Nick Armistead – @NickArmistead
With less than one week remaining until the first bounce of the VAFA season, it’s time to look at each club in William Buck Premier and how they are situated ahead of another outstanding year of Amateur football.
St Kevin’s OB
After claiming their maiden William Buck Premier/A-Grade flag last year, SKOB remains the team to beat heading into the 2018 season. Despite only just clinging on to a thrilling three-point victory over Collegians, it was SKOB’s multitude of scoring options and harassment of the ball carrier that set them apart last year. They lost just two games and recorded an average winning margin of 55.5 points in one of the most dominant seasons in recent memory. The departures of coach Shannon Grant, Mark Jamar, Ben Dowd (retired) and Steven Salopek (retired), while disappointing from a spectator point of view, will open further opportunities for their younger players who have claimed one Holmesglen U19 Premier and two Premier Reserves flags in the past two years. Dowd and Salopek will be sorely missed after each played starring roles through last year’s finals series (who can forget Salopek’s performance against the Blues?), but the full-time services of premiership midfielder, Jack Holden, alongside inclusions James Corboy, Daniel Romero and Pele Manivong means SKOB’s pressure will be a strength of theirs yet again. Co-coaches, Tom Williams and Guy Martyn, have reportedly taken to their new role with ease and captain Anthony Lynch will again lead on-field as he comes off a career year.
If off-season recruitment was a direct indicator of future on-field success, pencil Collegians in for another grand final appearance in 2018. The Lions, who were leaders in attracting talent prior to last season, have added a-grade polish to their starting line-up with the recruitment of Taylor Hunt (Richmond FC) and Big V captain, George Burbury (Old Geelong). Both players will join Sam Hibbins and Viv Michie in a star-studded midfield anchored by Tom Penberthy and Kalem Post through the ruck. However, the key to the Lions’ set-up remains the fitness of Lachie Ferguson who led the Woodrow Medal count before going down with an ankle injury against SKOB in Round 11. Despite making it back in time for finals, Ferguson was still under an injury cloud – albeit a Lachie Ferguson under an injury cloud is still worth its weight in gold. After a scope to clear up the scar tissue over the pre-season, the star forward will hopefully be fit and firing within the first month of the season.
After three consecutive preliminary final exists, University Blues have gone hard over the pre-season with several talented additions. Former GWS-listed midfielder Sam Schulz joins Piers Flanagan, Ross Young, Jeremy Taylor, Kieran Harper and Clayton Hinkley as ex-league talent, while Ayce Cordy is expected to line-up and take pressure off Cam Williams in the ruck. After slotting 82 goals in his previous two seasons at Noble Park, Tim Harper will join Kieran, Tom Quinn and Tim Gaeppen in a seriously dangerous looking forward 50 for the Blues, while Nick Rippon will hopefully register at least one appearance with brother, Marshall. Dale Hinkley and Riley McMahon are two notable departures for the Blues, but their list is a strong as any in William Buck Premier and the expectation to go one further than the previous three seasons is strong amongst the playing group.
De La Salle
Led by new standalone skipper, Tom Humphrey, and fellow leaders, Sam Williams (VC), Jason Tutt (VC), Jake Williams, Matt Fieldsend and young gun Liam Murphy, it’s easy to get excited about the prospect of a De La finals run. Since going down to Collegians by 15 points in last year’s semi-final, De La’s list has undergone a fair bit of change with the departures of Matt Cullinan, Tom Nicholls and Sam Pickett (retired). The return of Hugh Nicholson, however, is of the utmost importance to De La as he provides an important link between the midfield and forward 50. After kicking 44 goals across half forward in 2015 and 2016, ‘Nitcho’ relocated to Cairns last year where he was named league best & fairest with 22 votes from his 15 games. His return should help make up for the loss of Pickett and Nicholls in the forward half and provide a spark when the chips are down. Matt Beckmans will add quality to one of the strongest midfield groups in William Buck Premier, while Brodie McLaughlin and Nick Nagel should, like Nitcho, help improve De La’s offensive arsenal.
Many were surprised with Old Xaverians in 2017 after they claimed just nine wins and a tie in their premiership defence. Don’t expect the same in 2018. Xavs will be back amongst the top tier this season after adding former St Kilda ruckman, Jason Holmes, alongside Nathan Batsanis and a full-time Jordan Kelly. The former college basketballer has taken to James McDonald’s game plan with ease and will be near-on impossible to beat either at the centre bounce or at stoppages around the ground. Furthermore, Brendan Goss will return to peak fitness and recreate the one-two punch with Matt Handley that was so important during their 2016 premiership run. While the top three will likely remain the same as last year, the battle for fourth will be just as interesting, and we know Xavs don’t need the double chance to take out the flag.
Old Melburnians mirrored their 2016 performance of eight wins and a tie last year but will be looking to build upon those solid foundations in 2018. Their top-end talent is as strong as any side, with Tom Paule, Josh Freezer, Matt Thomas, Nick De Steiger and Al Armstrong elite in their respective positions. After he played a leading role in Footscray’s finals campaign last year, De Steiger will return to OM’s for the full season, while they’ve added former Old Carey senior co-coach, Paul O’Connell, to assist Nathan Brown. While OM’s are on an upward trajectory, they may find it difficult to penetrate the top four this season – but continued internal growth and the prospect of high-level recruitment means it won’t be that way for long.
2017 was a year of change for the T’s as they slumped to seventh place on the ladder and parted ways with senior coach, Adam Andrews. With Luke Pacconi and Brendan Iezzi at the helm for the final five games, the T’s were able to win their last three to avoid relegation and reset for a renewed assault in 2018. Former Marcellin champion, Bernie Dinneen, has since taken the reigns of the 2015-16 grand finalists and expects the internal talent at his disposal will help turn the team’s fortunes around. One of the biggest issues for the T’s in recent years has been a lack of a tall marking target inside their forward 50, with the three mid-sized pillars of Ed Weatherson, Seb Nicolosi and Alex Polidoros carrying the load admirably. However, the addition of North Melbourne VFL-listed forward, Liam Whelan, could potentially change all that when and if he plays Amateurs.
St Bedes/Mentone Tigers
Five losses in their final five games was a disappointing end to the season for St Bedes/Mentone Tigers, but they still managed to finish half a game clear of Uni Blacks and avoid relegation. The main aim for the Tigers in 2018 will be re-establishing Brindisi Street Oval as a fortress opposition clubs fear travelling to after winning just three of their nine home games last year. The big-name recruit of the off-season was former GWS and Carlton player Liam Sumner who has joined the Tigers as a playing assistant. They’ve also landed Sandringham Zebras players Nathan Smith, James Sziller and Robert Iudica as well as former SANFL onballer Steve Tahana. Kye Beveridge, Jack Hellier, Lachlan Mirams, Brayden O’Toole and Tate Short are all on VFL lists as well, so the more games they can get out of that group, the better placed the Tigers will be to climb the ladder and push for finals.
Fresh off a Premier B Grand Final victory against Old Scotch, Old Brighton re-enter William Buck Premier for the first time since 2014. The Tonners were the epitome of depth at Premier B level with flags in both the seniors and reserves but will need to elevate yet again in order to compete at the level required in the VAFA’s top section. And who better to lead the charge than reigning GT Moore Medallist, Harry Hill, and fellow co-captain and Ian Cordner Medallist, Dylan Verney? They were both at the forefront of the Tonners’ success last year and will lead a young but exciting group into the next phase of the club’s history. Despite not playing in last year’s grand final, Alex Mastromanno, was a key part of the Tonners’ forward 50 in the first half of the season but has departed Brighton Beach Oval for the South East FL.
The Cardinals were unlucky at the end of the 2017 season, going down to the Tonners in both the seniors and reserves decider at Trevor Barker Oval. However, the fact remains they were good enough to play off in both grand finals, illustrating their depth and how two years back down in Premier B allowed the club to rebuild and develop younger players. Now they’ve returned to William Buck Premier, the Cardinals have welcomed back star midfielder, Nick Jamieson, after four years at Footscray in the VFL. Jamieson will join young guns Max Martin, Sam Lynch and Will Carrington as the Cardinals return as a much stronger side than three years ago.
Top Four: Collegians, St Kevin’s OB, University Blues, De La Salle
Leading Goal Kicker: Matt Handley (Old Xaverians)
Woodrow Medallist: Jason Tutt (De La Salle)