THE Bendigo Football League’s two best teams – Gisborne and Golden Square – gave a mouth-watering entree to what could lay ahead in the finals when they played out an epic draw at MyJet Oval on Saturday.
In a game played at a finals-like intensity, scores were locked together at 14.10 (94) apiece when the final siren sounded.
In what has been the best game of the year that lived up to its top-of-the-ladder blockbuster status, Gisborne recovered from a 52-point deficit early in the second quarter to claim two valuable premiership points that guarantees they will end the season top of the ladder.
Gisborne conceded the first eight goals of the match, didn’t score in the opening quarter and took until the 12-minute mark of the second term to kick its first goal, by which time it was 52 points down, yet willed its way back into the contest and for most of the last quarter looked like winning.
“We just didn’t turn up early and Golden Square really showed us how to play footy,” Gisborne coach Luke Saunders said.
“Golden Square didn’t let us into the game in the first quarter-and-a-half. They started strongly, won the ball better than us and we couldn’t get into it.”
Kicking with the aid of a strong breeze in the first quarter, Golden Square made full use of it, kicking 7.4 to lead by 46 points as it held Gisborne scoreless.
Square attacked the contest early like a team that had waited two months for another crack at Gisborne following its dismal showing against its Bulldogs rivals in round eight when beaten by 67 points.
Square was first in for the ball and ferocious with its tackling pressure.
Among the standouts early for Square was Travis Baird.
Playing at centre half-back, Baird was everywhere in the first quarter and pushed forward to kick two goals.
Despite staring at 46-point deficit, there was no panic from the composed Saunders at quarter-time.
Gisborne registered its first score of the game at the three-minute mark of the second term when Eamon McKenna kicked a behind.
McKenna’s score was followed soon after by a behind and goal to Square’s Grant Weeks that extended the advantage to a game-high 52 points.
However, at the 12-minute mark of the second term the momentum began to change in Gisborne’s favour as Square’s discipline unraveled.
After Gisborne forward Matt Knox finally kicked his side’s first goal when he was the recipient of a downfield free kick, it was immediately followed with a second to Clay Illman before the ball had returned to the centre.
And when McKenna was gifted a 50m penalty that resulted in a goal, Gisborne had kicked three in three minutes and the fightback had begun.
By half-time Gisborne had cut the margin to 20 points, 9.5 to 6.3, and importantly, broke even against the breeze in the third quarter when both teams added 3.2 apiece.
Gisborne upped the ante in the third quarter with its tackle pressure, laying 17 for the term, while defender Jarrod Arnold’s attack on a contested ball in the centre square epitomised the Gardiner Reserve Bulldogs’ approach after their sluggish start.
Trailing by 20 points at three quarter-time, Gisborne surged in the final term.
Inside the opening 17 minutes of the quarter Gisborne kicked 3.5 – with goals to Darren Farrugia, Lachlan Crosbie and Kane Grbac – to Square’s 0.2 and for the first time led the match by a point.
With the momentum and wind at its back, Gisborne looked like it would run away with victory entering time on.
But Square hung tough, with a goal to Callum Sharp from the flank putting the home side five points up.
That was quickly answered with a goal to Knox, who marked 35m out and converted the shot to give Gisborne back a one-point lead at the 25-minute mark.
With the game on the line, Square had an opportunity to regain the lead when a running shot from onballer Dale Lowry from the pocket went out on the full.
But the game had one last twist when, from a stoppage inside Square’s forward line, Square’s Rhys Bradley won possession and his kick out of the pack sailed through for a behind to level the scores.
It was the last score of the match as both sides bottled the ball up for the last four minutes, before the siren sounded at the 32-minute mark as Square defender Dale Young punched the ball from Knox in a marking contest 50m out from the Gisborne goal.
“That last quarter just typified a finals-type game when there was one-on-one contests all over the ground,” Golden Square coach Mark Lloyd said.
“With 10 minutes to go I thought we were about done, but to the boys’ credit, I was proud of the way they gritted their teeth.”
The best players for Square were silky-smooth captain Simon Rosa, Baird, Lowry, Matt O’Toole (three goals) and Oliver Collins.
Square suffered an injury concern to Jack Geary (finger), whose record of never a losing a senior game with Square in all his 44 matches remains intact.
Gisborne was best served by wingman Daniel Weaver, tenacious onballer Scott Walsh, full-back Heath Simpson, who held Weeks to four goals, and veteran Ollie Messaoudi, who revelled in the tough contest. Knox finished with three goals.
The draw was Gisborne’s first in its 245 matches since joining the BFL in 2000, and Golden Square’s first since it drew 11.11 (77) apiece with Eaglehawk in round 11, 1989.
● Match statistics:
Centre clearances: Golden Square 16; Gisborne 15.
Inside 50s: Golden Square 43; Gisborne 40.
Stoppages: Golden Square 30; Gisborne 25.