The University Blacks welcomed last Saturday's grey and drizzly weather with plenty of enthusiasm, as the long wait - both since the Premier B Grand Final of 2022 and the last game of the 2017 season - finally came to an end. The day to return to A Grade with a bang was upon us! The Blacks played host to last years Grand Finalist, Old Brighton, who in recent years have surged forward in Premier to become one of the barometer Clubs for the competition. A win in either of the Reserves or Seniors was the aim, but it was more so the method that was important to bring to the floor, rather than exclusively focusing on the result.
It’s hard to articulate just how excited everyone was with the opportunity in front of them, and with 5 debutants in the Seniors; Finn Raymond, Tom Larby, Ayui Makieng, Ben Stephenson and Max Dow, the excitement was palpable at the Uni Main. Jointly, the excitement with Round 1 being Past Players Day, the debutants were handed their jerseys by 5 former Blackers’, a fantastic tradition of this great Club.
The excitement did not disappoint come 2pm as it was converted to terrific team football in the first ten minutes with the Blacks starting like a house on fire. A goal on debut for key forward Tom Larby, followed by clever snaps to Nick Hey and Louis Vescio had the boys out to a 3 goal lead and we were well in the contest. Old Brighton wrestled back the momentum with a couple of goals but the Blacks led by 3 points at the end of the first.
The second quarter picked up where the first ended; with a fierce level of intensity, both sides were cracking in and no one giving an inch. It certainly brought back memories for 2013-2017, given the level of physicality expected from players at every single contest. The rain started to come down, and the Main became difficult to navigate. Old Brighton were slick by hand and foot, but the Blacks intensity around the ball, and staunch defence, kept the scoring to a minimum. Despite repeat entries, the Blacks wall proved impenetrable with new co-captain Campbell Moorfield showing he was ready to pick up right where he left off from, aptly supported by the back-line mafia of Sam McKenzie, Henry Bennett, Joel Ernest, Charlie Francis and Xavier Chalkley. After only a single goal to Old Brighton, co-captain Josh Steadman stepped up when we needed it most. In difficult conditions, he delivered with a huge captain’s goal, a long bomb from 40m out just before the half. The swathes of Past Players’ in attendance were sent into raptures. Heading into the main break, Old Brighton had a slender three point lead, and the Blacks were well and truly up for the fight.
Above: The Co-Captain celebrates his major with pride.
After an extremely tight first half, the message from Senior Coach Dale Bower was simple. Match their intensity and effort and we will go a long way to winning this game. As the premiership quarter began, it was clear Old Brighton had lifted to a much higher gear. A quick clearance and goal in the first minute showed the Blacks there was no time for warming up after the break, and they knew that now was not the time to back down. The first ten minutes were ferocious, and the physicality across the ground was felt in every contest. The new look midfield of Lachlan Knight, Finn Raymond, Jack Cassidy, Harry Broderick and Hugh Curnow battled fiercely after Brighton’s opening goal, and there was reward for this effort. In the blink of an eye, Louis Vescio snapped a crafty off-the-deck snag and the Blacks were back in it. Though as the quarter grinded on, Old Brighton began to show their class and experience in the trenches of A Grade, as they bore ahead with a flurry of goals. Old Brighton had kicked 5 in a row and the margin was now 34 at three-quarter time.
Below: Ben Stephenson had an outstanding debut for the Club, and had plenty of long kicks like this on the Pavvy wing all day long!
Heading into the last, the game was still well and truly up for grabs despite the 5 goal margin. A couple of early goals and who knew what could happen? On the other hand, there would have been some supporters for Brighton in the crowd hoping for a steam rolling last quarter and a 10 goal win to open their season. The Blacks were not having a bit of it though, and some of the most impressive contests of the day occurred in the last stanza. The boys showed that they would not back down when challenged and handled themselves with plenty of guts and determination, in a way that all Blacks supporters will remember for the rest of this season. As the quarter wore on, the wet conditions made quick scoring difficult; the rain never got to ‘bucketing levels’, but it no doubt had an effect on the ability of our smalls to link and carry with hands throughout the day.
Owing to the momentary lapse in the third quarter, the Blacks well and truly matched it against last year’s Grand Finalist’s. Not only did this prove that the Blacks are a Club made for A-grade but it showed we can match it with the absolute best in 2023. New recruit Ben Stephenson was a worthy recipient of Best on Ground for the Blacks as he showed real guts and flair on the wing, taking on all that came his way from first to last throughout the afternoon. We will be looking to take another step forward next Saturday in a match that simply does not get any bigger, the Uni Derby! Bring it on.
In the 11:40am game, the Blacks Heart ‘n’ Souls faced up against the Brighton 2s who narrowly missed out on Finals in 2022. Fielding a team with several Senior players returning from injury, the Tonners outfit was always going to be a big ask for the Blacks side, which had 10 players making their debut with the Club/Reserves in total. Ross Porter, Jack Kennedy, Lachlan O’Hara and Will Goyder all made their Club debuts whilst it was the first game in the Reserves for Adam Dendrinos, Liam Bell, Sam Ackland-Evans, Xavier Robertson, Scott Glover and Henry Lamb.
It was fantastic to see so many players rewarded for their hard work throughout the pre-season, as for many of them, training began as far back as November. Similarly, Sam and Xavier are products of our Under 19s side from the last 2 seasons, and it is a testament to their dedication and love for the Club to stick out some tough Covid years in the Unders to get to play some Senior footy for the Blacks.
Leading the side for the 5th season in a row was Lewis Steere - who in a few weeks will be bringing up his 100th match, stayed tuned! Co-captain Tom Cousins unfortunately did not feature in the match owing to a hamstring strain sustained 4 weeks ago, nevertheless it was promising to see him in the runners outfit delivering messages as he builds towards a return.
Winning the toss Captain Steere encouraged his troops to employ the same mindset that Coach Rob Paterson had directed the players towards pre-game; a performance mindset that encompassed a focus on accepting mistakes and immediately focusing on the improvement for the next contest. A new look side in Premier Reserves was always going to have a bit of a learning curve to adjust to, and the Blacks 2s faced up to what would be some valuable lessons to come for the season over the upcoming 4 quarters.
After the end of the first quarter, the Blacks had in some aspects kept even with the Tonners, winning their share of turnovers in the backline and getting a couple of inside 50 chances. The real difference though was Brighton’s adherence to moving the ball quickly from turnover and catapulting the ball ‘out the far side’, spreading the Blacks team defence wide and then picking holes to find targets inside 50.
2.7 for Brighton suggested the scoreboard was doing the Blacks a favour, and after the break the Blacks re engaged their focus at the contest and more than held their own for the first 10 minutes. Vice-captain John Perks started to win some taps in the ruck and Sam Robertson capitlised with a couple of slick clearances. New recruit Jack Kennedy also impressed with his two way ability in the guts, either using his body to great effect and winning possession, or pivoting quickly to defense mode and laying some bone crunching tackles to lift the Blacks spirit.
However the intensity proved too difficult to maintain, and the Blacks were unable to get a reward for effort on the scoreboard. At halftime, Coach Paterson swung some changes to generate some momentum, and moved live-wire forward Tom St. Clair into the guts, who up until then had been starved of opportunities. Tom immediately had an impact, securing the first clearance of the third quarter and looked dangerous circling around the stoppages, always on the move ready for a chance to spill his way.
Learning to play multiple positions is an important skill for our young stars to embrace, in order to give themselves the best chance of being selected to play Seniors, and in 2023 the Reserves will certainly see their fair share of different players in different positions as the season wears on. The Blacks were able to win the ball in stages
By the end of the game, the Blacks couldn’t break through a disciplined Brighton defence, managing only 6 behinds for the match. Goal Kicking practice, inside 50 targeting and exiting the backline via the switch will all be on the agenda for training to be sure. Not to fear though, it is a long season and the Heart ‘n’ Souls will keep learning more each week about what it takes to be at the pointy end of Premier Reserve.
Meanwhile, the Phoenix have had a remarkable pre-season of training thus far, led from the front by Coach Rob Borg. Rob has been enthusiastic and passionate for the Phoenix, which is a pleasant mix of experienced campaigners and new talent. Pre-season commenced for the Phoenix in early Feb and they have consistently had 20 plus at training each week, which has certainly been a record breaking figure in this author's experience of Phoenix pre-season sessions!
When the side was posted Friday morning on the Phoenix Facebook page, there was a great sense of anticipation and hunger amongst the boys, as in 2023 the Phoenix have moved to Division 1 Thirds, in the hope of playing in a league that is more evenly balanced, where the Phoenix can have a chance to win some matches, rather than being relegated to acting as witches hats vs the likes of Xavier and Scotch (who have 3 if not 4 Thirds sides).
Slated to play De La Salle on the Crawford at 11:40am, the news of De La being short broke at about midday Friday. Despite some negotiations back and forth between the Clubs and the VAFA taking place - as Coach Borg was keen to get a match going ahead even if it meant loaning De La some players - the writing was on the wall that a game might not being going ahead.
Alas it wasn’t to be, and by 5pm the decision was made to forfeit the match and award the 4 points to the Phoenix. Not the way the players and coach imagined getting their first “W” of 2023, and the first since the end of the 2021 half-finished season, but nevertheless the boys saw the upside to starting the year with a win of sorts.
Showing good commitment and endeavour to improve, the players still held an intra-club training session, getting some conditioning in and crafting their setups in preparation for their Round 2 clash against Fitzroy at Ramsden Street.
We look forward to seeing what 2023 has in store for the Phoenix and very much expect there to be a match proper against our old foes from the suburb over.
Lastly, it would be remiss of us to forget the Under 19s, and as such we had another scribe hot on their case at 9:20am, ready to detail the match from first bell to last.
"A glorious early morning calm hung gently over the Uni Main as the youngest Blackers arrived for an early morning appointment with the pigskin. For many it would be the first occasion to pull on the famous black and blue and who knows what Blacks destiny may have in store for these new young sons of the phoenix. But for today it was SKOBS and dew.
The dew made for a tricky business early doors and it was blue collar footy all round. The Blacks were well and truly winning their share of the slippery pill with a hard working midfield including Samuel Fu, Benny Donnellan and Kyle Reynolds driving it forward. Let history record it was the elusive Ben Mithen who popped up to score the first major for 2023.
At the same time (well not exactly the same time but approximately) the Blacks defence repelled numerous SKOBS attacks with Toby Gillham, Ben Little and Mason Blythe and pals showing grit aplenty.
When Beefy Burke sounded the bell for lemon time the Blacks went into the sheds a goal to the good. Beefy only kept time for 12 quarters on Sat. He would have loved to have done the Phoenix as well.
Coach Muz’s gentle halftime counsel did the trick and the Blacks came out firing. With Ed Phillipson and Olly Bouchez showing ferocity and drive writ large and Cez Carmichael landing the clubhouse leader for goal of the year the Blacks stretched the lead. Though not quite as far as they might have with a few shots going behind the stick.
Undettered SKOBS stuck to their task and gradually pulled back the margin. At ¾ time there was a goal in it and the last quarter was a classic see sawing affair. Both sides had their chances but in the end SKOBS got a home by a couple of goals.
All in all there was plenty to like about the first outing for a team who will only improve as they get to know each other’s games and favourite movies."