By Tim Klingbiel
Urunga Raiders vs Boambee Eagles
The Eagles travelled to Morgo Street on Saturday still riding the high of their perfect Premiership season of 14 wins from 14 games, but the Raiders finished the season with some impressive form of their own and a win over fellow finals contenders Woolgoolga last time out meant that Glenn Bennett’s girls certainly couldn’t afford to take them lightly, and narrow Eagles wins (3-1 and 2-0) during the regular season lent further credibility to Urunga as contenders in this fixture.
A fired up Eagles outfit started off the game at breakneck speed and allowed the home side no opportunities to ease their way into the contest, with a ruthless Kylie McDonald scoring twice in the first 15 minutes and giving the Eagles a massive advantage early on. Bennett praised the Eagles’ control of the midfield and the precision of their passing exchanges in attack, and credited these factors as being the major driving forces behind a number of further goalscoring opportunities.
McDonald was in on the act once again with a strike from distance, Urunga keeper Gaia Malcisi left in a difficult spot as she debated whether or not to play at the ball – unfortunately on this occasion, the decision to leave the ball did not pay dividends and she was left to pick it out of the net as the Eagles went three up and McDonald had her hat trick before half time.
The Raiders now found it difficult to stem the flow of a rampant Eagles attack and before the half had come to a close, midfielder Keira Plumbe wanted her own piece of the action and launched a rocket from some way outside the box to increase the margin to 4-0. The deficit for the Raiders now seemed all but irreversible and as half time arrived, there would be a lot of thinking to do for the ladies in maroon if they were to haul themselves back into the contest.
Bennett’s half time talk was justifiably positive as he praised his players for their performance thus far and encouraged the continuation of the same patterns of play that had brought them such resounding success. Urunga coach Trevor Martin had a tactical masterstroke of his own up his sleeve though, and a minor defensive reshuffle would ultimately yield markedly improved results during the second period.
Both teams started the second half brightly and the early exchanges were defined by well-structured build up play and lengthy periods of possession. It took a strong run from McDonald to get in behind the Urunga defence in order to pry the game back open, and she made no mistake one on one, slotting her fourth and the Eagles’ fifth without reply.
But the Raiders were certainly not a spent force yet and came back firing, lifting their intensity and producing some of their best passages of play of the match thus far. Ramping up the intensity to match the levels of their more fancied opponents, the Raiders began creating a number of chances off the back of quality passing interchanges and all of a sudden the Boambee goal was under regular threat.
The vaunted Eagles defence held firm and withstood the best efforts of the Urunga attack, but after some time soaking up pressure from the home side, Raiders’ attacker Jess Snow found herself with an opportunity inside the box – the referee adjudged that there had been undue contact and though the travelling contingent was most displeased, Belinda Moore had the chance to place the ball 12 yards out and she converted past Di Walker to make it 5-1.
A much improved second half performance from the Raiders saw the score remain the same until the full-time whistle and they will take a lot of positives from going blow for blow with the Premiers and holding them to 1-1 after half time. But the final scoreline of the first leg would appear a bridge too far for even the most on-song Raiders side and barring a comeback akin to Rocky Balboa’s 15th round effort against Ivan Drago in Rocky IV, one would have to think the Raiders are playing for pride this weekend and a result of any kind would be considered a massive success.
The Eagles will be looking forward to their Ayrshire Park return and will have designs on securing a 16th straight win in 2017 and progressing to a likely grand final meeting with Woolgoolga Wildcats, who recorded their own 4 goal victory over Maclean on the weekend to put themselves in the box seat. The questions Kylie McDonald has been asking of opposition defences have yet to be answered definitively this season, and the Eagles’ strength all over the park has them looking very ominous at the crunch time of the season.
Woolgoolga Wildcats vs Maclean Bobcats
The all-feline clash at High Street was an intriguing matchup, with the Wildcats’ form of four wins in their last five looking the more impressive of the two sides but the Bobcats’ vastly superior head to head record of 6-1 and 5-2 wins in their previous meetings this season spelling danger for Kim Batty’s girls in blue.
Batty believed her squad had done the work necessary to overturn their previous results against the Bobcats but knew that sticking to the game plan would be key as there would be no room for error against a team boasting one of the competition’s most dangerous players in Sarah Skinner and possessing the second most potent attack this season behind only the Eagles.
The home supporters turned out in droves and created an excellent atmosphere for finals football, and the morale boosting effect this had on the Wildcats was evident from the outset. In perhaps their most impressive performance of the season, they showed the discipline they will require to challenge for higher honours as they breached the wall of green on four occasions and ensured they will take a massive advantage up to Wherrett Park on Saturday.
Two goals in the first half to Chloe Wighton and Kenisha Warren set the tone for what ultimately ended up a clinical attacking display from the Wildcats, and second half strikes by Tanisha Wallace and Jorga Murphy rounded out the scoring amidst the blustery crosswinds of the High Street venue Woolgoolga call home.
Bobcats coach Col Stephens credited Woolgoolga with playing a great game and putting his side on the back foot early, and rued missed opportunities as the Maclean attack were not as clinical as they could have been. Though Stephens noted inconsistency from his girls as a key factor in the result, he was impressed with the performance of Natalie Anderson who was a standout player throughout and led by example. He felt that perhaps an away goal may have changed the complexion of the tie, and indeed they came very close, being awarded a free kick straight in front and right on the edge of the area with just seconds on the clock, only for time to be called early due to a medical incident. The Bobcats were less than pleased with being denied a last ditch goalscoring opportunity and though the referee offered his apologies later on, it would be little consolation for the Clarence outfit.
For Stephens’ Bobcats, they will be very disappointed by the weekend’s scoreline, but they will still be able to draw confidence from their two big wins over the Wildcats earlier in the season. Ordinarily one would suggest a four goal margin is nearly impossible to overturn in a two leg tie, but the Bobcats already hold a 6-1 victory over Woolgoolga this season and a repeat of that result would do the trick. Still, the Wildcats side of recent weeks seem a tough out and it’s difficult to imagine them shipping six on Saturday afternoon, so the Maclean girls will really need everything to go right for them – a season best performance at a minimum, and probably a light sprinkling of good fortune from the football gods as well – to be in with a shout.
The excitement in the Northern Beaches is palpable and Batty believes the balanced approach of her squad – she describes this week’s training agenda as ‘a little bit of fine tuning… and socialising like we usually do’ – will be key to the Wildcats’ success. Though very pleased to come away with the win in the first leg, Woolgoolga are approaching the second leg as a 0-0 and will not be taking their opponents lightly. Should the Wildcats get through unscathed, they are likely to provide a stern test for the Eagles if the white and maroon can protect their own four goal advantage against the Raiders.