The Eastern Football League Division One and Two Choose Tap finals series kick off this coming weekend, and the top grade is packed with quality teams.
Norwood, Vermont, Montrose, Blackburn and Balwyn have all made it through. The Wooders get the first week off and go straight through to a semi-final berth, while Vermont and Montrose have the double chance in the qualifying final on Saturday, August 30.
Quality performances from Norwood and Vermont, the latter of whom has won 10 in a row, see these two sides as the genuine premiership contenders. However, Montrose have matched it with the top five, even knocking off Vermont and Blackburn while matching it in hard-fought losses against Balwyn and Norwood.
Here is a look at the five teams heading into Saturday action:
The division one minor premiers won the first 11 games of the season before losing to Noble Park in Round 12 by just one point. Dropping just two games, the other to second-placed Vermont, Norwood have a side screaming talent and all-round performance.
After a semi-final finish in 2013, Norwood coach Denis Knight said in May that the squad would continue to work the same way every week against every opponent. Players on the fringe could not break into the strong side in the early rounds; names such as Matthew Bate and Jordan Gysberts, former Melbourne players, were clocking stellar performances in a side that seemed to have no weak link.
The losses in the middle of the season barely made a dent, and the pressure applied across the ground has been the key winner for the purple army. Leigh Williams is another stand-out name (52 goals) who has given Norwood a formidable forward target. Odds on for premiers.
The Eagles have made the EFL community sit up and listen after a wobbly start, with 10 wins in a row. Like Norwood, the depth in the side is undoubtedly evident but they do not boast such names like the minor premiers.
Such a name though is ruckman Simon Taylor. The former Hawthorn player and 200cm giant has provided agility around the ground, and a big body at the ruck contests that has allowed the Eagles to win so many clearances and stoppages. Justin Van Unen (67 goals) has played a critical role in the attacking 50, and is ably supported every week.
Senior coach Steve Cochrane emphasised that many scoring opportunities have come from pressuring opponents to turn the ball over. With finals asking for increased physicality, it is all about rehab and staying 100% fit, said Cochrane in early August.
“Nothing changes for us, we treat each game as we do each week, and the rehab is really important in having the players fresh for the next game.”
With the double chance secured, Vermont play Montrose at Bayswater in a bid to go straight through to a preliminary final berth.
Potentially the dark horse of the finals, Montrose have taken giant steps after earning promotion from Division Two in 2013.
They secured wins against Vermont and Blackburn during the season, and also narrowly dropping games against Balwyn and Norwood. Having made the leap to Division One, expectations for the club came up against some unknowns, with quality opposition in front of them. Noble Park, East Ringwood and Rowville all fell on the Montrose sword during the season.
Coach Brett Johnson has been reappointed for 2015, and rightly so, having lead the club through Division Two and into a terrific spot to potentially score a preliminary final berth.
The Panthers terrific run in the early season after a narrow loss to Balwyn came to a screeching halt against Norwood at home in late May. After being 40 points down at the main break, they cut the final margin back to just 14.
What is most impressive about Blackburn’s season is the climb from the bottom in 2013. Tripling the amount of wins from 2013, and the performances against the rest of the top five suggest Blackburn is a shot at making it all the way, but it will not be an easy finals road.
Losses have come at the most inopportune of times, with other sides able to scamper up the ladder and push Blackburn off its perch. Captain Ben Fraser has been a stalwart, as have the likes of Anthony Fagan and Paul Bunn.
It may well turn out to be a battle of the forwards against Balwyn, with Jake Hammond and Heath O’Farrell the Panthers go-to men.
Added expectations were on the Tigers after such a dominant 2013, and with Luke Barker, Jeff Gobbels and Blake Broadhurst kicking goals, there was very little this season that would stop them.
Senior coach Daniel Donati has true drive when addressing the players, and in last Saturday’s loss to Vermont, that is exactly what he delivered; asking the players to push when it mattered and drive it up the middle.
When the guns fired, Balwyn were close to unstoppable and amassed some big scores. Recording wins against all of the top five bar Norwood, Balwyn are attempting to go back-to-back-to-back and take home a third consecutive EFL Division One Premiership.
All five teams in the finals have a chance of taking home the premiership, but the intensity is going to step up to the next level. Norwood get the advantage of a week off and will start in a semi-final in two weeks, while Vermont and Montrose battle it out for the double chance.
Vermont v Montrose
Balwyn v Blackburn