It took less than 10 minutes for Ryan Kemp to announce his arrival on the VFL stage.
As the ball spilled off hands and over the back of the pack deep inside Werribee’s forward 50, Coburg defender Harrison Nolan looked to have the race to gain possession all wrapped up; but in a flash, Kemp swept up on his outside, cut across, and cleanly gathered the bouncing ball with his left hand. With a brush of his right arm and a deft step to the left, the young Werribee debutante then evaded the tackle of Lion Jack Murphy before sending a quick snap on his non-preferred left foot whizzing past the nose of teammate Matthew Munro and through the unguarded Werribee goal to leave the home side 14 points clear.
The roar that followed from the Avalon Airport Oval grandstand suggested that among the Werribee crowd was a sizeable contingent of those who had made the three-hour trip from Horsham to see their hometown hero – the man who had set the Wimmera Football League alight in 2018 as a midfielder-cum forward for the all-conquering Horsham Demons – step up to the VFL for his first match in the “big W”. By game’s end, they could hardly have hoped for a better reward for their effort. With another snap goal in the second quarter – this one on the right foot after roving off hands in the goalsquare – and a straightforward set shot from point-blank range in the third after standing his ground with a courageous mark to win a 50m penalty, Kemp finished with three goals and a 32-point win from his maiden VFL outing.
It proved to be the individual story of the night, but in reality, Werribee’s triumph over its fellow standalone side on Saturday night to make it two from two in 2019 was less about individual heroics and much more about an even contribution across the board. In the absence of Michael Barlow and skipper Michael Sodomaco, two of the stars of their side’s first up win over North Melbourne, a combined effort to shoulder the extra load was required across the board, and the boys in black and gold delivered in spades.
Few players dominated the contest throughout, but each had their role to play. Though well held after half time, stand-in skipper Matt Hanson showed his ability to make every one of his possessions count, finishing with a team-high six clearances from a total of eight kicks, while Josh Clayton, Tom Gribble, and Dom Brew (five clearances each) also played their part in the engine room to allow the home side to keep pace with Coburg at the stoppages.
With his trademark dash through the middle, Joe Maishman proved the chief architect of his side’s forward forays through a five-goal-to-one second quarter – which included one of his own – that extended the hosts’ lead from less than a kick at the first change to what proved to be an insurmountable 33-point advantage at the main break. Then came Kye Declase’s time to shine. After a quiet first half, the rangy wingman quickly became the most influential player on the ground, his seven kicks, three handballs, and two marks through the third quarter allowing Werribee to first withhold an early Coburg charge and then extend its lead to 47 points at the final change.
In front of goal, the Werribee players also worked in shifts. Timm House emerged as the key target early with two first-quarter goals before Jake Riccardi became the forward figurehead after the first change, booting two goals and playing a key hand in several others while looking dangerous both in the air and on the ground. Defender Louis Pinnuck turned to attack as he chimed in with two goals in the third term, while Kemp and Bior Malual kept the tally ticking over throughout the night, the latter providing a flash of brilliance in the final term as he sidestepped two opponents and then sent through a floating left-foot snap for his second goal.
Down back, Dan Nielson nullified the threat of fellow big man Peter McEvoy, Ryan Hebron curbed the influence of dangerous Lions forward Sam Lowson after his blistering start, and Nick Coughlan, Max Spencer, and the returning Ryley Barrack all provided crucial resistance with their defensive pressure.
Underscoring it all were the performances of Angus Clarke and Dane McFarlane, who perhaps had the most genuine claims to lead-role status through the evening’s ensemble act. Clarke’s 34 hitouts – not to mention his long-range first-quarter goal to help establish his side’s early scoring momentum – provided the bulk of his and Jack Berry’s substantial ruck advantage over Coburg counterparts, while McFarlane’s dash off half back in his milestone 50th game in the “big W” was simply sublime. By night’s end, he had racked up a whopping 26 disposals – 23 three of them kicks – 12 rebound-50s, and nine marks, well and truly allaying any concerns over a lack of line-breaking run out of the back half in the skipper’s absence.
A five-goal-to-three final term in Coburg’s favour, long after the game had been iced, left the end margin closer than it felt and perhaps took a little of the gloss off the home side’s victory; but with Werribee “two and zero” for the first time in three years, it took nothing away from the post-match mood – least of all for the man caught in the middle of the celebrations or those who had made the trip up the highway from Horsham to witness what proved a dream debut.