Round 16 report: Werribee vs Northern Blues

Right from the opening – a Tom Gribble free kick to replace the customary first bounce thanks to a flattening opposition blow before play had even begun – it was clear there was going to be plenty of heat and spite in Werribee’s home clash with the Northern Blues.

Sadly for the black-and-gold faithful, not least of all the reunion gatherings of three Werribee premierships watching on upstairs from Chirnsides by the River, it didn’t take much longer for it to become equally clear there would be no repeat of either the enthralling shootout or the jubilant finish from the previous week’s Essendon contest on this occasion.

At play’s end, the scoreboard – more so Werribee’s final tally of 9.17 than its 27-point deficit – told a tale of missed opportunities in front of goal, and there were indeed plenty; but it would be unfair to the visitors to dismiss the end result as a simple case of the hosts kicking themselves out of the game.

Werribee ultimately had more of the football and more forward entries, but the Blues’ ruthless efficiency meant they needed less of both. Through the ruckwork of the towering Aaron Milham (50 hitouts) and the midfield prowess of Tom Wilson (35 disposals and a whopping 11 clearances), the visitors won more of the ball where it counted – at the source – to both create and capitalise on more viable opportunities in front of goal.

Perhaps most tellingly, the Blues made sure their physicality extended beyond the myriad of spotfires that sprung up throughout the day, outhunting a side that has all year prided itself on its hunting mentality to prevail 97-81 in the final tackle count.

In their most impressive stretch of play, the visitors strung together five unanswered goals – three to Jesse Palmer, who went on to finish with five of his own – in the space of nine minutes early in the second quarter. It was a burst that went a long way towards securing the end result, and Werribee barely had a look at goal in that time.

Still, the hosts may well wonder what might have been with some straighter shooting in the first half.

It took five behinds and until the opening minute of the second quarter for Joe Maishman to deliver Werribee its first goal of the day. When it did manage to take control of the game late in the second quarter, only Ben Moloney's snap from the pocket managed to find its way through the uprights amid a barrage of scoring shots, the half-time score of 2.11 laying bare the wastefulness for all to see.

With the forwards misfiring, the only man capable of making multiple entries in the scorebook was a defender. Skipper Michael Sodomaco delivered a captain’s performance off half back, collecting 24 disposals, taking nine marks, and laying seven tackles, but his two goals from bursts forward – one early in the third term, the other early in the fourth – may have been his most important contribution. With them, Sodomaco appeared the very embodiment of a leader stepping up to shoulder the load where others had proved unable to.

Ultimately, it had the desired effect. Moments after the captain’s final-term contribution, fellow defender Dane McFarlane followed suit with a running goal of his own. It marked Werribee first consecutive majors of the afternoon and paved the way for a finishing burst that saw the home side kick five of the final six goals of the game.

But as coach John Lamont had observed in the three-quarter time huddle, his side was “playing for pride” by that stage, and its late run of goals served as little more than a consolation prize and helped restore some scoreboard respectability after Werribee had trailed by as much as 54 points late in the third term.

It all proved a deflating way to mark the occasions of Matthew Munro’s 50th VFL match and Calder Cannons young gun Jake Riccardi’s VFL debut as 23rd player, though the milestone man himself proved the pick of Werribee’s forwards in his best performance in weeks. He finished with just one goal himself but stayed true to his reputation as one of the competition’s leading score assistants, setting up Maishman’s goal and another to Kye Declase and playing a key hand in a further two shots on goal.

In the boiler-room environment of the midfield, tempers regularly flared over on both sides, but no one copped more heat or responded better to it than Gribble. Despite fierce opposition checking, he pulled in a game-high 38 disposals and a team-high nine clearances as his side’s most important midfielder, while Maishman (31, six, and seven tackles) finished as Werribee’s other major ball-winner.

The theme of a disappointing performance on the back of a strong one has proved a little too familiar for Werribee fans at times this season, but equally familiar has been the tendency to bounce back strongly after tough weeks. Those same fans will take heart in and focus on the latter when their side heads to Punt Road on Saturday to take on competition front-runners Richmond.

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