4 Clubs, 1 Winner: Who’s narrative are you all-in on?

Posted on - Latest News, Premier Men's, Featured, Finals

Joe Pignataro

Welcome to the William Buck Premier Men’s Finals series for 2023. 

After 90 games, only four remain. Collegians have qualified as the minor premiers after a dominant home and away season, the Uni Blues have quietly slotted into second. 

The Cardinals return to the finals for the first time since 2014 as the reigning premiers St Kevin’s are back again, for a fifth consecutive finals series. 

Collegians have been the benchmark of the competition in 2023. Ranked number one for attack (Averaging 94.8 points per game), and ranked number one for defence (Conceding on average 52.5 points per game). 

Jared Rivers has turned an embarrassing Friday night against Old Melburnians in 2022 into a spark of inspiration. Since then the Lions boast a 25-3 record in the home and away season. 

The forward line of Dave Mirra (40 goals), Ed Greene (35 goals), and the secret weapon Will Pocknee (39 goals). A trio in the front third with 114 goals between them is no mean feat. 

The back six is water-tight, Matt Warren is the general of the group. He played the game of his season in the final home and away round. Supporting Warren is Sam Sofronidis and Luke McCleary. Versatile, agile, and flexible on who they play on and how they play the game. 

Nick Canny is the unsung hero of the Lions defence. Unrelenting on the field, unheralded in his efforts. And it’s impossible to discount the incredible debut season Will Pewtress has put together as part of the defence. 

Keen to atone for the disappointment of the 2022 finals series, season 2023 has been about redemption for Collegians. With all the focus so regularly on the classy midfielders of the Lions, Sam Hibbins, the captain and veteran of the side often gets forgotten.

He’ll be fresh, and primed to go after missing the Round 18 clash against Old Scotch, declaring on the VAFA’s Saturday Warm-Up the Lions haven’t been in a better position across the last decade. 

“This is the best side I’ve ever played in.. The top end talent we had in 2017 and 2018 was very good, but the depth of this side between the fourth and 22nd player there really isn’t much difference,” Hibbins said.

This is the first time since 2012 that Collegians have finished the home and away season on top of the ladder, and they don’t need to stretch their memories too much to remember what happened in that season. 

University Blues put behind them a frustrating 2022 campaign and have flown largely under the radar in 2023, just the way they want it. Their good is very good, however their bad has left us with question marks around the team. 

Guy Martyn has been able to coach consistency this year, using the least amount of players in 2023 (36 in total). This has them in the same zone that they were in during 2019 when they last won the A-Grade title. 

Only four players from 2019 will take to the field this weekend who remain from that dominant side. Ayce Cordy is still the skipper, Meyrick Buchanan, Tom Young and Cam O’Shea. 

Marto was there on that day, as St Kevin’s coach. These days he has the keys to the Uni Blues Ferrari. 

And, while this line up of Blues may not hold strong VAFA finals experience, there’s 340 games of AFL experience that will take to the field on Saturday. Gleeson, Cordy, Young, O’Shea and Cutler, the fab-five will know exactly what’s required in the big moments and won’t be overawed. 

Neither will the likes of Eddie Ziebath, Charlie Furphy the two class acts of the midfield or youngsters Isaac Dykes and Sam Cozens. Both lads turn 20 this year and have shown maturity beyond their years in this debut season of senior footy.  

Prior to this year, the recent meetings post the COVID era have been games decided by under a kick. In 2023 they shared the points, Blues victorious in Round 6 by 52 points, Collegians flipped the script in Round 11 by 94 points.

Finals bring a different level of intensity that we don’t see during the home and away season, and Elsternwick Park will be at fever-pitch once the clock ticks to 2:15 PM for the first bounce. 

Joey’s Tip: Collegians by 7 points

Hear all the action on RSN Xtra2 with Joe Pignataro and Josh Heriot from 1:00 PM and watch live on KommunityTV

Once we stop spinning after Saturday’s killer-diller. On Sunday, we do it all again. 

You won’t get a bigger finals match-up than this too often. Two clubs with rich history against one another. 

Old Scotch will feel like a lone-wolf in this year’s finals series. St Kevin’s have competed in the last four A-Section finals series, likewise Collegians, whilst University Blues, two. 

The last time the Cardinals were part of a William Buck Premier finals series was in 2014. Nearly a decade on, they’re back again. Only the captain Andy Jelbart, seasoned midfielder Aidan Franetic and defender Jordan Clarke remain as the trio who are still pulling on the boots from the squad that took part in that finals series. 

The freedom for the rest of the squad that comes with the unknown may well work in the favour of Mark Gnatt’s troops. This experience regardless of the result will prove valuable going forward. 

Old Scotch sit second to Collegians when it comes to attacking football and scoring. Tyler Sellers, Ryan Valentine and James Tarrant will become a three pronged attack this weekend. With Henry Brown, and Angus Symons at their feet. St Kevin’s will have to play out the minutes to beat them, and not let the young Cardinals get their tails up. 

Regular readers of the column are well aware the Cardinals are in the window. After finishing 2022 in sixth spot, they had the blueprint to springboard into 2023, and that’s what they’ve done. 

Mark Gnatt has been a regular on VAFA Media this year, and taken us all inside the four walls of the Cardinals. On Saturday, leading into Round 18, Gnatt gave an insight into “team defence” being a KPI leading into the 2023 season.

“Based on last year, we felt we needed to be four goals better off, and we had to be far better in the other way, and I think we’ve been successful in doing that,” Gnatt told the Saturday Warm-Up.  

In 2022, the defence of Old Scotch was leaking an average of 82 points per game. The conscious decision from Gnatt to focus on that area has brought that average down to 58 points per game in 2023. A four goal better average than 12 months ago. Box ticked. 

At the other end of the ground, that’s been a highlight of this side. Old Scotch are scoring an average of 91 points per game, up from 79 points in 2022. In 12 of the 18 games in 2023, kicking over 90 points winning them all. 

The reigning premiers, St Kevin’s, know only one way. Qualify during the home and away rounds, and then the real stuff starts. Each time they’ve made the finals since their return to the VAFA’s top flight in 2016, they’ve reached the Grand Final. 

20 of the 22 players that won the Premiership last year are still on the list and available for selection. The additions to the squad this year include the Wallis brothers, defender Nick Sing and Robert Larcher. Everything is falling into place for Plugger Lynch. 

How can you possibly even consider discounting this side, even for a fleeting moment. Let alone completely discounting them. The last time St Kevin’s didn’t make the finals was the last time the Old Xaverians won a William Buck Premier premiership, seven long years ago. 

During this magical run, Cal Matheson, and Will Coates have played in four premierships for SKOB. Tom Jok has three medallions plus the 2022 Jock Nelson Medal. This trio are going to be pivotal to the success of St Kevin’s again this year. It will surprise no one if these three are inside the centre square at the first bounce on Sunday. 

They know what it takes, they know what’s required, and they have more room on the mantle to add another medallion to it. As hungry as they’ve ever been. 

Speaking of Anthony Lynch. Year two of his coaching tenure hasn’t been as smooth sailing as his debut season. However, Plugger has relished every challenge put in front of him, and just like his playing days, hasn’t taken a backward step. 

From injuries to big players at key times, to having teams get momentum and run ons unexpectedly. Every challenge met head-on with that Anthony Lynch tenacity and ferocity, September is his purpose. Never wanting to feel like he did in 2019 is the driving force behind his motivation these days. 

Twice this year St Kevin’s have overpowered Old Scotch. They come into the finals having won five of their last six matches. The record in September since 2015 (10 wins, 2 losses) is the envy of the competition. 

Will the aura, September nouse and reputation be the reason this side advances to the Preliminary Final or can the side that’s ticked box after box after box in season 2023 keep their dreams of a drought-breaking title alive? 

Joey’s Tip: St Kevin’s by 3 points

Hear all the action on RSN Xtra2 with Joe Pignataro and Josh Heriot from 1:00 PM and watch live on KommunityTV

With four teams left, and only four games remaining. Who’s narrative is going to be the final chapter of the 2023 season? 

Do Collegians atone for the heartbreak of 2014, 2017 and 2018 to bring home Premiership #21? 

Will University Blues write the wrongs of the 2022 season and climb the mountain once more?

Can Old Scotch end a 45-year premiership drought in A-Section? 

Does a fourth St Kevin’s flag in five years put them in the echelon of Old Xaverians of the late 90’s, Ormond of the 80’s, Old Paradians of the 60’s and Uni Blacks of the 40’s?