AFTER an arduous two years of, firstly, no season at all in 2020 due to COVID and then last year being severely interrupted and ultimately ending without a finals series played, the Bendigo Football-Netball League returns on Saturday.
And it should be a cracking opening round to usher in the 2022 season, with the match-ups including the last two teams to face off in a grand final back in 2019 - Strathfieldsaye and Eaglehawk at Tannery Lane.
South Bendigo and Golden Square welcome the BFNL back to the Queen Elizabeth Oval, while Gisborne, which has been dealt what is likely to be the first of many COVID hurdles clubs will face this year, hosts Sandhurst.
And supporters of the teams that filled the bottom four rungs on the ladder last year will all turn up on Saturday optimistic about their chances of getting away to a winning start, with Kangaroo Flat hosting Maryborough and Castlemaine taking on Kyneton.
Ahead of Saturday' season-openers, we've spoken to the senior coaches about how their team is placed heading into round one.
2.20pm Saturday at Kangaroo Flat.
James Flaherty (Kangaroo Flat) - "We've got about 52 players to pick from across our seniors and reserves teams, so we'll have some missing out on Saturday, but we know that will change once we start playing and get a few injuries.
"The senior side is probably only two or three off being full strength. Ethan Roberts is on his way back from a long-term injury and Max Johnson won't play this week with an ankle.
"There has been good energy on the track this week... with daylight savings over the lights have kicked in a bit earlier at training and it's a bit cooler, which means its gametime.
"We've been working as well as we can over the past few months, so we've got no excuses."
Rick Andrews (Maryborough) - unavailable.
B: Hamish Lockhart, Jake Hywood, Darcy Kelly
HB: Dane Spear, Nick Keogh, Campbell Smith
C: Ryan O'Keefe, Mitch Collins, Jade Mayes
HF: Liam Collins, Nick Lang, Sam Barnes
F: Mitch Holt, Lachy Wilson, Tom Gillespie
FOLL: Brodie Fry, Mitch Trewhella, Mitch Rovers
INTER: Liam O'Keefe, Kyle Symons, Hamish O'Brien, Patrick Murphy
B: Patrick Van der pol, Kya Lanfranchi, Dylan Harberger
HB: Lachie Mackie, Jake Postle, Lachlan Hull
C: Coby Perry, Liam Latch, Ash Humphrey
HF: Anthony Tatchell, Chris Freeman, Sam Mackie
F: Jai Howell, Ty Stewart, Kyle Downs
FOLL: Brady Neill, Aidan Hare, Tom Gardham
INTER: Lachie Butler, Jacob Lohmann, Damon Nitschke, Nic Swan
2.20pm Saturday at QEO.
Nathan Horbury (South Bendigo) - "We've got quite a few injuries out of the practice matches and are a bit depleted.
"Joel Swatton has done his hamstring; Tommy Brereton has hurt his ankle; Will Allen has hurt his hamstring; Riley Walsh has hurt his groin; and Ollie Simpson will miss a fair chunk of the year with a knee.
"But it is what it is and it just gives other players an opportunity. We've got Sam Langley come on board from Kyabram and he has been really promising through our practice matches and will step-up for us up forward.
"We can't wait to get back out on the QEO on Saturday and whatever happens, it's just good to have footy back."
Christian Carter (Golden Square) - "We're in pretty good shape going into Saturday.
"Jack Hickman has got a bit of a niggle in his hip, so he won't play and should be right next week and Jayden Burke is unavailable.
"Braydon Vaz didn't play the last practice match so he will come in and take Jayden's spot up forward and give us a good target... as a young and developing player it will be a good opportunity for him.
"We're really excited to be starting the season on the QEO and feel like having three tough practice matches under our belt against East Point, Greenvale and Shepparton sets us up well for round one."
B: Regan Harvey, Cameron Taggert, Lachlan Furness
HB: Isaiah Miller, Zac Hare, Jesse Sheahan
C: Nathan Horbury, Cooper Leon, Oscar White
HF: Sam Langley, Brock Harvey, Michael Herlihy
F: Will Allen, Kaiden Antonowicz, Wil McCaig
FOLL: Alex Smith, Liam Byrne, Sam Maher
INTER: Jack Maher, Josh Connolly, Daniel Johnstone, Jayden Sheean
B: Liam Duguid, Jack Merrin, Harrison Burke
HB: Jon Coe, Zack Shelton, Liam Barrett
C: Jake Thrum, Ryan Hartley, Brodie James
HF: Liam Jacques, Tom Strauch, Ricky Monti
F: Joel Brett, Braydon Vaz, Alex Jenkyn
FOLL: Matt Compston, Jack Geary, Terry Reeves
INTER: Jack Stewart, Jarrod Fitzpatrick, Lachlan Humphrey, Zavier Murley
2.20pm Saturday at Strathfieldsaye.
Shannon Geary (Strathfieldsaye) - "We'll probably have five or six not quite ready yet, but that just opens up some opportunities.
"We're probably going to have eight or nine of the reserves missing out, so we're in the position of having good numbers.
"Eaglehawk has been a quality team for a long time and they are probably a bit of an unknown going into this year, so our focus will be on trying to do what we do well and then adjust accordingly throughout the game as to how they are going about it."
Travis Matheson (Eaglehawk) - "We'll have a couple of boys missing on Saturday... Dylan Hanley and Charlie Langford both had surgery over the pre-season and we'll resist the urge to play them this week.
"It's always a big challenge out at Strathfieldsaye and we're looking at it through a positive lense. They don't know much about us and we don't know a whole lot about what they are going to dish up.
"I think it's a real positive playing them now as opposed to if you went out there in the middle of the year and they're sitting on top of the ladder having not lost a game... we've got to play them at some point, so it may as well be first-up."
B: Joe Mayes, Ben Lester, Patrick Blandford
HB: Lachlan Gill, Lachlan Ratcliffe, Shannon Geary
C: Hunter Lawrence, Riley Wilson, James Schischka
HF: Riley Clarke, Jake Hall, Baxter Slater
F: Harry Conway, Lachlan Sharp, Jordan Wilson
FOLL: Tim Hosking, Jake Moorhead, Boden Alexander
INTER: Jack Neylon, Jye Formosa, Callum McCarty, Fergus Payne
B: Sam Dean, Oscar Madden, Zack Bulger
HB: Sam Thompson, Clayton Holmes, Brady Rowles
C: Zane Carter, Noah Wheeler, Joel Mullen
HF: Riley Saunders, Shaun Knott, Lewin Davis
F: Jack Thompson, Darcy Richards, Fraser Verhey
FOLL: Jack Lawton, Billy Evans, Dillon Williams
INTER: Liam Marciano, Kobe Lloyd, Jacob O'Brien, Ben Thompson
2.20pm Saturday at Gisborne.
Rob Waters (Gisborne) - "We'll have five players unavailable due to the COVID protocols (Pat McKenna, Braidon Blake, Scott Walsh, Josh Kemp and Jake Normington).
"It is what it is and we still think our team will be strong on the weekend and we'll be doing our very best to have a great competitive game against Sandhurst.
"Everyone is just eager to get back out there playing footy again after the past couple of years."
Ashley Connick (Sandhurst) - "We'll be as close to full strength as you tend to get. Isaac Ruff rolled his ankle in one of our practice matches, he'll be a chance for round two and Sean O'Farrell (AC joint) is probably a 50-50 chance.
"We're ready to go and really excited; we've played 11 games of footy in two years, so there's real excitement that footy is back.
"We haven't been down to Gisborne since 2019, so we're just keen to get into it against quality opposition."
B: Bailee Revell, Jack Reaper, Zach Verscovi
HB: Liam Spear, Jaidyn Owen, Liam Rodgers
C: Macklan Lord, Seb Bell-Bartels, Sam Graham
HF: Luke Ellings, Matthew Jinkins, Nick Doolan
F: Matthew Panuccio, Jack Scanlon, Ethan Foreman
FOLL: Ben Eales, Brad Bernacki, Flynn Lakey
INTER: Frank Schipano, Josh Kemp, Harry Thomas, Matthew Merrett
B: Lachlan Murdoch, Jake Wilkinson, Martin Leyden
HB: Cooper Smith, Liam Ireland, James Coghlan
C: Jed Zimmer, Zach Pallpratt, Jake McLean
HF: Noah Walsh, Sean O'Farrell, Blair Holmes
F: Lachlan Zimmer, Matt Thornton, Joel Wharton
FOLL: Hamish Hosking, James Mittell, Lee Coghlan
INTER: Jeremy Rodi, Tanner Nally, Lachie Hood, Brodie Montague
2.20pm Saturday at Castlemaine.
Don Moran (Castlemaine) - "We've named Bailey Henderson in our side, but that's obviously dependent on whether he's playing VFL with Richmond.
"Our goal is to be a better version than last year. At this point in time our list is better than last year and the side that goes out there and plays on Saturday will be the strongest Castlemaine has had for some time.
"We've always spoken about the process of how we go about it and we're still keen to push that mantra, but, hopefully, we can start seeing some much more improved results."
Paul Chapman (Kyneton) - unavailable.
B: Tom Cain, Brodie Byrne, Jackson Byrne
HB: Kaleb McBride, Riley Pedretti, Brendan Josey
C: Callum McConachy, Bailey Henderson, Angus Mayes
HF: Declan Slingo, Sam Nettleton, Brad Keogh
F: Tyson Hickey, Zac Denahy, Will Moran
FOLL: James Collie, Tommy Horne, David Stephens
INTER: Liam Wilkinson, John Watson, Hadley Bassett, Caleb Kuhle
B: Jake Saffstrom, - , Harrison Huntley
HB: Steven Georgiou, Mason Crozier, Ben Xiriha
C: James Gaff, - , Louis Phillips
HF: Andrew Beckerley, Guy Dickson, Jacob Plowman
F: Rhys Magin, Ryan Pretty, Louis Thompson
FOLL: James Orr, Hamish Yunghanns, Ned O'Sullivan
INTER: Lachlan Ford, Mitchell Johns, Stirling Keane, Lachlan Read
Top five: Strathfieldsaye, Golden Square, Gisborne, Sandhurst, South Bendigo.
Runner-up: Golden Square.
Michelsen Medal: Cooper Leon (South Bendigo).
Ron Best Medal: Pat McKenna (Gisborne).
Top five: Gisborne, Strathfieldsaye, Golden Square, Sandhurst, Eaglehawk.
Michelsen Medal: Brad Bernacki (Gisborne).
Ron Best Medal: Lachlan Sharp (Strathfieldsaye).
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