2014 Football in review
2014 Finish: 5th
Home & Away: 9 wins; 7 losses.
Finals Form: Lost elimination final to Marrar
Club Best & Fairest: Nathan Dowdle
Club U17 with most potential: Lachlan Gaffney
Telstra Rising Star: Corey Watt
Season 2014 was both a massive improvement and a bitter disappointment for the Saints. In Nathan Dowdle’s second season as coach his young charges improved out of sight, winning nine games – six more than in his first season – including a memorable victory over premiers Temora. However, the year ended on a sour note when beaten by Marrar in a tight elimination final which was there for the taking. “Getting beaten by Marrar that really hurt,” says Dowdle. “There were some really devastated blokes in there. We looked back and watched the tape and we definitely beat ourselves with inexperience and poor execution.”
It hurt the coach more than anyone. He suffered a serious knee injury late in the game and has undergone a reconstruction. Whether Dowdle returns to the field before next season is out remains to be seen, so the signing of Chad Hamblin as co-coach is a crucial one. The former Ganmain and Collingullie premiership player has been coach at Culcairn for the last two seasons and, along with his brother Kirk as assistant coach, brings some much-needed experience to the Saints.
“When you’re coming to a club you want to make sure it’s the right environment,” says Hamblin. “And they’ve done a great job turning around the culture at the club. They’ve got the right coach in Dowds, they’ve got the right president and the right people on the committee… and they’ve all got the same vision for the club.” As for the team: “They’re a very young side, very raw side. But there’s a lot of potential in their young blokes. I’m pretty excited about working with them to be honest.”
Trebling your number of wins from one season to the next is an enormous improvement and for Dowdle, one win in particular stands out -- over reigning (and eventual) premiers, Temora, at McPherson Oval. “That was a pretty special moment,” says Dowdle. It came in tough conditions, in front of a good crowd as the Saints celebrated their annual Pink Day fund-raising initiative and a 1994 premiership reunion. And it stamped the Saints as serious finals contenders. “Obviously, we didn’t really recruit any marquee players from the year before, so the growth was a massive step up,” Dowdle says. “We looked at the stats – we kicked on average six goals a game better than 2013, and defended six goals better. That’s 12 goals all up … that’s a massive increase. When we got beaten [by Marrar, to end the season], I said ‘hold your head high, we had a crack, but we got beat.’”
And there were the Under 17s who won the flag, beating the Northern Jets in a thriller at Maher Oval to give North Wagga a grand final celebration and the promise of more talent to come.
With such a young side, consistency was a challenge at times and ultimately North Wagga’s season came down to execution and decision-making. It was something the coach spoke about regularly during the year and it ultimately proved their undoing. “I couldn’t really fault for the whole season the boys’ endeavour. But executing the ball well once we got it… that was definitely something we knew all season. We win our fair share of the ball and endeavour to win the ball, but it’s how you execute and knowing what to do when the game’s in the balance. We didn’t quite have that this year. But it’s a massive learning curve for them.”
That was what brought on the heartache after their exit from the finals– knowing that the game was theirs for the taking, but not quite being able to finish off. Hamblin has seen the video of that match a couple of times and agrees. “In that last quarter, they just panicked a bit and didn’t make the right decisions. They just needed a bit of experience.”
There were plenty of improvers in the Saints, with Dowdle rapt with the likes of Corey Watt, Jeremy Luff and Ben Alexander, among others. But Lachlan Gaffney was a revelation.
“Lachie – he had a blinder, an absolute blinder,” says Dowdle. “He had a massive pre-season, but I held him back for a few games in the 17s and told him what we wanted him to do and let him know the expectations for first grade.” Gaffney paid attention, and delivered. “This bloke developed hardness – he cops a bump and bounces straight back up. And I knew he had the skills and ability to win the ball and break away. He’s very hard to tackle once he gets on the outside. Gaff gave us a lot of drive when we were a bit flat and the game was in the balance and trying to get on top, if we could get the ball to him out on that wing.” He was awarded the club’s ‘Under 17 with most potential’ award, and was also best on ground in North Wagga’s Under 17 grand final win over the Northern Jets.
Areas to improve:
Execution and decision-making are the two big “must do better” categories for North Wagga, but it’s not like they don’t know it. “Our skills are definitely going to have to improve if we want to play finals footy,” Dowdle says when looking back on the game against Marrar. Even before the finals, he spoke to the The Record about telling his players that they had to learn from their losses to East Wagga-Kooringal and Coleambally late in the season – “that if our skills aren’t up, we’ll get found out.”
What to look forward to:
If ‘areas to improve’ is the bad news, the good news is that there is plenty to look forward to. Better decision-making and use of the ball comes with experience, and the young Saints will continue to improve with more games under their belts, while the club is also injecting some quality experience in the Hamblin brothers, who also bring ruckman Dave Karlburg from Culcairn, while Jackson Oehm has also signed.
The way Chad Hamblin sees it, “they haven’t really recruited the last couple of years and went from winning three games the first year [under Dowdle] to nine the second, just off the improvement in their local guys. If we just add that sprinkling of experience and get a bit more improvement from the blokes already there, I think we can be challenging for top three.”
Dowdle played with Chad at Collingullie, where the pair shared in premiership success, and has been speaking to him for the past two or three years about making a move to North Wagga. He says the Hamblins bring more than a sprinkling of experience. “Kirk played in four flags at Ganmain; Chad played in three at Ganmain and three at Gullie. This year at North Wagga, I was the only bloke who had won a first grade final. So just to have their ideas and their input around the place will be great. They’re great blokes, just fair dinkum, and they come ready to give 110 percent to improve North Wagga.”
The Saints have lost Jesse Margosis, who heads to Lockhart (“You can’t begrudge blokes looking to better themselves and Jesse will learn plenty under Sparks,” says Hamblin) and also need to cover for the loss of Dowdle on the field. But his co-coach is looking at the positives. “We’ll plan the game plan without Dowds, and if we get him back at some point in the season, that’ll be a bonus. It’ll help having him on the sideline. It’s a huge negative not having him out there on the field for us, but there is a positive in having a coach on the sideline. You can see things that you don’t notice on the field when you’re chasing a kick yourself.”