In what is shaping up as a ripping Goulburn Valley League season, the contenders are rounding the Flemington bend and starting their sprints towards the winning post — and the glory that comes with beating the pack.
After 12 rounds of action, the thoroughbred that is Kyabram is setting the pace, but still looks to have a kick left, making chasing it down an extraordinarily difficult proposition. Behind them, the challenge is with sides such as Shepparton, Benalla and Echuca to find another gear and chase down one of the best sides in country football history.
The season so far
While Kyabram’s form is simply outstanding, the thing the GVL lacks most this season is a contending team willing to put its hand up and say ‘‘we are ready to take down the Kyabram juggernaut’’.
Benalla has been the surprise packet for much of the season, but shock losses to Mansfield and Seymour raise big questions about the Saints’ ability to consistently produce.
Shepparton looked a step off its grand final form of last season early in the year, beaten against Kyabram and Benalla in a three-week stretch.
The Bears are slowly lifting, but have lacked a focal point up forward, with John Bradaric unable to fill the void James Wong left due to his injury problems. And while Echuca has the most upside of the contending teams, having been unable to get its stars on the park at the same time, it has lost to Kyabram, Benalla, Shepparton and Euroa, highlighting at this stage, it has not yet taken that next step.
The race for finals
Kyabram, Benalla, Shepparton and Echuca should cancel any September plans, because they will all be required for action in this year’s GVL finals.
The real battle starts with Tatura and Euroa, with both teams 7-5 at the bye.
While injury has crippled Tatura’s playing stocks, the side will welcome talent back after the bye and benefit from a presentable draw to win four, if not five of its remaining six games.
The out-of-form Euroa — losses to Tatura and Shepparton United in mind — still plays Kyabram, Benalla, Echuca and Shepparton.
All are brutal challenges, but to play finals the Magpies will need to win one or two of these fixtures to qualify for the post-season.
Mansfield, at seventh with a 6-6 record, would expect to beat, at a bare minimum, Mooroopna, Seymour and Shepparton United, with 50:50 fixtures against Rochester and Tatura to determine the Eagles’ finals fate.
McPherson Media predicts Euroa and Tatura will finish with 10-8 records, with percentage to decide who takes the sixth position in finals.
Seymour might not have won too many games, but superstar co-coach Jason Cole will surely leave September a Morrison medallist.
Cole has been named his side’s best player in four of its five wins — second best in the other — and named his side’s best in another six games. His on-field artistry jumps off the canvas, his 61-disposal, six-goal destruction of Benalla last weekend just his latest masterpiece in The Louvre that has been his season.
If not him, a Kyabram star such as Kayne Pettifer, Mick Mattingly, Liam Ogden or Pat Wearden could be in the frame, but their balanced dominance may have players pinch votes from their team mates.
Brandyn Grenfell has torn many games to shreds for Tatura, in the ruck and up forward where his contested marking has netted him 41 goals.
Benalla’s early-season heroics were driven by midfield maestro Sam Martyn and coach Luke Morgan, but the former will be punished having missed the side’s past three games.
The leading goal-kicker award is also a foregone conclusion, with Pettifer (38 goals) clear of Grenfell and a certainty to make it three in a row.
For the award for the best player aged under-21 with no more than eight senior games experience heading into the season, Benalla’s Jamie Dunne is among the leading contenders.
After the maximum-allowed eight senior games last season, Dunne has taken his game to the next level this season with 31 goals in 12 matches.
Echuca duo Darby Henderson and Mitch Kemp played two and three games respectively last season due to TAC Cup commitments, and are making a big difference at the senior level.
Henderson particularly has found top form with an eye-catching best-on-ground performance against Tatura last weekend featuring three goals.
It would be foolhardy to pick anyone other than Kyabram to lift the premiership cup. The Bombers’ form is as stellar as it gets and they clearly know what it takes to get it done in the post-season.
While teams would not admit it, the real battle this season is for second place, with a number of contenders for this accolade.
Echuca would be pleased simply making the finals for the first time since 2011, but it is finding touch at the right time of year and will only benefit from more games into Simon Buckley.
Shepparton and Benalla are also right in the picture and if the Bears continue their recent form they are a good chance to make it consecutive grand final appearances.