By Tim Klingbiel
Boambee Eagles (Premiers) will take on Woolgoolga Wildcats (3rd in the regular season) at the C.ex International Stadium, with kick off to take place at 4:50pm on Saturday 9th September on the main field.
Having featured in each of the previous five grand finals, winning two and losing three, it’s certainly not a foreign feeling for the Eagles to still be hanging around at this point of the season. Interestingly enough, the last time they missed out on the decider was also the last time their opponents this weekend, Woolgoolga Wildcats, strode onto the hallowed stadium turf.
It’s the Eagles who will go in as heavy favourites this time, as they did in 2016 before defeating the plucky Maclean Bobcats 6-1, and Glenn Bennett’s girls are currently riding a 20 game winning streak in NCF competition that stretches back even before that game. Off the back of a year that saw them gallop to the Premiership by 13 points while registering the competition’s best attack by some 27 goals and its best defence by 5, it’s tough to find a statistical category the Eagles haven’t dominated.
But grand finals are a different beast, and the Boambee girls will know that only too well, as they only need to cast their minds back to 2015 where an 8 point margin of Premiership success and a 9-0 semi-final aggregate win could only pave the way for a narrow 2-1 loss to the Lionesses in the final. Woolgoolga’s ominous recent form too means the Eagles will need to have their wits about them and bring the very best they have to offer on Saturday afternoon if they want to get their hands on more silverware and seal a second straight Premiership/Championship double.
The season’s prior meetings between the Eagles and Wildcats have both ended in narrow margins of victory for the girls in white – 3-2 and 2-0 – and the closeness of these games sets the stage for a tight battle where the team who does the one-percenters right and proves most clinical in front of goal will emerge victorious. It’s not going to be a walk in the park by any stretch and the Wildcats will be as motivated as ever to upset the apple cart.
Within his squad, Bennett has a number of standout performers to draw on when the going gets tough and a tight game needs to be broken open, not least golden boot winner and Player of the Year Kylie McDonald, who has been simply unstoppable this season with 43 regular season goals to her name over 14 games plus a further six out of the seven total goals the Eagles scored over the two legged semi-final tie against Urunga.
McDonald will look to crack the half century this weekend to cap a stellar season, and there hasn’t been an opposition team yet who have found the panacea to the threats she poses from all areas within 30 yards of goal. Perhaps the Wildcats have a few alchemists in their ranks – they will certainly need to employ some unprecedented approaches if they are to nullify the most dangerous weapon in the Eagles arsenal.
But although she has thus far scored 49 of the Eagles’ 87 total goals in 2017, it’s not just McDonald who drives this side. Bianca Oberleuter and Keira Plumbe have worked well together in the middle of the park all year, while Siobhan Deam and Jasmin Kruger provide extra attacking options out wide and Krista Paunovic and Claire Freeman hold the backline together with calm and assured play.
Bennett was pleased with the way his Eagles started the season, but a lack of players and tighter restrictions imposed on eligibility made it difficult for them as one of three clubs (along with their opponents the Wildcats, as well as Urunga, who were perhaps hit hardest of all) to field two teams from the outset across 1st and 2nd division. Thankfully the Eagles were able to call on the immense efforts of the 2nd division girls to back up when required, and Bennett credits this as a crucial factor behind 1st division’s perfect home and away season.
Preparation for the grand final has been business as usual and Bennett’s philosophy is a case of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, as his squad have stuck to the processes that have served them so well thus far in order to avoid any unnecessary nerves creeping in. With the help of 2nd division once again, who were denied a place in their own grand final on a technicality despite beating Macksville in both semi-final legs, the 1sts will be fielding a full squad of 16 for Saturday’s showpiece.
Bennett expects improved passing and distribution on the immaculate surface of C.ex International Stadium, a far cry from Ayrshire Park’s bouncy and unpredictable track. A solid turnout at training this week has them positioned well for the final charge, and the feeling within the squad is one of great enthusiasm and eagerness to bring another piece of silverware back to Ayrshire Park and continue what has become a quite illustrious era of women’s football at Middle Boambee.
The Wildcats seem to be peaking at just the right time coming into the big dance this weekend, and six wins in their last seven has them well positioned to give the Eagles some genuine difficulties.
An inauspicious start to 2017 saw the Wildcats drop two of their first three games, but their form quickly picked up and they ultimately won 10 of their next 13 to qualify for the finals series in convincing style. A final day defeat to Urunga at the Patch courtesy of a long range strike saw them relinquish second spot to the Bobcats, but fate brought those two sides together once again in the two leg semi-final tie and gave the Wildcats a chance to atone for the slip up.
With a gap of 26 years between the youngest and oldest members of the Wildcats side, they have a great mix at their disposal; the freshness and exuberance of youth alongside seasoned composure and knowledge. The common denominators between squad members falling into either bracket are talent and skill, to which their most recent opponents the Bobcats can attest.
It takes a certain kind of gumption to come up against a side in the semi-finals who you conceded 11 goals against over two regular season games (scoring just 3 in that period) and shut them out for 180 minutes of football to progress to the grand final 5-0 on aggregate, but that’s exactly what the Wildcats managed to do, and it’s that grit and determination that shows there is definitely substance behind the style.
Player-coach Kim Batty says her girls are very excited for the weekend and there is a great feel around the squad, with supportiveness, encouragement and positivity key traits that have been flowing through the training paddock in the lead up to the season’s biggest game.
It’s been a huge year for the club in general, with seven out of the nine junior grand finals this weekend featuring Woolgoolga teams – 12s, 14s and 16s Girls all qualified, which bodes extraordinarily well for the future of the Wildcats 1st division side – while all three competitive senior teams will make an appearance. The club’s grassroots-oriented policy has paid dividends over the years, and their ‘promote from within’ ideology stands in stark and refreshing contrast to the recruitment strategies of some clubs in the senior divisions.
Batty says the more mature members of the squad have been making sure everyone enjoys what they do and has fun along the way, and more often than not teams deliver their best performances when they are feeling free and playing without pressure. This seems to have been the case for Woopi, particularly in recent weeks, and they will need to bottle that magic as they take on an extremely accomplished side.
Chloe Wighton and Kenisha Warren have been dangerous for the Wildcats and always present a legitimate threat in front of goal, while the entire backline have reached unprecedented levels of solidity in recent times and will provide the perfect bedrock for Woopi’s attacking raids while also having possibly the best chance of any side this season at reducing the impact of Eagles enforcer Kylie McDonald.
The Eagles would do well to be wary of the girls in blue, and Batty notes that although her girls are well aware of their opponents’ class and the fact that they will need to bring their A game to be in with a shout on Saturday, they also know that after a close 2-1 loss last time they faced the Eagles, a win is definitely an achievable prospect.
Belief is a big step in the path to success, and combined with the effort levels the Wildcats deliver week in week out, and the stamina that saw them overrun the Bobcats late on last weekend, it would appear they definitely have what it takes to cause a major upset this weekend and derail the Eagles’ 20 game win streak on the biggest stage. This one could go either way and will undoubtedly make for compelling viewing for the neutral.