STRATHFIELDSAYE coach Darryl Wilson believes the Storm aren’t yet respected in the Bendigo Football League, but try telling that to his counterpart tonight, Gisborne’s Luke Saunders.
The Storm and Bulldogs will tonight meet in the preliminary final at the Queen Elizabeth Oval, with the winner to advance to next week’s grand final against Golden Square.
Among Wilson’s post-game comments after last week’s first semi-final win over Sandhurst were: “We know that no-one rates us, but you have to earn that respect”.
However, the Storm have certainly had the respect of Gisborne since they smashed the Bulldogs by 69 points in round three.
“They are a very good football side. They’re up and about and full of enthusiasm playing in their first finals series and could make a grand final,” Saunders said yesterday.
“They are just a really well-coached team that is well organised and has talent across every line, so we’re under no illusion as to how tough it’s going to be.
“They smashed us early in the year and I said back then that they were the best team in it. Injuries cruelled them mid-season, but getting through that period only strengthened them, because they came out the other side, have made finals and have their full list available, bar probably Sam Mildren and Jake Heavyside.
“We’ve got nothing but the utmost respect for Strathfieldsaye.”
After finishing a game clear at the top of the ladder, Gisborne last week lost the second semi-final to Golden Square by 36 points.
However, while there were lessons to be learned from the defeat, the Bulldogs haven’t dwelled on the loss and were quick to refocus their attention on the preliminary final against the Storm.
“Golden Square was very good last Saturday, and the experience they had over us certainly showed out,” Saunders said.
“Their approach to the game was a little more organised than us, and in some ways I put that down to the way I prepared the players. Maybe I wasn’t good enough, so that’s something I’ve learned as well.
“Finals footy is a totally different game, and whether or not we prepared well enough last week, I don’t know, but I know this week we have.
“What we are is a very tight group and the leaders around the club are great for our young guys.
“As disappointing as it was last Saturday night, we went down to the beach on the Sunday morning, had a good laugh, got in the cold water and from there, our minds have been fresh and looking forward to this week.”
The build-up for the Bulldogs this week has included a back-to-basics approach by Saunders.
“It’s fairly simple... we need to get back to playing the way we have been all year against what is a very good team in good form,” Saunders said.
“We’ve had a real focus of getting our heads back into the style of game that we need to play, and that involves pressure football.
“We don’t have the size or talent of a Golden Square or Strathfieldsaye, so for us to be in the game we have to put pressure on the opposition for four quarters.
“We’re a group that is still learning, and losses like last week give us the chance to learn even more.”
The Bulldogs have made three changes to their team.
The forward line will be strengthened by the returns of Clay Illman and veteran David Antonowicz from hamstring injuries, while Michael Steinbach, who will be part of the midfield rotation, will play his first game since round 11 after overcoming an ankle injury.
Illman and Antonowicz will provide the Bulldogs with more options inside 50 after Darren Farrugia (five goals) was their only forward who looked dangerous last week.
“Our ball movement was too slow last week, but our forward line didn’t work hard enough either, so we’ve spoken about that,” Saunders said.
“We just went back into our shells last week, but we think we’ll be a lot better for the run.”
Tonight’s game starts at 6.30pm.