Big Cats light up Island Park

The players and spectators who flocked to Island Park will never forget their time watching three Geelong premiership stars getting their knees dirty for Casterton Sandford in the 12th round of the 2021 Bendigo Bank Western Border Football League on Saturday.

Casterton’s favourite son Max Rooke made a celebrated return to his junior club and even brought former AFL teammates Mathew Stokes and Brad Ottens along for the ride to create an unmissable occasion.

In front of the biggest crowd seen at the country Victorian ground for many years, the  Cats appeared inspired by the AFL trio’s presence and kicked the first goal.

Eventually Millicent’s fast ball movement proved too strong and the visitors spoiled the party to win by 50 points.

But the end result did not matter with all of the attention on the Geelong Cats’ return to the footy field in the blue and white hoops.

They were easily the most recognisable players on the field with Rooke sporting a rugged fully-grown beard and Ottens’ height towering over anyone else, while Stokes was almost a mirror image from his playing days in the big league.

The trio received the full country football experience with the sun out initially before the unrelenting rain and mud set in, while a bright rainbow surrounded the ground during the closing stages to complete the spectacle.

Rooke started at half back before making an impact all over the ground on the game and with his teammates offering them plenty of advice.

He could not quite play the full four quarters but still passionately played his part on the bench.

Despite sharing the big-man duties with Hamish McCrae and starting at full forward, Ottens was back winning ruck contests just minutes after the first bounce.

The 1000th man to represent both Richmond and Geelong enjoyed stints in the centre square  and used his long reach to give his team mates first use almost every time even if he finished on his hands and knees.

Even after 245 AFL games, Ottens admitted he was unsure how his playing return would pan out, but said Rooke, Stokes and the club made it an enjoyable afternoon.

“I had not played footy in so long, so I was a bit hesitant and unsure what was going to happen, but I just got through and really enjoyed it,” he said.

“Max and Mathew are two of my closest footy mates and if I was going to play with anyone it would be them, so it was a lot of fun.”  Ottens said he was not anticipating a fairytale victory and was impressed by the way Millicent attacked across the ground.

“Max did say it had been a tough year for the club, so I was expecting it to be a tough day and we got pretty comprehensively beaten,” he said.

“We looked dangerous going forward, but they are a good team and ran really well moving the ball from one end to the other pretty quickly.

“Having a 41-year-old who cannot run probably did not help, but it seems like a really good  club with great culture.” Playing for the first time in four years, Stokes turned back the clock in his return wearing the  blue and white hoops.

He had plenty of pace and bounced around the contests, not being afraid of winning tough possessions.

Stokes showed off his foot skills with a classy and precise checkside pass to a teammate on the boundary line, while he was the final man to score a goal.

In the wet dying stages of the game, Stokes won a free kick and nailed the set shot with class.

He said it was an honour to wear Casterton’s blue and white guernsey having revealed his family connection to the club.

“My cousin played for Casterton and I have been here a few times over the years, so to be able to come and play with Max and Brad was really enjoyable,” Stokes said.

“I understood the area and the team’s importance to it, so to come with two close mates,  have a bit of fun, see some smiles and give back to the small town is what it is all about.” Reflecting on his performance, Stokes said he was just pleased to received the Sherrin from Otten’s hands again.

“By coming here you want to play your part, but you realise the expectation of dominating with 40 possessions is well and truly gone,” he said.

“It helps when you play with a ruckman who you have an affiliation with and to get a few touches was nice.” While Ottens and Stokes were doing what  they love on the football field, their young families were also running around as they turned  the game into a big holiday supporting all aspects of the Casterton community.

Stokes said he hoped the trip could make a positive impact at Island Park for years to come.

“When you come to these things, you do not just come to play, you try to help in any way you can,” he said.

“To leave a mark and pass on any kind of knowledge to the others is important and what it is all about.” While the result may not have been the one the home crowd had dreamed of, it will always be a day that will live long in the memory of the Casterton community.

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