Tag: leigh clarke

Anderson rides the wave of a long footballing journey

THERE are few junior footballers who have experienced a journey quite like that of Angus Anderson. The Sydney Swans Academy captain hails from Sawtell, a coastal town in northern New South Wales, but has ticked off a plethora of other destinations en route to earning a National Draft Combine invite this month.

The six-hour drive to Sydney initially made it difficult for the 18-year-old to regularly participate with the Swans Academy, but he put his name in lights this year after spending a preseason with the Southport Sharks VFL side, and earning a spot on their supplementary list.

“I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to be the skipper for the Swans Academy,” Anderson said. “It’s a great honour really, especially since I’m not down there every weekend, so it just shows that the coaching staff and the team have had faith in me.”

Anderson travelled three hours up to the Gold Coast to train with Southport, ticking off a third state on his list of destinations. The second was Victoria, where he lived with his aunty and uncle while linking with the Eastern Ranges’ Under 16 NAB League program. In Melbourne, he also spent a term at Box Hill Secondary College and is currently completing his Year 12 studies back home in lockdown.

With a diverse range of experiences, Anderson has also been able to lean on a bunch of highly renowned coaches and staff. Among them are former AFL players, along with current and former NAB League coaches; including Jared Crouch and Chris Smith (Swans Academy), Leigh Clarke (Box Hill Secondary), Sean Toohey (Eastern Ranges), and Jarrod Field (Southport).

Also on that list of mentors is Anderson’s Victorian father, who coached him locally “all the way through” to senior level at the Sawtell-Toormina Saints, making him “a big influence” over his footballing career.

From enjoying the surf in the “laid back” town of Sawtell to “maturing as a person” while living with his aunty and uncle in Melbourne, Anderson has learned plenty over the last few years and gained a ravenous work-ethic. That trait translates to his football, where the big-bodied midfielder showcases a great appetite for contested ball.

“I feel like my contested ball is my strength,” Anderson said. “I’m a big-bodied mid who can win the ball and I’m slowly developing my outside game. “I can run out games well for a big-bodied mid, I like the physical aspect of AFL so I can tackle, and my hands around the ball and my ability to use both sides (are strengths).”

While leading the Swans Academy in a three-game NAB League stint this year, Anderson averaged 24 disposals, 3.5 tackles and a goal per game, as one of his side’s standout performers. Having already gotten a taste of senior football, he went on to represent the Swans at VFL level, and earned selection in the Under 19 Allies squad. Still, there is plenty the youngster is working on.

“I have heaps of areas I’m focusing on,” he said. “I feel like since I’m a bigger-bodied mid, I’ll be paired up with a couple of smaller mids occasionally. I’ve been working on my pack marking and I get to drift down forward I’ve been working on my goalkicking as well.”

Swans star Luke Parker is a player Anderson looks to mould his game on, while also noting the likes of Christian Petracca, Dustin Martin, Patrick Cripps, and Marcus Bontempelli as some of his favourite players. As one of just five NSW-ACT natives to earn a combine invite thus far, he is one step closer to joining them in the big leagues.

“Especially if I look back at myself at the beginning of the year, these achievements have been so big and I’ve been so proud of myself that I’ve made it this far,” he said. “It’s a huge honour to be a part of the initial 90 for the combine. “From a little kid coming from northern New South Wales, a little coastal town. “Barely anyone has been this far so it’s a huge honour.”

For now, Anderson is enjoying some of the extra down time he gets to relax in between school, going out for a surf every day and itching to get back on the park should the opportunity await.

He sought to thank all of his mentors and coaches along the way, Southport and the Sydney Swans for the opportunities they presented, and AFL North Coast for their support over the years.

2021 NAB League team preview: Northern Knights

NORTHERN Knights coach Leigh Clarke is encouraging his players to identify their “superpowers” as they prepare to return to competitive action on Friday afternoon. After over 550 days away, the Knights will take on Western Jets at Highgate Recreation Reserve and Clarke says most players have turned the time off into a major positive.

“The boys have presented in the best condition I’ve ever seen in terms of their running capabilities,” Clarke said. “Having a kick or a run with one mate was all they could do there for two or three months, but a high-90s percentage of them took the opportunity and have come back in really good condition.

“Being able to clock off 2km time trials that are pushing draft combine sort of levels, it’s a big, big credit to them to be able to back themselves away from the bright lights of pathway training, doing it in the dark and out on their own, so all credit to them.”

As for the superpower theme, it means the Knights will be a side sure of their greatest strengths.

“We’re talking a lot about superpowers at the moment,” Clarke said. “To understand, be clear and direct, be able to look people in the eyes and say ‘my superpower is x’. Have one and that’s it, there’s no debating, you know what your superpower is and you stand on your own two feet and can put that out in the open.

“We’ve got some time to work on all the stuff that’s at the back of the shop, but right now we want to focus on the things they do really well that we want to display that at the front.”

Allowing players to showcase their draftable qualities will also seep through the Knights’ style of play. Clarke says there is “no Da Vinci code” to how teams will look to move the ball, but that there will be similar styles with unique spins on them throughout the competition.

“We always stick to the fundamentals but the (players) have been able to pick up things pretty quickly in terms of how we want to move the ball,” he said. “We’re all following a similar path, we’ve just got various ways of teaching it. Our boys want to play a really exciting brand of footy that should display their draftable talent, so that’s a great starting point for us to be in.”

The region has also taken the approach of backing “character first” in 2021 as the NAB League top age moves up to 19. While like all regions, there are more 19th-year prospects on the list than usual, Northern is also looking forward to welcoming its Under 17 talent to the level once their carnival is completed.

Looking at the Knights’ most outstanding draft eligible talents, Ewan Macpherson is a top-ager with plenty to prove in 2021. The Western Bulldogs father-son prospect missed out on being drafted last year, but spent time with the Bulldogs pushing for a final list spot. The inside midfielder/defender has clean skills and should also feature in the VFL this year.

Tall utility Liam Kolar is another who went close to being picked up as an 18-year-old, but returns to the NAB League to get some more experience under his belt. Having come from a soccer and athletics background, Kolar is a likely type who combines speed and endurance as a key forward or even up on a wing.

He is currently being nursed back to full health though, having rolled an ankle while running out in a Carlton VFL practice match. Carlton NGA talent Regan Uwandu looms as another cog from the starting squad who is being managed back and will likely miss out for Round 1 with a foot injury.

Jackson Bowne is a livewire who will likely catch the eye too, while Ben De Bolfo is an emerging player who is relatively new to the program. The latter has taken up vice-captaincy behind Joel Trudgeon, a fellow 19th-year player who Clarke says is held in high regard by both his coaches and teammates. He is the brother of Carlton AFLW forward, Paige.

Rounding out the leadership trio is Joel Fitzgerald, an exciting 2003-born talent. Among the other 18-year-olds to watch are Josh Ward, Jack Rossimel, and Ben Long, who should feature prominently in the navy, black and white. There are some father-son prospects to keep AFL fans occupied too, with Macpherson, Jackson Archer (son of Glenn), and Mackenzie Hogg (son of Matthew) all rising the ranks.

Northern and Western are up second in Friday’s all-Metro double-header at Craigieburn, which should prove a good tested given the Jets already have a win on the board in 2021. While there may be plenty of cobwebs to be blown out, watch for the Knights’ superpowers to come to the fore this season.

Grateful Knights focussed on building connection

AFTER a difficult year for all, the Northern Knights are putting things into perspective heading into the 2021 NAB League Girls season. Former female talent coordinator, Natalie Grindal has stepped into the new, extended talent operations lead role which oversees both the boys and girls programs, along with incoming coach Leigh Clarke.

Grindal says she sometimes has to “pinch (herself)” though at her latest opportunity, with that perspective extending throughout the Northern talent program. While the wealth of changes and a condensed preseason schedule could be perceived as challenges for some, Grindal insists her Knights are grateful just to have football back.

“It’s always been a dream of mine to work in footy and to be able to do it now full-time and work across our girls program and now with our 17s and 19s boys, it’s amazing,” Grindal said.

“I think everyone is in the same boat with regards to what’s gone on in the last 12 months. “Obviously in terms of the staffing we’ve had a pretty significant change in personnel from a coaching perspective… so for us pre-Christmas and even post-Christmas the real focus was just on building that connection and building those rapports – whether it be player-to-player or player-to-staff – that’s been a real focus for us.”

“To be honest, we’re just really grateful to have footy back in any capacity. “Firstly it was training and now we’re just grateful and excited for the return of games, that’s the attitude that we’re taking at the moment.”

The success of the region, particularly over the last two years, in developing AFLW talent has been outstanding. In 2019 and 2020, number one AFLW draft picks in Gabby Newton and Ellie McKenzie graduated from the Northern program, along with a whole generation of elite-level prospects. Grindal says such honours were a “fantastic” result for the region.

“It was fantastic for the club to have Gabby and Ellie both go number one,” she said. “It’s a huge credit to the work that Marcus (Abney-Hastings), our coaching and support staff put into our program and our players’ development.”

“We’re really blessed in the northern region to have some fantastic local football clubs produce great footballers that come through and we’re just the beneficiary of those two girls, they’re outstanding. “It was fantastic to see Ellie debut on the weekend and Gabby still doing a fantastic job at the Bulldogs as well.”

This year, despite another turnover of top-age talent, the Knights are in good stead to again supply the top level of women’s football. Getting back to training in large unrestricted groups has helped players thrive as season proper approaches, and Grindal says players were “glowing” at the prospect of match simulation during the most recent preseason training stint.

“The girls were split into groups of about 10 (pre-Christmas), so when we returned post-Christmas, which was only two and a bit weeks ago, we were allowed to train in a full squad and you could tell that was what the girls were craving,” she said.

“Even from a preparation perspective, being able to do some match simulation – Leigh and I were talking and you could tell their faces were glowing, they had massive smiles after the first time we did some match simulation. “They obviously haven’t played for close to 11 months now of actual competitive football so for them to be able to get back, play with their friends and do what they love was really exciting.”

An “even split” across the age groups is set to make for a unique squad dynamic, as the competition moves towards Under 19 status in 2021. Grindal says the Knights will potentially have players stretched across four ages at any given time, with a number of standouts already emerging in the draft eligible categories.

“It’s an interesting one,” she said. “We’ll have some 19-year-olds returning, then we’ve probably got a pretty even split between 18 and 17-year-olds and we’ll also have a couple of 16-year-olds that will be on our list as well.”

Maeve Chaplin is going to return this year and play for us which is fantastic. “We’re excited for her to have another opportunity to show her skillset at the NAB League level, she was probably one of the really unlucky ones with the season cutting short – she didn’t get a full season to put her best foot forward and to prove herself to recruiters and AFLW clubs.”

Maykayla Appleby‘s in the AFLW national academy; she’s an 18-year-old, a really smart ball user who had played previously outside mid. “Obviously with Ellie and Fitzy (Jess Fitzgerald) in particular in the midfield last year, we’re looking at different players this year to step up and take that opportunity to take their game to the next level.”

Teleah Smart, who’s an 18-year-old as well, played in our 2019 premiership side as a bottom-ager, so she was 16-years-old then. “Unfortunately she was injured at the start of 2020 and was due to play in Round 4 as the competition was suspended so she’s well and truly itching to get back out there. “She’s an inside mid, an absolute contested ball winner, hard at it and I’m really excited to see her back out there again.”

Tarrah Delgado, probably at the start of the 2020 had a breakout year for us. “She played a couple of games with us in 2019 and then played all three in 2020 and really found her spot in defence. “She’s a really solid intercept marking defender, with an incredible read on the game and a pretty impressive kick on her, so she’s another one that I’m really looking forward to seeing how the year pans out for her.”

The Knights’ leadership group was announced at the club’s jumper presentation event on Wednesday, with Smart and Mikayla Plunkett set to co-captain as Georgia Kitchell takes up vice-captaincy. With no major injuries throughout preseason and a near-full squad to choose from, Northern faces a tough test in facing up to the Oakleigh Chargers for their Round 1 outing on Sunday afternoon.

In Pictures – 2019 NAB League Boys Grand Final

OAKLEIGH CHARGERS won their fourth NAB League premiership in eight years on Saturday after trumping minor premier Eastern Ranges by 53 points at Princes Park. As is always the case with premiership teams, there are series of stories to tell and this very special team is no different. Here is the story of Oakleigh’s 2019 grand final win, in pictures.

I can only imagine that one of the more rewarding things about coaching kids in the elite talent pathway is when they show everyone else the talent you have seen in them all year. Nick Bryan really came into his own during finals and started the decider on fire with 10 disposals. This was just one of his high flies in the opening term.

Speaking of high flies, there are very few players who do it better than Jamarra Ugle-Hagan. What a rare talent; the leap, sticky hands, authority in his walk after a big mark, and fluent set shot routine. It wasn’t quite his day, but he looked like tearing the game to shreds early on.

Speaking of authority, enter Noah Anderson. He marked just inside the arc and on a ridiculous angle here. You wouldn’t back many to make the kick, but you just felt there was always a chance he could bomb it through. While it wasn’t to be, his top 3 draft hopes are sure to come to fruition.

Joel Nathan, a rock in defence. He had just been crunched by Ugle-Hagan here and soon went off for a concussion test, but came back on and was as brave as any of the Ranges players for the rest of the match. Huge effort.

A famous B. Lawry could always be heard saying “it’s all happening”. Bailey Laurie‘s name is spelt a little differently, but you get the idea. That’s how he plays, all action and a game winner with his line breaking ability. We’ll get to see it all again next year, too.

This was the essence of Oakleigh’s game. Glamour and Hollywood plays aside, the Charger’s forward pressure is what helped fold Eastern in the third term. They just couldn’t keep up.

It might look a touch awkward but this was a terrific goal from Joshua Clarke, it looked a real team-lifter. He has made a habit of slotting goals from deep on his left side, but is more typically a rebounding force from defence. Great pace and dare.

Arguably Eastern’s best draft prospect, Lachlan Stapleton was right with Clarke in his second term exploits. He’s such a hard worker and enjoyed an ultra-consistent year from midfield.

This kid is a ripper. The skipper, Trent Bianco. He took the reigns in the back end of the year with co-captain Dylan Williams out injured and led his Chargers to the flag. Eastern put everything into stopping him, they beat him pillar to post and had Mihaele Zalac – who he turned in this bit of play – paying him close attention. He still managed to get off the leash and rip up the outside.

Write the name Wil Parker in your notes for next year, he and Clarke will be an enjoyable half-back duo to watch. He had a couple of daisy trimmers, but was otherwise sound on the ball and went back to take some important intercept marks.

We might talk about his 60-metre goal on his non-preferred side after the fact, but this image is more typical of Matt Rowell. Not the whole getting tackled part, but how he is always at the bottom of the packs, ball in hand, and attracting a raft of opponents. Gun, and the obvious number one.

I’m not sure what Lochlan Jenkins said here, but fair play to Will Phillips for keeping the peace.

Get around Jeromy Lucas! A game changer in the premiership quarter.
Just ask coach Leigh Clarke; “Full credit to him, he came out and kicked three goals in that quarter and started to turn the game for us. “That was exciting and credit to the coaches in the box, that was a discussion that was brought up in the box, we back the boys in the box and pulled the trigger on that and I think it was a key moment.”

“The true modesty of Matt, we encouraged him over the past month to really celebrate a goal, he said at best he’d give us a thumbs up.” – Leigh Clarke

I know, another photo of Rowell. This, just before he booted that 60-metre goal on his left foot.
His secret? Practice, and a bit of luck.
“It came off sweetly, I didn’t think it was going to go that far but it just ended up sailing through,” he said.

Doesn’t seem that Thomas Graham needs any invitation to celebrate a goal. Scenes.

This kid’s journey to the big dance was a bit… testy. Lucas ‘Testy Westy’ Westwood, a late out in the preliminary final due to a ruptured testicle. Ouch, wasn’t going to stop him here though.

Bitta Selwood about this. Fraser Elliot wore the crimson mask and came out on top.

The best on ground an unprecedented second time. This is the moment Rowell asked “can I do the handshakes first?” when being dragged away for media duties. Shades of Xavier Duursma with TAC Cup Radio last year.

Yeah, get used to it young fella.

Captain and coach. They were happy, trust me.

Often forgotten, the hurt. What a leader James Ross is, had an outstanding year, but unfortunately someone had to lose.

Dermie’s son Devlin played for the Ranges a couple of years ago, he offered some words to Ross post-match.

Moments after Anderson slipped down the podium stairs, probably one of the few mistakes he made on a football ground this year.

“The top three” according to Harris Mastras.

Premiers.

Chargers revel in grand final redemption

THREE years in charge, two grand finals, one premiership. That is not bad going by anyone’s standards, and it is exactly what Oakleigh Chargers coach Leigh Clarke has now achieved at the helm of his NAB League side.

A former Charger himself in the mid-90s, Clarke led his troops to premiership glory a year after falling short by a single goal to Dandenong Stingrays. In that same year, Oakleigh delivered a record-equaling haul of 11 AFL draftees, and while that feat is unlikely to be matched for a second year running, the Chargers boast arguably the best two players in the entire draft crop.

Defining success in the NAB League is difficult – how do you weigh team achievements against the goal of getting as many players drafted as possible? The Chargers seem to have found the perfect balance over the last decade, culminating in yet another year of success. It is a case of getting their just desserts in Clarke’s eyes.

“We’re not going to apologise for the talent we’ve got,” Clarke said after his side’s comprehensive 53-point grand final victory.

“For (our players) to turn up like they did today and produce under the pressure against a team that… had done their homework and clearly came to play individual roles which really worked well from the first half, all credit to our boys they really deserve to feel what they feel right now.”

“We knew what we were going to get from (Eastern) and credit to the boys, we talked about how it was going to be an arm-wrestle, it was going to be physical and personal game and the boys were able to come out and just play that momentum game.”

Planning to ride out waves of momentum is all well and good, but you need the cattle to be able to generate it on your end. Enter Matt Rowell, who firmed as the clear best Under-18 player in the country on the back of a second-straight grand final best afield performance.

The same honour, but a much different outcome this year for the prolific midfielder.

“Obviously it’s a much better feeling this time around after last year,” Rowell said post-match.

“It really hurt last year, we really wanted to get back to this stage and we’ve gone one more so (I) just couldn’t be prouder of the boys and the way we went about it. “(Individual honours) is not what I play for, I’m just much happier this time around getting the medal because we won.”

A similar sentiment was shared by Oakleigh captain Trent Bianco, who played alongside Rowell as bottom-agers in last year’s losing decider. Somewhat lost for words, the damaging outside mover stumbled on his cliches amid the euphoria of premiership victory, but the message remained true.

“What a difference a year can make, this time last year we were arms in our heads, hands in our arms, whatever it is,” Bianco said with an ear-to-ear grin.

“It’s a pretty surreal feeling… we were pretty upset (last year) but we used that as a bit of motivation, so throughout the pre-season it was in the back of our minds the whole time. “We definitely wanted to get back here and we did.”

If getting back to the last game of the season was not arduous enough, the Chargers knew full well that minor premiers Eastern Ranges were not ever going to be a side to let up. But Oakleigh came prepared, armed with the experience and hurt of 2018 on top of two previous wins against the Ranges this year.

Rowell and Bianco also respectively lauded their side’s ability to “stick it out” and “fight through” the Ranges’ early challenge, something that comes more easily with said preparation and the right coaching.

“We prepared well all week, we knew what was coming at us,” Bianco said.

“We try and keep it pretty similar, we didn’t change anything throughout the week training-wise… and just tried to keep it real simple and tried to get our heads in the game – not thinking about too many external pressures or anything. “Credit to the coaches, I think we were led quite well.”

“Like (Trent) said, just keep it simple. “It’s always in the back of your mind, especially the big game but (Clarke) said before the game ‘The bigger the game, the simpler it is’ so that’s just what we went in with,” Rowell added.

It seemed the game went to plan – the margin would suggest as much – but preparation can only take you so far. There are key moments in every game, and it was a roll of the dice move on Oakleigh’s part which unearthed an unlikely hero in the third term.

“We made some changes in the third quarter with Jeromy Lucas,” Clarke said.

“Full credit to him, he came out and kicked three goals in that quarter and started to turn the game for us. “That was exciting and credit to the coaches in the box, that was a discussion that was brought up in the box, we back the boys in the box and pulled the trigger on that and I think it was a key moment.”

Oakleigh’s defensive pressure was admirable all day too, but it seemed a switch flicked mid-way through the third term as Lucas and Oakleigh poured on the goals.

“I just think it was our forward pressure and creating those forward half turnovers which were really key to us piling on six or seven unanswered goals,” Bianco said. “We just backed our game plan and backed our players and that’s what got us there.”

GWS Academy product Lucas’ three goals were accompanied by two from Rowell in the same term, stretching the Chargers’ lead from as little as three points, to 44 at three-quarter time. Arguably the best goal of the lot belonged to Rowell, with his 60-metre bomb on his non-preferred left foot well and truly signalling party time for Oakleigh. Despite the incredible effort, Rowell was reserved both in the moment and when describing it.

“It came off sweetly, I didn’t think it was going to go that far but it just ended up sailing through,” he said. “I think the wind helped a bit.”

“He practices a lot,” Clarke said of his young champion’s feats.

“The true modesty of Matt, we encouraged him over the past month to really celebrate a goal, he said at best he’d give us a thumbs up. “We challenge our mids, they get a special prize of a t-shirt if they kick two goals as a midfielder, so we were riding those last couple of shots. “We had a motorbike last week from Jamarra (Ugle-Hagan) as well, we encourage the boys to celebrate the good moments, that’s for sure.”

And celebrate they will, with their incredible season capped off by a true sense of redemption for the Chargers’ top-end.

With the on-field business out of the way, the likes of Rowell and Bianco will now turn their attention to the national combine before November’s draft.

Top-end Chargers look to go one better

Tapering expectation is difficult when in the midst of a pathway renowned for both its production of top-end talent and subsequent team success. After falling six points short of ultimate footballing glory in last year’s grand final, the Oakleigh Chargers will be looking to go one better in this year’s NAB League decider.

Along with the likely first two picks in this year’s draft, Noah Anderson and Matt Rowell, 2019 co-captain Trent Bianco is one of a handful of Oakleigh top-agers set to feature in a second-straight grand final on Saturday. While last year’s loss “adds a little bit of extra motivation” for Bianco, he insists his Chargers are not lacking any as they look to rectify the 2018 result.

“(Last year’s loss) just starts that fire inside,” Bianco said at the NAB League grand final press conference.

“Losing by a kick, six points or whatever it was, it still hurts us to this day and we definitely don’t want that to happen again. “It’ll definitely be in the back of our minds but it won’t change too much. “It’s just another game, it sounds like a cliché but it’s just another game and we just want to attack it just like we normally do.”

Chargers coach Leigh Clarke is another who has been here before, remaining at the helm for another Oakleigh lunge for the flag. Speaking of expectations heading into the “final test” for his side, he says success on the big day will go towards the legacy of each player he leads.

“I guess it’s like any final, the expectations rise a little bit and Eastern will understand as well that equally as much as we do,” he said.

“The prize on the line is something we want the boys to share… we talk about it quite often and they get to share that for the rest of their lives – that they’ll never be forgotten at our club if they win a premiership.”

The high stakes that come with a grand final adds another element to how individuals react within a team. Despite boasting a high amount of top-end talent when compared to Eastern’s vast team spread, Clarke maintains selflessness is what will get his side over the line in the big moments.

“An interesting part of the week is you get to see the boys under high game expectation… and see how they react to it. “The boys (who) want to peruse the pathway into the AFL, they need to be able to understand rising to the occasion. “We talk often about it might not be your day but you can always have your moment, so we’ll be expecting our boys to, if it’s not their day, sacrifice to help someone else have their moment as well.”

The different dynamics between the two sides set to meet on Saturday is as interesting a juxtaposition as the NAB League has ever seen, with Oakleigh boasting almost a dozen Vic Metro squad members to Eastern’s handful, while also having six national combine invitees to the Ranges’ nil. While the Eastern line-up has undergone a raft of changes since their last meeting with the Chargers, Oakleigh’s experience of shuffling the deck each week has been a test.

“We’re obviously in a little bit of a different position to Eastern,” Bianco said.

“We’ve got a few more boys (going) in and out every week so it’s a bit hard to in the middle of the year just to stay consistent but I think we’ve done a good job towards the middle and back-end of the year.”

Bianco’s descriptor of a “good job” is somewhat of an understatement, with the Chargers coming in off a massive run of seven wins, as well as 11 in their past 12 outings. The skipper is just pleased to see his side’s consistency.

“We’ve been playing some consistent footy and obviously we played patches we’re not happy with but it’s just putting through that consistent four-quarter effort,” he said.

“We’re playing some good footy so it’s good that in the back-end of the year, this is when it all starts mattering more so we’re in the best situation.”

While the team focus remains at the forefront for Bianco, he conceded there are a few players in his side that may well grab all the attention, including 2018 grand final MVP, Rowell.

“We’ve obviously got some high-end talent but we like to think we’ve played pretty consistent players throughout the whole team.

“We’ve got Matty Rowell and Noah Anderson up the top there so they’re pretty handy players and we’ve got the likes of Nick Bryan, we’ve got a fair few bottom-agers like Jamarra (Ugle-Hagan), Reef McInnes, Will Phillips, who is someone to look out for next year… (they’re) putting in just as much as the top-agers this year so they’ve been really handy and hopefully they can bring it (for) one more game.”

One of those bottom-agers, Ugle-Hagan, has formed a formidable key forward partnership with over-ager Cooper Sharman in the back-end of the season, giving elite kicks like Bianco a target to kick at.

“It’s just good knowing they can make a bad kick look good sometimes so if you put it out into their space and to their advantage side they’re more than likely going to do something with it,” Bianco said.

“(But) it’s not just them, it’s the small forwards and the medium-type forwards that we have in our team as well that help us be successful.”

Oakleigh’s tilt at success begins at 1:05pm at Ikon Park on Saturday, with the game set to be broadcasted live on Fox Footy.

NAB League season preview: Oakleigh Chargers

HAVING narrowly missed out on a flag last year, Oakleigh Chargers are preparing to launch another assault in 2019 with a number of top-end talents on the list. They have changed Talent Managers with Jy Bond crossing from Western Jets to rejoin the club he played for, replacing Craig Notman who has headed up the Tasmania Devils program. Bond said while the talent amongst the squad was terrific, it was about developing that talent throughout the year, rather than results-based.

“I don’t think the expectations have really changed, year on year we always just want to develop the best possible talent we can, and we’re lucky we’ve got a number of decent boys this year, obviously it’ll translate, hopefully, to success on the field,” Bond said. “Obviously it’s my job to develop talent to be draftable but you know, if you’ve got good kids and you develop them well then you win games and end up with some on field success.”

Oakleigh Chargers had 11 players drafted into the AFL last year, emphasising the strength of their top-end talent. Bond is looking forward to building on the work done with the bottom-agers last season and welcoming in more younger players in 2019. He said while there were a number of potential first round prospects, there was also a lot of underrated talent at the club.

“(Oakleigh) had 11 (drafted) last year, which is really testament to the program and there’s another odd handful again (this year),” Bond said. “There’s (Noah) Anderson, (Matt) Rowell, (Trent) Bianco, the big names that everyone knows, but I think it’s the kids that no one really knows that we get more credit for developing through the year, and there’s a number of kids coming through – (Joel) Capetola, (Lucas) Westwood, (Jacob) Woodfull, Nick Bryan, so there’s a number of kids, and you could throw a blanket over 10 or 15 kids. “You just never know what’s going to happen over the course of the year, so fingers crossed they perform well.”

The Chargers’ pre-season has been strong with both the male and female athletes buying into the values of the club and working hard over the pre-season to be best prepared for the season ahead.

“Internally I don’t think we’re surprised about any of our kids, because we know how hard they’ve worked over summer and they’ve been really bought into the program,” Bond said. “They’ve worked hard, they’ve ticked the boxes, they’re compliant … overall we’re pretty confident that we’re going to have another good crop. “We’re pretty confident about the girls as well, because I look after the girls program so I’m pretty happy that we’ve got some good girls too. “So yeah, we’re confident we’re doing the right thing and hopefully we can get some strong development again.”

One player who missed out on being drafted, but has returned as a 19-year-old listed player this year is Joe Ayton Delaney. The Vic Metro defender/midfielder has the versatility to play anywhere on the field.

“Joey’s been fantastic round the group, his leadership – he’s come back really positive,” Bond said. “The 19th position is a really hard one, you’ve gotta hit the ground running and play good football at the start of the year, and he’s worked hard over summer. “We’ll use him midfield-forward, everyone knows he can play down back so what we’re really happy with is his enthusiasm, his leadership in the group, so I really hope for his sake he does really well.”

Another new player to the list who played TAC Cup last year is Jamarra Ugle-Hagan who has crossed from the Greater Western Victoria (GWV) Rebels given he boards at Scotch College.

“We’re very fortunate to have Jamarra in our program, he’s a great kid, he’s bought in, he’s a pleasure to coach,” Bond said. “I don’t know what more you can say about him, it’s just an added bonus to have him in our program and hopefully we can add him to the list in a years time. “Hopefully we can help him develop his football because he’s certainly got the tools at this stage that indicate he’s going to be a good player and we can hopefully see that in two years time.”

Bond said the Chargers were keen to back their players in and stick to the fundamental principle of any sport – having fun. While Oakleigh would still aim to be accountable and have structures within the game, they wanted to play to the players’ strengths.

“I think we instil a lot of confidence in the kids to play their own games, I know ‘Clarkey’ (Head Coach Leigh Clarke) is very strong on individuality and flair amongst the players and we really just want the kids to have fun and enjoy their football,” Bond said. “I know the kids love being part of our program and we all work together and it’s fun and we really talk about love, and loving the game at Oakleigh. “I think Clarkey’s really instilled that in the group and we just want to make sure the kids show what they’ve got, that’s our job, so we don’t want to hold any of them back, we want to give them a bit of licence to obviously follow the team structures but also play to their strengths.”

Oakleigh Chargers’ NAB League season begins on Sunday, March 24 when they face Eastern Ranges at RSEA Park, Moorabbin.

Clarke comes full circle with grand final feat

AS the first former player to coach the club, Oakleigh Chargers coach Leigh Clarke can go one better on Saturday and become the first former player to coach his side to a TAC Cup premiership.

Clarke has endured a longer journey than most to come full circle at the helm of the Chargers, with a Peninsula league playing career, experience as both a strength and conditioning and line coach at the club, and as forward line coach with Richmond’s reserves.

Taking over from dual premiership coach Mick Stinear was never going to be an easy feat, but the talent of the Oakleigh squad speaks for itself, and Clarke revealed his troops all but coach themselves in driving a culture of success.

“Our boys have a really strong connection amongst each other so you can see in the previous couple of weeks they’ve shown that they’re really keen just to turn up,” Clarke said. “We don’t ask them to be perfect, but we certainly ask them to turn up and fix each other’s mistakes which are going to come often in a game of footy. “So yeah they really drive the culture and that connection that we keep getting back to… and they’re a very easy group to coach.”

Oakleigh has been in irresistible form over the last three weeks, with an average winning margin of 101 points seeing them poised better than almost any side in recent memory coming into an Under 18 decider. Clarke is well aware of their recent credentials, but considering the opposition, is keeping a lid on it.

“We’re feeling quietly confident, I think on the back of our wins we just keep playing our way whether it’s five points or 95 points,” he said. “We’ve been really proud of the boys, they’ve been able to continue to play for four quarters of footy throughout the last two weeks and they haven’t dropped off, which is what we’ve challenged them on is to be able to play four times 25 minutes and we’ll need to do that again this week.”

Dandenong have been the benchmark team all year though, and despite being the only side to overcome the ‘Rays this season, Clarke is still wary and respectful of his side’s opposition having also suffered a loss at their hands.

“I’m sure (Craig Black) isn’t planning to lose and we’re not planning to lose either,” he said. “They’ve had a great year consistently and to finish on top is a real credit to ‘Blacky’ and the program they run out there. “Ours has probably ebbed and flowed a little bit, charting through the year but coming into form in the last month… I’m sure both regions just hope it’s injury-free, that everything goes to course and it’s a good sign of 23 talented kids verses 23 talented kids.”

The strength of the Stingrays has undoubtedly been their aerial dominance, with an array of highly talented ruck and forwards, as well as big bodied medium players who can intercept well off half back. Despite being focussed on his own side’s progression and top four aspirations, Clarke inevitably had an eye on Dandenong’s heroics and key threats.

“You’re well aware throughout the year of each other’s wins, losses and who’s playing well, so in terms of what we focus on, we’re more focussed on what we’re doing but yeah you’re right there are some key players that we’ll have to match for height or find a better way of doing it,” Clarke said. “They’ll present with that height… we believe we’ve got the match-ups to go with them, which ultimately just gives you a chance to see the best talent and the best defenders play on the best forwards.”

But with all of the opposition’s talent comes Oakleigh’s undeniable ability, too, with a number of players showing notable improvement throughout the year around the outstanding seasons from each of their recognised stars. Clarke noted the how Collingwood father-son Will Kelly has come on leaps and bounds, while the likes of Collingwood Next Generation Academy prospects Bailey Wraith and Isaac Quaynor have continued to learn, grow, and drive standards.

All of the above have been led by over-ager Noah Answerth, who holds a special connection to TAC Cup grand finals. Having had his top age year marred by a freak back injury, the rebounding half-back has returned to the level hoped of him and has the opportunity to follow in his brother Kade’s footsteps in lifting the trophy aloft.

He is keen to match it against the best and gain reward for effort. “They’re a pretty good team all-round, they wouldn’t be in the Grand Final if they weren’t,” Answerth said. “So, we haven’t really looked at match-ups yet but we have one on ones all around the ground, we’ll find out at the end of the day.”

While favouritism has changed hands throughout the week and depending on who you ask, it is certain that this is as enthralling a grand final match up as we’ve seen in recent memory.

On Saturday, the season’s best will be crowned, with Clarke hoping his Chargers can continue to storm home and continue Dandenong’s grand final wobbles.

Black hopes sixth time’s a charm for Stingrays

DANDENONG Stingrays coach, Craig Black is hoping for a fairytale finish to his stint at the club as head coach, before joining Collingwood in a development role. Speaking at the TAC Cup Grand Final press conference, Black said he hoped the Stingrays could win their first flag upon their sixth attempt in the competition, but would treat the game just like any other game.

“I don’t think you can probably hide from it (the 0-5 record in grand finals),” he said. “Everyone seems to bring it up, but some of these boys like Campbell (Hustwaite, co-captain) weren’t even born when they had the first Grand Finals losses. “I think you’d have those stories with everyone, but yeah we talk about it, but it’s even better when these boys get the opportunity to come out and maybe be the first person that can do it.”

Being his last game in charge of the Shepley Oval club, Black said he had mixed emotions, but was looking forward to finishing on a high for the players.

“It’s no different really, it is when you’re looking back, you’ve been there a long time, I think I’ve been back nine years, you know every bump along the road, so I definitely will miss it, I’ve got some good memories,” he said. “But I just want to get the right result so the players, the 60 players on our list, can get some success.” On the weekend we will have probably 20 players, 21 players who it will be their last game, so hopefully they can go out with a win.”

Dandenong Stingrays head into Saturday’s decider with just one loss to their name – a six-point defeat – to their grand final opponents, Oakleigh Chargers. Black said the season had been a strong one for the club, but it would not amount to much in the long-term if they dropped the final game on the weekend.

“Obviously we got some reward for our effort, the way we played throughout the year, but as you know the TAC Cup changes every year with school kids out, nationals and academy boys missing games,” he said. “We’ve been really fortunate this year, we’ve won a couple of close ones earlier in the year and we kept rolling on, but as you know with footy once you’ve sort of won one game you just move onto the next. “We’ve been lucky that we’ve won a few, but doesn’t mean much now does it when there’s one game up for grabs?”

Asked about whether the Stingrays were nervous facing the only team that had managed to stop them singing the song after the game, Black said it was indeed the opposite view that the players and staff held.

“I look at it completely different,” he said. “I think hopefully people are probably saying the two best teams have made the grand final this year. “I know our players, and I won’t speak for Clarkey, but I’m sure he’s probably the same. “Young kids just love coming out and playing against the best talent and give themselves every opportunity to fulfil their dreams and win games of footy and hopefully end up on an AFL list. “I think the TAC Cup will get that opportunity this week and supporters will come and see the two best teams play off and that’s unbelievable for us.”

One interesting factor looking ahead to the 2018 TAC Cup Grand Final is the different styles that the two clubs take with their football. While Oakleigh rely on medium-tall and small options to kick their goals, Dandenong have some tall timber up forward, as well as a number of medium talls and midfielders who float through to kick winning scores. The Stingrays mentor said he would just focus on his side’s strengths rather than just looking to nullify the strengths of the Chargers.

“I think you go into the game, both teams are into awesome form, coming into the last 8-10 weeks of footy,” Black said. “If either team can get the play on their terms it will go a long way. “I know with us, you just deal with what you’ve got. “This year is a bit of an abnormal year, we’ve got some tall players and next year we mightn’t, so pre-season you get them, you keep developing them and hopefully you get the right team.”

Another aspect that comes into play which is unique for this game is the fact that Oakleigh will field four top-age players who are eligible to be recruited by Collingwood under the father-son and Next Generation Academy. Black, who will try and nullify their impact this weekend, will help develop those players, if selected by the Magpies, when he heads to the Holden Centre at the conclusion of the season. Black said he looked forward to the role, but for now, the likes of Isaac Quaynor, Atu Bosenavulagi, Bailey Wraith and Will Kelly were all opposition players.

“I think looking at the last sort of eight weeks and stuff, we’re really still leaving them in the TAC,” Black said. “The TAC Cup is a wonderful breeding ground for developing young players and obviously Oakleigh have a terrific track record of doing that over 25 years and even the last few years so really while the young NGA players are still in their TAC Cup, you sort of watch them from afar and let them develop in their own program and once the season finishes we’ll start doing a lot more with them.”

Black has his own Next Generation Academy player at the Stingrays – the exciting Toby Bedford who has been in strong form of late, and Melbourne will have first choice to select him once a bid comes in at November’s National AFL Draft.

“Yeah Tobes has been great,” Black said. “I think Clarkey (Leigh Clarke) mentioned before about how he had Vic Country, and then he was away at Melbourne Grammar for the school footy, so it’s that challenge when he gets back. “He boards at Melbourne Grammar so when he gets to training, one thing we know is with Tobes is his effort  and his intensity, he’s always up and about. “The players love it when he’s around, he’s a cheeky little thing and he plays on the edge at times and we love him for it.”

Other players who have shot into draft contention from “left field” include a newcomer to the Stingrays program, and one who had only played school footy prior to a month ago.

“We’ve probably got the one who stands out at the moment is Sam Sturt, you know who’s been playing at Peninsula and has come played four games of TAC Cup footy,” Black said. “Everyone’s watched him about as many times as I have. “It’s just people like that, and that’s what this competition gives, you know if someone is playing good football from left field, these sort of programs can give them the chance of fulfilling their talent as well. “People like Zac Foot who has come in, who wasn’t fortunate enough to play in our 17s or 16s or 15s program, come through as an 18 year-old and play as Vic Country. “Just the opportunities and everyone, I think if players weren’t improving we wouldn’t be in the position we are, and that’s lead by our captain and our leaders who are really driving high standards individually and as a team each week.”

Black thanked the support staff and development coaches around him who were always on hand to assist, and help develop these players from the start of the season until the end. Black himself has come through the program, captaining Dandenong to the 1997 TAC Cup Grand Final, returning to the club and having lead the Stingrays for the past five seasons.

“We’re lucky enough to be the head coaches of the TAC but I know we’ve got wonderful assistants and support staff around us that help out and you know, if you’re running late or can’t make it a night, they’re more than happy to step in, so it’s wonderful,” Black said. “I think it’s only going to get bigger and bigger with the the TAC Cup programs and getting chances at AFL, working with these wonderful young men that are getting opportunities, it’s great I think.”

After narrowly missing out on making the 2017 decider, going down to eventual premiers Geelong Falcons in the preliminary final at GMHBA Stadium 12 months ago, Black admitted he was nervous heading into the clash with Sandringham Dragons last weekend.

“I was really nervous going into last week’s game because you want your players to have the opportunity to experience Grand Final week, I mean they don’t do press conferences for prelims and that sort of stuff,” Black said. “So when we won this week is just all about enjoying it. “We said to our players after the game, ‘enjoy it, you might never play in a Grand Final again’ so we’re really thankful, and excited.”

It is not often a team that finishes top of the table with just one loss for the season heads into the TAC Cup Grand Final as potential underdogs. But with Oakleigh Chargers having won their past three games by an average of 101 points, including a 93-point demolition of the second placed Gippsland Power last weekend, the Chargers seem to be the in-form side, if that is even possible against a side that has won 13 on the trot. Black laughed off the matter of favouritism, because all that mattered was what happened from the first bounce to the final siren.

“I’ve been asked this question a few times and I know we’re going into the game that we can win the game of footy so I don’t know if favourites and that really matter like, it doesn’t bother me one little bit,” Black said. “Two really good teams in really good form are going to get a crack at winning a Grand Final and I’m sure I’ll speak for the Stingrays but I know we’ll go in with a lot of confidence. “Yeah we’ve got to take our chances when we get them, because I think both teams are going to get some really good chances and probably control the ball for periods of time. “Whoever makes the most of their opportunities (will likely win), but I think it’s going to be a fantastic game of footy, or I hope it is. “We’re just really excited about giving 23 players from our area an opportunity to play on Grand Final day and on Foxtel and on the big stage.”

Dandenong Stingrays take on Oakleigh Chargers at Ikon Park from 12.05pm on Saturday for the 2018 TAC Cup premiership.

TAC Cup Grand Finals run in the Answerth family

THREE years ago, Kade Answerth’s 30 disposals, 10 clearances and six marks helped Oakleigh Chargers to a two-goal TAC Cup Grand Final victory, their second in as many years. On Saturday, younger brother Noah will lead his Chargers out in hope of following in the footsteps of the now Sandringham co-captain and lifting the same trophy his brother once did.

Answerth’s path to the big dance hasn’t been easy, with the 19-year old’s 2017 top-age year ruined by a freak back injury. Not to be deterred, the rebounding half-back was invited back for another crack at the TAC Cup level having grasped the success of his brother’s over-age season in 2015.

Speaking at the TAC Cup Grand Final press conference, Answerth said despite the similarities between his and Kade’s paths, he is not feeling any pressure to match his brother’s feats.

“(Kade) probably played in two in a row, so he’s probably got one-up on me,” he said. “You go into his room and he’s got a bit of memorabilia in there, it probably gets me a bit more excited than I would be if he hadn’t done that.”

Having bounced back to play 13 TAC Cup games this year, Answerth expressed his satisfaction in being able to reach such a big stage with his mates in tow.

“It’s pretty surreal to be sitting here now, thinking I’m about to play in that Grand Final, I didn’t probably think last year that it would happen so I’m pretty excited,” Answerth said.

Oakleigh coach Leigh Clarke spoke of his pride in being a part of Answerth’s journey to get to this point, having visited him in hospital the day after his defining injury last year.

“It’s a wonderful story that Noah’s been able to get himself back,” Clarke said. “12 months ago after my second game and I’m visiting a player laying on his back in hospital on Monday morning. “To be here today with him, I’m proud of him and I know his family’s very proud of him as well.”

Oakleigh’s opponents, Dandenong have been the benchmark team all year, but the Chargers’ irresistible form of late sets the contest up as potentially being one of the best match-ups in recent TAC Cup history. Answerth says the Chargers are well aware of the Stingrays’ talent across the board, with the usual emphasis on individual match-ups taking a back seat.

“They’re a pretty good team all-round, they wouldn’t be in the Grand Final if they weren’t. “So we haven’t really looked at match-ups yet but we have one on ones all around the ground, we’ll find out at the end of the day.”

His opposing co-captain Campbell Hustwaite took a similarly respectful stance, highlighting the importance of a team effort in order to nullify Oakleigh’s spread of quality.

“I don’t see one match-up specific for me but I know that they’ve got five quality midfielders and talent all around the ground so we’ll be looking to challenge ourselves for the whole day,” Hustwaite said. “We learned in round five you can’t lapse for a few minutes because they will make you pay, so on the weekend it’s just all about nullifying their talent and backing ourselves in against their mids.”

That round five game loss stands as the only blight on Dandenong’s season, with the ‘Rays bouncing back in Round Nine to even the ledger between the two sides. Despite Dandenong’s clear and admirable consistency, the question of who comes in as favourite remains up for debate with Oakleigh riding the wave of a 101-point average winning margin over the last three weeks.

Coach Clarke is not buying in to the debate, saying his side is purely focussed on delivering a win and showcasing the talent of 46 young stars, but admits they may just be peaking at the right time.

“I’m sure (Craig Black) isn’t planning to lose and we’re not planning to lose either,” Clarke said. “They’ve had a great year consistently and to finish on top is a real credit to ‘Blacky’ and the program they run out there. “Ours has probably ebbed and flowed a little bit, charting through the year but coming into form in the last month… I’m sure both regions just hope it’s injury-free, that everything goes to course and it’s a good sign of 23 talented kids verses 23 talented kids.”

As one of those talented kids, Answerth held a steely, reserved sense of calm in saying this week is like any other on the calendar, despite conceding it’s special enough to warrant a few days off work.

“We train Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and keep it the same as any other week through the year. “I’m pretty lucky to have a good boss so I can come here today, I’ll probably work tomorrow and the next day and take Friday off again so I’m pretty lucky with the boss I have at work and I’m pretty thankful that he can let me have a few days off just for this week.”

Having already experienced the thrill of the big day through junior footy and his brother’s exploits, Answerth is hoping to add another premiership medal to his collection.

“I just played in (a premiership) a few years ago when I was 16 for Caulfield Grammarians in the 19’s, probably just two at Caulfield Bears,” he said. “That’s about it but I’ve been lucky enough to go to a few TAC Cup grand finals and experience it with my family and Oakleigh Chargers as well so it’s a great week… we can really enjoy it and finish off the year well.”

And with big occasions come big performances, with Answerth highlighting a few teammates that like himself, have come on great journeys to reach the holy grail.

“Clarkey’s already spoken about a few but for me it’s probably Lachie Harry,” Answerth said. “Last time we played the Stingrays he kicked a goal to win us the game I was really proud of him and his performance throughout the year. “The reason we’re sitting in a grand final is because of the efforts like him and other players… also James Jordan, coming from Caulfield Grammar school footy to come play with us play in a grand final, it’s been great to see his form leading into this week.”

Oakleigh will be looking to claim their fifth TAC Cup title when they battle Dandenong at Ikon Park on Saturday.

For the Answerths, a third premiership medal and second best-afield award could also be coming home.