Bombers rediscover old form

Emerald ruck Steven Kapahnke outmarks Aidan Nelson in what was Kapahnke's best game in red and black thus far. 413413 Picture: ROB CAREW

By Marcus Uhe

It was a return to the type of football that won Emerald last season’s Outer East Football Netball Division One premiership.

There was run, carry, dash, brilliance, and cohesion across the park, in a season where such moments have been fleeting at best.

The Bombers and Berwick Springs quickly formed a healthy onfield rivalry in the Titans’ infancy, culminating in last season’s crowning glory for the Bombers in a ruthless display on the final day of the season.

Emerald blew the Titans out of the water in the first term and never looked back, bullying and battering their deflated opponents into submission over the course of four quarters.

Saturday’s win wasn’t quite the same (9.19 73 to 7.10 52), but Sein Clearihan was delighted with the approach, and saw flashes of the physicality and swagger that became a trademark of his side in 2023.

At half time he told his troops that it was the first occasion he felt his players had intimidated their opponents all year, despite just a 16-point advantage.

They held the Titans goalless in the first term and to just one by the half, in a sign of a return to what made them a Division One powerhouse.

“They had their mojo back,” Clearihan said.

“Last year when they had their run, they intimidated (opponents) at the stoppages.

“What you find is, when you get done all the time, and coming up to Premier Division from First Division, they worry about themselves instead of doing the team-oriented (thing) and move away from that.

“Just play your role and if you get called to the bench, or if you’ve got to the back pocket, go to the back pocket and don’t worry about it; just play your role, you don’t need all those possessions.”

Disposal was sloppy for both sides in the contest’s opening stages with Emerald kicking down breeze to the netball courts end of Mick Morland Reserve.

Emerald young star Noah Van Haren missed the team’s defining momenet due to injury last season was out to make amends early, a standout with his ball use when his more senior teammates and opponents were struggling to hit targets.

His lazer-like right foot set up Jack McGough for the first of the game, and after a textbook run-down tackle later in the term he threaded the needle to find Jake Cawsey on the lead, who finally converted after a wayward beginning to the contest.

Emerald missed a number of chances but the Titans failed to move the ball forward of centre, and could not make the visitors pay as a result, goalless at the first change of ends.

Titans coach Hayden Stagg called for calm and for his players to simplify their actions in the second term.

His side sprung out of the gates and took the first three shots of the quarter, but missed the trio.

Emerald’s backs were feeling the heat, and it took six minutes before they could penetrate their forward 50, such was the pressure the home side applied.

When they did, the Titans got their ball movement going, and transitioned the footy on a handful of occasions.

Teenager Jake Whittingham was the first beneficiary of one instance and linked with Kayden Buselli to goal out the back, and the two combined from a boundary throw in minutes later to add a second.

Buselli contested the throw-in unopposed and found Whittingham alone at his feet, who dribbled the ball from a tight angle through an unguarded goal to tie the scores.

Nick Russo answered back with a timely Bombers goal, the beneficiary of a crunching Mitch Thomas tackle on Riley Hillman, and the Bombers made it two in a row after a controversial reserved free kick.

Whittingham had a free kick taken off him after Chris Johnson bumped David Johnson off the ball, sending David to the ground.

When Whittingham did not give Johnson the ball in satisfactory time, the umpire paid a 25-metre penalty against the youngster, and Johnson was waltzed through the corridor to half-forward, with no Titan manning the mark.

Johnson hit Jake Cawsey on the lead, who converted the shot on a slight angle to complete a potential two-goal swing.

Ben Lewis added another before half time to make it three in a row and undo the positives from Berwick Springs earlier in the quarter.

When the Titans slowed down and could slowly pick their way through the Bombers’ press was when they looked most effective.

It was a case of mind over matter, however, as their skills continued to let them down.

In each of the first three quarters the Titans had managed a shot on goal from the opening centre clearance.

In the first and second terms, they failed to convert those opportunities, but in the third they made it count, through Ryan Cunningham.

It shaped as an omen, but the Bombers responded with the next two in a sixty-second blitz for a game-high lead of 25 points.

Goals were traded for the remainder of the quarter as Berwick Springs held Emerald in-check.

Buselli missed a chance to make it consecutive Titans goals late in the term and cut the lead to 14 points, but the Bombers let him off the hook in the dying stages by not converting a handful of shots, having locked the ball in their forward half.

By now the Titans were playing with urgency and with a new mindset, using the corridor more and being bolder with their kicks.

Chris Johnson called for more of the same in the final term at the last break, giving his players license to run, gun and take risks in order to win the game.

His players delivered on the mandate as the speed of the game shifted gears, going from a tennis match played on the grinding red Roland Garros clay for three quarters to the fast greens of Wimbledon.

Neither side could land a decisive blow until David Johnson asserted himself with an inspirational diving smother.

In his first contest since round six with a bicep injury, he thwarted Kyan Buselli’s inside 50 and the resulting turnover saw him find Dylan Cawsey on his own at the top of the square, to push the lead to 33 points.

It was Emerald’s only goal of the final term, but enough to keep the four points out of the Titans’ reach.

Kayden Buselli and Michael Misso both added goals for the home side late in the term, but it was too little too late, falling 21 points short at the final siren.

Clearihan said after his side’s loss to Woori Yallock in round five that he felt that contest was a turning point in his side’s season.

Since then, they’ve defeated Upwey Tecoma and Berwick Springs, fell narrowly to Officer and dropped their bundle against Monbulk.

It appears they now know what’s required at Premier Division level.

“It’s them starting to believe in themselves that they’re capable of playing at that level of football too,” Clearihan said.

“We’ve had a lot of injuries, so we’ve got Jack McGough, Ben Lewis, Noah (Van Haren) and a couple of other kids that are holding their own, and we haven’t got that six to be pressuring and create that internal competition.

“The point is now that, all year, when a side has got a couple of goals, we haven’t been able to answer that; today they answered with that one goal and then all of a sudden a side goes ‘hang on, yeah, we can do that’.

“Don’t take anything away from (moving from) First Division to Premier Division but there is that step, and in Premier Division, you’re playing a really good side every week.

“If you’re having a bad day, you’ll get eaten.”

It was a vital result for both sides in the context of relegation, and saw Emerald climb to 10th as a result of its win and Gembrook Cockatoo’s loss.

Nine weeks remain in the home and away competition, but this result could have a major say in where both sides play their football next year.

Emerald’s backs in Dale Karacsonyi, Sam Cannon, Ben Willder and Mitch Thomas were critical to the win, as were the Cawsey brothers who have wasted no time in making themselves vital cogs in the Bombers’ machine.

Van Haren sat out the second half of the contest with a knee injury, but the Bombers hope it’s not a long-term proposition for their young star.

Whittingham was a bright light for the Titans, kicking three, with Markulija impressing on his return from injury and reigniting his partnership with Misso in the guts.

Cameron Miller and Brodie McConnell continue to fight manfully in the back half but the absences of Brodie Warlond and Riley Hillman add another layer of difficulty to their predicament.