With almost 32 minutes on the final-quarter clock, as the umpire blew his whistle to signal time on and end the frantic game of stacks-on taking place deep inside the Werribee forward line, the tension that gripped the black-and-gold army at Avalon Airport Oval seemed to give way to a familiar sinking feeling.
One straight kick through the adjacent goal would snatch the lead and a seal an improbable victory over Geelong, and yet it seemed there could now be no time for even that. Sure enough, the ball had barely left the umpire’s hand for the restart when the final siren sounded to leave the visitors jubilant and the “big W” despondent.
It had happened again: Werribee had lost another Easter-weekend thriller to the Cats by the barest of margins.
Unlike Easter Sunday 2018 at Torquay’s Spring Creek Reserve, this year’s Easter Saturday clash had not seen Werribee take the lead only to have it snatched back in the dying moments, but the similarities were uncanny nonetheless. Last year, Werribee had trailed by 25 points late in the third term and fallen just four points short; this time, it was 33 points down as late as 11min into final term and three points shy at the end. Last year, a centre-square infringement when Werribee had both the lead and all the momentum helped turn the game back in the Cats’ favour; this time, after a Matt Munro set-shot goal at the 29min mark – Werribee’s fifth in a row and what would prove to be the last of the game – Geelong was again gifted possession at the bounce through a violation of the new “six-six-six” rule, giving it the chance to halt the hosts’ seemingly unstoppable charge for home.
Perhaps the major contrast between the two matches was the level of expectation around the different incarnations of the “big W” and their ability to deliver on those expectations. In its first game as a standalone side, the Werribee of 2018 had required everything in its arsenal to come as close as it did to causing what would have been nothing short of a major upset. In contrast, the Werribee side that faced the Cats on Saturday looked far from its best for much of a contest it was considered to be every chance of winning after an impressive two-and-zero start to the year. Through the opening quarter and a half, the margin never extended beyond 15 points, and the two sides largely went goal for goal; but despite the best efforts of Tom Gribble and Josh Clayton in the middle – 31 and 26 disposals respectively – Geelong clearly had the game on its terms with its control of the stoppages and ability to lock the ball in its forward half. Strong defensive efforts from the likes of Max Spencer and Ryley Barrack to nullify the ground-level threats of AFL-listers James Tarca and Jamaine Jones respectively helped keep the hosts in the hunt early, as did Jake Riccardi’s ability to find space on the lead and Max Augerinos’ opportunism in helping teammates Timm House and Bior Malual find their way to goal when Werribee did manage to venture forward; but the feeling of the dam wall being about to burst was never far away.
By the 13-minute mark of the third quarter, with a 34-point lead and four consecutive goals to their name, the Cats finally looked to be taking advantage of their control of the contest. Here, from an unlikely source, came the first signs of resistance. With Werribee forced to concede ground through a chain of handballs in the goalface, defender Ryan Hebron took matters into his own hands and onto his own boot, banging through a long bomb from outside the arc for his side’s first in more than a quarter of play. Minutes later, Nick Coughlan – thrown forward after starting down back – got on the end of big man Jack Berry’s charge forward and put through his first to cut the margin to 22. But when Geelong responded with two more goals either side of the final change to put the margin back beyond five goals, it seemed it may all have been for nought.
Then came the real fightback. With a clearing soccer kick from Augerinos – whose last-quarter move from the forward line to the midfield proved an inspired one – a quick handball from Jack Henderson, and a bit of brilliance from Malual for his second, everything turned on its head. As if with the flick of a switch, Werribee threw caution to the wind, and the pieces all began to fall into place. Moments later, Riccardi seized on a Geelong fumble to paddle the ball and again find Malual, whose handball in turn found the run of Munro and ultimately landed Coughlan a second goal courtesy of “Joe the Goose”. When Clayton then marked inside 50, sidestepped his opponent, and curled one through on the run, the home crowd really began to find their voice; but it was only when Riccardi ran on to a pinpoint pass from Kye Declase and calmly slotted his third that they allowed themselves to wonder if they might be about to witness an Easter miracle.
With the margin less than two kicks, Werribee continued to press. Augerinos and Joe Maishman now seemed to be everywhere around the contest, Riccardi was bobbing up to play a hand in every push forward, and Malual was doing it at both ends of the ground, which included a desperate tackle on the last line of defence. A wild, tumbling snap from Nick Coughlan fell just short of the goal line and was rushed through before Gribble ultimately found the leading Munro moments later to make it five in a row; but with time already against the home side, it seemed the free kick out of the middle that followed the small forward’s lofted set shot would be enough to ice the game.
In truth, Werribee had not one but two more rolls of the dice left. Twice Ryan Hebron stood tall and marked deep in defence, and twice he sent his side forward, but to no avail. With just seconds remaining, ruckman Angus Clarke’s awkward tumbling kick inside 50 proved too much for the leading Augerinos – already so instrumental in his side’s remarkable turnaround – and with that, the contest was over.
Werribee won’t have another chance to face Geelong until next season, by which time it will have been close to six years – round 11, 2014, to be precise – since its last victory over the Cats. That Geelong’s VFL side is now developing a streak of narrow successes against the "big W" to rival its AFL counterpart’s series of close escapes against Hawthorn – complete with the requisite Easter-weekend thrillers – is unlikely to amuse the Werribee faithful as much as the wider state-league footballing fraternity. What may ultimately be of some comfort going forward is the knowledge that, despite a disappointing showing against a team that year in and year out continues to be around the mark come the pointy end of the season, one good quarter was still almost enough to steal a win.
For now, though, the pain of another narrow defeat at the hands of an old rival remains palpable, and the curse of the Cat continues.