With so much focus on “six-six-six” formations and extended goalsquares, it would have been easy enough for an impartial observer to Werribee’s round-18 clash with Coburg to overlook the fact there was an actual game of football going on rather than a mere experiment to workshop potential AFL rule changes.
Not so the boys in the “big W” themselves. Their incredible one-point victory over Essendon, played just three weeks prior to Saturday’s trip to Piranha Park, seemed a lifetime away after tough consecutive losses to the Northern Blues and Richmond, and with the footy public now firmly focused on the Channel 7 broadcast – even if largely for the purpose of understanding what it was actually objecting to with its cries of “leave the game alone” – the visitors were determined to prove there was life left yet in their 2018 campaign.
The end margin of 47 points suggests they did so with a minimum of fuss. In truth, the final scoreline disguised a closely fought contest where the result still seemed to hang in the balance as late as the opening minutes of the final term.
For three quarters, fortunes largely seemed to ride on the stiff breeze blowing towards the southern grandstand. With the first six goals of the game, Werribee raced out to a 35-point quarter-time lead, but Coburg hit back with four of its own through the second term while keeping the visitors goalless to cut the margin to 10 points early in the third quarter.
Defence – or at least defenders – proved the best form of attack for Werribee as it regained the momentum after the main break, Matthew Brett and Dane McFarlane both pushing forward for goals on the burst and Nick Coughlan – fresh from a few big barrels over the centre circle courtesy of his new kick-in parameters – turning swingman for a third-quarter brace. It helped restore a 37-point advantage at the final change, but with the wind appearing worth almost as much, some in the visitors’ camp may well have been feeling a little on edge when Josh Guthrie gave the Lions the first of the last quarter.
They needn’t have worried. With a gather and quick snap moments later, Keegan Gray put through his first goal in VFL football and his side’s first of the day against the breeze. Andrew Hooper soon made it back-to-back goals to the non-scoring end for the first time for either side, and by the time the canny small forward had curled through his second at the 18-minute mark, Werribee had four straight and the game effectively wrapped up.
As has been the case all year, Sam Collins proved central to the Werribee cause in his key-defensive post, his resolve through a massive second quarter yielding 10 kicks and eight marks and going a long way towards limiting the damage through the Coburg fightback. That his end numbers of 24 disposals and 15 marks – 10 of which were contested – now seem routine goes some way towards highlighting the sort of year he is having.
If Collins’ efforts down back went a long way towards keeping the Lions at bay, the work of the Werribee midfielders at the coalface did plenty to help the “big W” control the contest early and through much of the second half. The visitors ultimately prevailed 47-34 at the clearances, Coburg’s ability to briefly get on top in the middle during its second-quarter surge highlighting how much hinged on the ability to win the ball at its source when denied the chance to shore up defensively with extra numbers behind the ball.
With 10 and nine clearances respectively, Dom Brew and Joe Maishman were both standouts in that regard, and with the former again topping his team’s tackle count with 13 and the latter netting 30 disposals and seven tackles in a stellar all-round performance, both made strong claims to be their side’s most important midfielder. Their efforts were well supported, with Tom Gribble (32 disposals, six clearances), Kurt Aylett (28 disposals), and skipper Michael Sodomaco (18 disposals, nine tackles, five clearances) all typically profilic.
Whether the match takes on wider significance as the first to be played under laws that fundamentally alter the way Australian Rules football is played or simply earns an asterisk in the official records as an intriguing but ultimately abandoned experiment remains to be seen. Whatever the case, Werribee can be satisfied in having put a tough fortnight behind it and made the most of its opportunity to give a good account of itself under a somewhat brighter and hotter spotlight than usual.