COACH Luke Saunders describes Gisborne as a basic team that does the basic things well.
There’s no elaborate gameplan in the way Saunders instructs his players to go about their football, with the key message he has drilled into his men simply based around competing at every contest and beating their opponent.
Saunders’ stripped-back approach to football has paid dividends this season for the Bulldogs, who will today meet Golden Square in the Bendigo Football League grand final at the Queen Elizabeth Oval.
“I look at footy as a fairly basic game, and I believe that when we do the basic things right, we play pretty good footy,” Saunders said yesterday.
“Footy isn’t that complicated, and the more you complicate things the harder it is to get the best out of yourself.
“For us, the simpler it is and the more basic I keep it as a coach, the easier it is for the players to follow my instructions.
“All I want them to do is compete for every contest and beat their opponent.
“I know it sounds like an easy way of looking at things, but the hardest thing to do in footy is beat an opponent.
“There’s very few team games in the world where you actually pick someone up and play on them, like we do.”
For Gisborne to win the premiership today, Saunders says the Bulldogs have to overcome what he believes is the best side in country Victoria.
Golden Square has won the past three premierships, and 74 of their past 81 games going back to 2009, with Saunders holding his opponents today in the highest of esteem.
“A big thing for me has always been about respecting the opposition,” Saunders said.
“No matter what sport you play, you’re going up against an opponent that is the same as you... two arms, two legs and just as much ability.
“Golden Square has been able to harness that ability into some amazing performances over the past three years, in particular. They’re going for their fourth premiership in a row and have the runs on the board, so you can’t have anything but respect for them.
“We’ll have a big focus tomorrow of making sure we win the contested footy and keep the pressure on them all game.
“You can’t let a team that is as good as them with their foot and hand use to have time and space.”
The Bulldogs will have an average age of 23 in today’s grand final, with Saunders full of praise for the experienced players at the club, such as Ollie Messaoudi, Rod Sharp Anthony Belcher, Darren Farrugia, David Antonowicz, Shaun Comerford and Cameron Medica, who have set the example for the younger brigade to follow.
Also leading the way has been 24-year-old first-year skipper Casey Summerfield.
“I’m really big on leadership and the guys who have the ability to lead younger players week in, week out,” Saunders said.
“Those older guys have the responsibility of showing our young men how it’s done.
“Really good players are the ones who stand up and lead the way for the young players, and those guys have all done an unbelievable job.”
Midfielder Scott Walsh, 24, has also been outstanding, with his superb season capped on Monday night when he won the Michelsen Medal.
“Scott is a level-headed guy, very modest and doesn’t like being the centre of attention, although, I think he has enjoyed it this week, as he should because it’s a great achievement,” Saunders said.
“I remember Brad Spears, our reserves coach, said during a pre-season camp that he could be our best player and that the way he works is an inspiration to the rest of the group. It was a spot-on call.”
The Gisborne side today will include five players who have played in at least one flag with the Bulldogs – Messaoudi, Belcher, Farrugia, Medica and Sharp, while ruckman Tom Waters has been part of a premiership team with Lancefield.
The side also has Summerfield and Comerford who have been part of losing grand final teams.
That leaves 14 Gisborne players who will experience their first senior grand final today.
“It is a big stage, but we’ve had the experience of finals last year, as well as this year,” Saunders said.
The Bulldogs won their way through to the grand final after defeating Strathfieldsaye by 19 points in the preliminary final last week.
A week earlier the Bulldogs had been comprehensively outplayed after half-time in the second semi-final against Golden Square and were beaten by 36 points.
That night against Golden Square the Bulldogs were unable to curtail Square full-forward Grant Weeks, who had 15 scoring shots for a return of 8.7 against Heath Simpson.
Prior to that, Simpson – who has arguably the toughest job in country footy today – had held his own against Weeks, holding the star forward to seven goals in their two home and away meetings.
“Weeksy really dominated against us a couple of weeks ago, but our midfield just let too much easy ball in,” Saunders said.
“When he gets it delivered to him the way we allowed it to be that night, he’s impossible to stop.
“We’ve got about 15 blokes who will go through the midfield tomorrow, so it’s on all of them to help the back six out.”
Today signals the return of Gisborne to grand final day for the first time since 2007.
The 2007 grand final, which they lost by two points, was the sixth in a row for the Bulldogs, who won flags in 2002, 2003, 2005 and 2006.
Saunders captained the 2005 and 2006 flags, but his role today will be confined to coaching from the sidelines, as it has for most of the second half of the season.
“Over the past four or five weeks I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’m not playing, and I see it as a real positive for the group that I can coach from the sidelines,” Saunders said.
“I found it tough being a playing coach, but given how hot the contest is going to be tomorrow, I think it’s a bonus I will be able to coach from the sidelines.”