The opening month of the 2021 season concludes this weekend, with sides at the bottom end of the ladder already playing catch up to keep up with the season’s pacesetters.
Last week’s matchups pitted the top-five sides against teams placed inside the bottom-half of the table, with Montmorency the only lower-ranked team able to pull off a Round 3 upset – which it did in fine style against Greensborough.
It means we enter Round 4 with a one-game and large percentage gap separating the top-six teams from the bottom-four, with the sixth-placed Magpies now four points and 35 percent clear of Hurstbridge in seventh place.
The time for action is now for those at the bottom end of the table. Will Round 4 bring a change in fortunes for those in need of it?
Bundoora hosts Heidelberg at Yulong Reserve in a game that pits two of the competition’s form sides against each other in an early-season blockbuster.
Aside from a poor second half in the opening round against the reigning premiers, Bundoora has looked a formidable side under Michael Ryan in 2021.
The Bulls proved their 41-point win away to Montmorency was no flash in the pan, by dismantling Whittlesea by 75 points in Round 3.
Yes, the Eagles were seriously undermanned, but given the Magpies won away to Greensborough last week – Bundoora’s Round 2 triumph now looks even more meaningful ahead of a clash with the competition’s ladder-leader.
Sam Lloyd was expected to take the competition by storm after joining from the Western Bulldogs and his performance last week would have sent fear through opposition sides – with the gun recruit booting eight goals in a highlight-filled performance.
After struggling to hit the scoreboard throughout the second half of 2019, Bundoora is scoring much more freely this campaign – with Lloyd, Jesse King, John Jorgensen and Kyle Green all keeping the scoreboard ticking over.
Bundoora’s improved form will be put to the test by a Heidelberg side that is brimming with confidence following three-straight wins to start the year.
New coach Danny Nolan has bandied together a team that appears to have a perfect blend of young, raw talent mixed with experienced campaigners – giving the Tigers an abundance of speed on the outside, but also plenty of contested ball winning ability on the inside.
Greater tests are certainly still to come, given they are yet to play a Division 1 finalist from 2019. However, last week’s come-from-behind win against Macleod was proof that this side has developed a will to win, which is not always an easy trait to instil.
Contained to seven goals in the opening three quarters, the Tigers exploded in the last term – booting two goals from the first two centre stoppages. They went on to kick the opening six goals of the final term to run away with a commanding 26-point win.
Matthew Smith and Lachlan Wilson have made brilliant starts to the season to sit first and fifth respectively in the Coaches MVP voting, while the goals are being shared during the opening three rounds.
The Tigers are second for points scored in 2021, averaging 15 points a game more than third-ranked Greensborough. Yet, they do not have a single player with more than 10 goals so far – with Josh Minogue (9), Tom Schnerring (6) and Sam Wright (5) leading the way among 15 Tiger goal kickers this year.
Sam Gilmore was the standout when these sides last met at Yulong Reserve in 2019, with the Bulls likely to double-team the Heidelberg skipper with boom recruit Hamish Shepheard and emerging tall Nathan Howard.
Just as interesting will be the fixture at Shelley Reserve, where North Heidelberg returns home for the first time since Round 1 to host Montmorency.
The undefeated Bulldogs sit second on the ladder, just percentage behind neighbour Heidelberg, while the Magpies can push into the top-five if they claim a major scalp for the second-successive week.
It is hard to determine how this match will be played out given the vastly different matches the two clubs have played to this point of the season.
North Heidelberg has been the most attacking team in the competition over the opening three rounds, registering an average of 119 points per match – which includes piling on 23 goals in last week’s 63-point triumph at Hurstbridge.
On the contrary, Montmorency has won two of its opening three games despite scoring a cumulative total of just 188 points thus far. Interestingly, both Magpies’ wins have been produced on the road.
North Heidelberg has in-form players all over the field, but perhaps none more so than Shane Harvey, who last week slotted eight goals in a best on ground showing – including his 1000th club goal for the Bulldogs.
At the other end, Patrick Fitzgerald played his best game of the season, booting five majors to steer the Magpies to a come-from-behind win at Greensborough, in what was arguably the club’s best win under Garry Ramsay.
The Magpies conceded the opening five goals, but gradually pegged their way back to score a three-point win at Greensborough War Memorial Park, which handed Greensborough its first loss at its home venue since 2018.
Many eyes will be on Northern Knights-listed 17-year-old Darcy Wilmot, who made a stunning debut for Montmorency last week. Wilmot’s poise and penetration off half back were telling in the victory – with his performance drawing praise far and wide.
North Heidelberg has also injected several emerging talents this season, including Curtis Howden-Crhak. The young forward joined from St Mary’s following the 2019 season and has seven goals to his name in 2021, which includes consecutive three-goal hauls over the past two rounds.
The refurbished De Winton Park hosts its first game of the season when Macleod takes on Greensborough.
The sides have developed a strong rivalry over the past decade following several finals meetings, however the match takes on a much different approach this time around.
Macleod remains winless entering this Round 4 clash, despite being largely competitive throughout its opening three defeats. That includes leading Heidelberg for much of last week’s Anzac Day clash, before conceding six of the final seven goals to lose by 26 points.
The Roos have not been able to take a trick on the injury front. Skipper Hamish Paynter was a late exclusion last week, and their stocks took another hit when Brad Leggett and Anthony Doherty sustained hamstring injuries in their first games of the season.
Christian Stagliano’s side has certainly faced a tough draw to start the year – taking on the top-three placed sides on the 2019 ladder in the opening month, however they simply must take a scalp to get their season rolling.
They found the going tough against the Boro in 2019 – registering a total of just 23 scoring shots in the two outings between the sides, including kicking just two goals in the Round 10 defeat at Greensborough War Memorial Park
Greensborough is on the rebound following last week’s nail-biting defeat to Montmorency, where it coughed up a big early lead after kicking the opening five goals in a 20-minute burst to start the game.
Despite managing just one goal across the middle two quarters, it looked as though the Boro would secure their second thrilling home win in as many weeks when Tom Brindley gave them the lead closing in on time-on. However, a brilliant goal by Patrick Fitzgerald ended the Boro’s 10-game home winning streak.
With several stars out of the side and a handful of others still building towards full fitness, the Boro are yet to fully hit their straps this year – however they will still be favoured to make it a 3-1 start this week, which would provide a solid platform to build on moving forward.
Tom Brindley has given every indication that 2021 will be his breakout season at senior level, with the son-of-a-gun currently sitting in a tie for third in the Coaches MVP Award – backing up his Round 2 best on ground effort by again being named Greensborough’s best last week.
Skipper Chris Clark was back to his best upon his return to the side last week and if he, Tom Bell and Nathan Hrovat all fire at the same time, Greensborough looks poised to have an on-ball division that could rival any at community level.
Four vital points will be up for grabs when Hurstbridge and Northcote Park meet at Ben Frilay Oval.
The sides enter the match in seventh and ninth place on the ladder respectively, with only one win between them over the opening three rounds.
Despite their lowly position, both sides have shown glimpses of promise in the early part of the year and will be hoping a win this weekend will kickstart their campaign.
Both sides will be working hard to minimise the gulf between their best and worst.
Hurstbridge’s win over Macleod showed it has the potential to build on its six-win season in 2019 – which was the club’s best result in the top-flight. The Bridges also had impressive patches in last week’s loss to North Heidelberg, but too often conceded consecutive goals in quick bursts.
The forward duo of Bailey Jordan and Joel Naylor has the potential to trouble most defensive set-ups. They combined for 11 of the Bridges’ 14 majors last week – with their strong marking inside attacking 50m a feature.
Jordan and Naylor have each booted nine goals this campaign, however the Bridges do also need to find other avenues to goal to ensure there is not too much reliance on two players to kick a winning score. The duo has combined for more than half of the club’s goals this year.
Northcote Park is one of three clubs yet to register a win in 2021 but would view this match as its best chance to open its account, having played three finalists from 2019 to start this campaign.
The Cougars enjoyed periods of dominance in their opening two defeats against Montmorency and North Heidelberg and won the second half against West Preston-Lakeside at J.E. Moore last week, albeit the damage had been done by the reigning premiers prior to the main break.
With skipper Paul Dirago yet to play a game and stars Ben McNiece and Bronik Davies also sidelined last week, there were enough positives to take out of the 39-point defeat to the Roosters to give the club confidence it can start banking wins soon.
Reed Jepson continues to shine in his first season with the club and was listed as the Cougars’ best player for the third-successive week in Round 3. It is a remarkable achievement by the defender, although his side will hope he has less work to do inside defensive 50m in coming weeks.
Matthew Perry has shouldered more responsibility this year and continues to elevate his game after a breakout campaign in 2019. Perry led the Cougars’ midfield against arguably the competition’s benchmark last week and featured in the votes from both coaches.
Two 2019 premiers go head-to-head in the final game of the round, with reigning Meadows Greyhounds Division 1 premier West Preston-Lakeside hosting last season’s second division premier Whittlesea.
The Roosters rebounded from their one-point defeat to Greensborough, with an 11-goal to four opening half propelling them to a 39-point win over Northcote Park. They will now be the warmest of favourites to improve their record to 3-1 against the bottom-placed Eagles.
The club’s biggest stars were all firing against Northcote Park, with Jackson Clarke, Alex Federico, Ahmed Saad (six goals), Liam McVeigh, Max Dreher and Adam Valeri all instrumental in getting their side back on the winners’ lists.
Perhaps the biggest thrill for Roosters’ fans was the return of the 2018 premiership hero Jaylon Thorpe. The VFL star played his first game with the club since the 2018 premiership decider and made his presence felt immediately, with two goals in the first quarter.
With Saad, McVeigh and youngster Malik Elfakahani already causing havoc forward of centre, the addition of Thorpe would be enough to give opposition coaches sleepless nights trying to come up with strategy to stop the Roosters’ many attacking weapons.
Whittlesea’s return to the top-flight has been hampered by a long list of injuries in the opening rounds, with the Eagles currently anchored to the bottom of the ladder with a percentage of just 48.72.
Last week’s 75-point loss at Bundoora was its heaviest defeat of the campaign, with the depleted Eagles without a host of stars, including Jaron Murphy, Paul Higgins, Matthew Atta and the Wild brothers.
Xavier Dimasi gave his all and featured prominently in the coaches’ votes, despite the one-side scoreline, while Blake Watson and Blake Fitzgerald once again showed they well and truly belong at this level.
The Eagles enter as big outsiders this week and will need a complete four-quarter showing to have a chance of causing a boilover – which will mean an improvement on recent fourth-quarter performances, having managed just two goals in final terms so far this year.