, and with his run and carry he is a dangerous part of an impressive midfield.
The match winner: Brayden Maynard
Brayden Maynard has had a terrific season that has included a Vic Metro jumper as well as the all-important captaincy of the Dragons in 2014. So far this year Maynard has spent more time through the midfield, where his ability to impact a contest and use the ball with poise on the outside has been telling. He is known for his goal-kicking quality, kicking 13 goals this year, and has been named in the best 10 out of a possible 14 games this season, leading the Dragons in that particular statistic. He’s really taken a big step in terms of his develop this year, and has been the point of tags such is his influence with the ball in hand.
The finals specialist: Ed Vickers-Willis
Another player who has spent majority of his time this year with school football and Vic Metro commitments, Ed Vickers-Willis threatens to be a wild card during the finals series. The All-Australian full back is a marking machine – his ability to read the ball in flight and pick off forward entries is really what defines him. He takes defensive marks and moves the ball very well by foot, and his work with Michael Manteit and at times Sean McLaren makes for an impressive defensive unit in terms of their attacking flair. Sandringham really holds an ace up its sleeve with Vickers-Willis, as he’s shown already on the big stage during the Championships how devastating he can be in his role, but importantly he can be thrown forward where he’s equally adept at making things happen.
Returning from injury: Harry Dear
The Dragons have really missed their forward anchor in Dear who has since been missing since round 15 with a shoulder injury. The Dragons have allowed him all the time in the world to be ready for finals, and as such should be facing a fitness test this week to pledge his case to suit up for the Dragons’ elimination final. Given the Dragons will go in comfortable favourites against the Bushrangers, Sandringham may give him one extra week to go on. Either way, he’ll be rusty when he returns, and may be limited in his output given his significant time out of the game. Dear started the season like a house on fire, kicking 13 goals in his opening five games which resulted in a few appearances for Vic Metro at the championships, but the Dragons have missed their forward anchor and is arguably the missing piece of Sandringham side that is well in contention for flag.
FINALS PREDICTION: Premiership contenders
I would be very disappointed if the Dragons don’t at least push for a preliminary final, but they’ve got the fire power and star power to match it with Calder and Oakleigh, despite not having beaten the latter at all in 2014.