UNLIKE the previous two one-sided encounters this year between the powerhouse sides, Saturday’s Heathcote District league second semi-final between Leitchville-Gunbower and North Bendigo delivered on the high expectation.
At the 24-minute mark of the final quarter less than a kick separated the fierce rivals as the Bulldogs led by two points and had the momentum.
However, the Bombers wrested back the ascendancy over the last five minutes, kicking the final two goals of the game to win 14.13 (97) to 12.15 (87) in an absorbing contest at Lockington.
The 10-point win propels the Bombers into their third-consecutive grand final – all of which have come off the back of second semi-final victories.
Like they have the previous two years when they won premierships at the expense of Leitchville-Gunbower, the Bulldogs will again have to go through the preliminary final if they are to earn a crack at a third flag in a row.
The Bombers were in danger of blowing a game they had led by 22 points at three quarter-time when the Bulldogs unleashed their best burst of play for the day in the final term and pressed hard.
The Bulldogs had the first nine scoring shots of the final quarter as they heaped pressure on the under-siege Bombers’ defence with repeat inside 50 entries.
The Bulldogs’ return of 3.6 – which included goals to Jaran McKay, captain Jordan Ford and Brady Herdman – handed them a two-point advantage, 12.14 to 12.12.
However, the Bombers wouldn’t be denied and against the flow of play they found the goal to take back the lead when Matt Ladson played on after a free kick was awarded to Matt Perri and handballed to Daniel Coates, who kicked his fourth.
Both sides then traded behinds before the Bombers’ Ryan Prendergast kicked the sealer when he marked deep in the pocket and converted the set-shot to send Leitchville-Gunbower into the grand final and create another opportunity to win its first flag since 1995.
“We worked really hard in the third quarter to open up what should have been a match-winning lead, but we handed the momentum back to North with a couple of errors,” Bombers coach Matt Hawken said.
“We had to really fight hard today and we’re obviously really pleased to get over the line with those couple of late goals.”
The Bombers had to dig deep given they lost gun ruckman Michael Pilcher to a corkie during the first half, which came on top of their other ruckman, Lee Pollock, withdrawing from the team with a back spasm.
That left inclusion Ashton Dye in the role of No.1 ruckman, but when he too suffered a corkie, the Bombers were forced to call on both Prendergast and Joel Donehue to step into the ruck.
The Bombers – who have now won 12 games in a row – were also dealt a blow in the dying minutes when forward Jack Dye suffered a collarbone injury that Hawken concedes will rule him out of the September 9 grand final.
In a heated game with plenty of scuffles, it featured five lead changes during the second quarter as both teams wrestled for control.
The Bulldogs led by 15 points early in the second term after Jordan Ford soared to take a pack mark and convert the goal – North Bendigo’s fifth in a row – but by half-time the Bombers had weathered the storm and built a nine-point advantage after they cleaned up their disposal going inside 50.
With their midfield on top and their run damaging on the big ground, the Bombers made their move in the third quarter, kicking 4.4 to 2.3, with the ball spending the bulk of the term in Leitchville-Gunbower’s front half.
The Bombers held sway 12.12 to 9.8 at three quarter-time ahead of what became a gripping final quarter.
Unlike last week, key forward Perri had his kicking boots on for the Bombers, finishing with 6.1, which included three goals in the second term.
Five of Perri’s goals came from marks, while the lively Coates with four goals and impressive Jackson McEwen off half-back were among the Bombers’ top players.
Usual forward Ayden Walton had a new role in defence on Sam Barnes, who kicked three goals, while Steve Pretty held the other Bulldogs’ X-factor forward, Herdman, to just one goal.
For the Bulldogs, Jordan Ford played an outstanding captain’s game, firstly up forward where he kicked three goals, and then when shifted to defence in the final quarter.
Ryan Gow was super in the ruck and his work in the middle was pivotal in sparking the Bulldogs in the final quarter, while wingman Nick Waterson picked up plenty of possessions.
“We know we’ve got to play four quarters of good footy against Leitchville to beat them and we let ourselves down in the second and third,” North Bendigo coach Rob Bennett said.
“We just didn’t put enough pressure on through the midfield, but we’ll regroup early in the week and get ourselves ready for whoever we play next Saturday (Huntly).”