Two well-known adversaries will battle for the 2020-21 Hoggies Wines Barber Shield in a huge two-day grand final at Frew Park this weekend.
After a summer which had everything from centuries, collapses, COVID, heat and rain, North Sportsman’s and Penola are the last left standing for the ultimate prize within the Mount Gambier and District Cricket Association.
Although nerves are always a factor, both sides should play entertaining cricket with lots of recent finals experience under their belts.
The Tigers are gunning for a hat-trick of Barber Shield titles in their seventh consecutive decider.
Although the chance of becoming the first team since South Gambier from 2011-14 to claim a three-peat is there for the taking, North captain Nick McInerney said the prospect of playing in the decider itself was enough incentive.
“For us we are not so worried about the hat-trick of titles, it is still just as exciting as the first final,” he said.
“We do not need any more motivation than the fact it is a grand final.”
During a competitive summer, the Tigers found shades of their best and claimed more minor-round wins than any other side with six.
But two heavy defeats to West Gambier cost North a shot at the minor premiership with losing quick wickets the issue.
The most recent collapse occurred just a fortnight ago, but McInerney said it was the reality check his side needed.
“We were comprehensively beaten in round 10, but we learnt what not to do after many poor dismissals,” he said.
“It was a good wakeup call just before the finals and hopefully we still have our best cricket to come.”
During happier times with the bat, McInerney has led from the front averaging 52 this season, while Michael Johnston has also scored a big century.
Johnston is yet to be dismissed by the Eagles this summer with 97 runs from two digs and will be a big name to watch, so will opener Jake Schutz, who hit a match-winning 59 in the 2019 final.
But the Tigers have even more confidence in their bowling attack fronted by new-ball demons Declan Kenny and Tim Young with 35 wickets as a combination.
After overcoming an ankle injury, McInerney is also a big threat and he is backing spinner Elliott Fisher to play a role.
“Even if Kenny and Young do not start well, we have a lot of depth to get the job done,” he said.
“Elliott is one of our most important players, bowling crucial overs and he steps up in big occasions, so I am looking forward to how he performs.”
If there is one side which knows how to overcome North, it is the Eagles.
Penola is the last team to topple the Tigers on the big stage to secure the 2017-18 flag and also emphatically defeated them in this summer’s Big Bash T20 Cup final also at Frew Park.
One thing that counts against the men in blue is an unfavourable Barber Shield win-loss record in 2020-21.
But as a result of the five-way fight for finals, the Eagles have stood up when the pressure rose and can take confidence from recent wins over South and East Gambier.
In these two games, openers Michael Waters and Lachlan Jones have bowled all-but one of Penola’s 106.4 overs in the field and claimed every wicket.
But they have shown dominant form by defending a pair of meagre totals with relentless line and length bowling.
Despite the recent heavy workload, Smith said his strike weapons were in tip top shape for the big clash.
“Michael and Lachie have been unreal lately, running in on adrenaline, but bowled patiently, sticking to their plans and taking wickets,” Smith said.
“They are very fit and I have not been able to take them off, so we are backing them in again.”
But do not be deceived because Penola has bowling depth with the likes of leggie Jack Mullan, Conrad Slabber and Lewis March.
Mullan and March are also key pillars at the top of the batting order, while Smith is the side’s leading run getter with 377.
The Eagles have not fired with the bat and been cleaned up for double-figure scores in three of their last four innings, so their title hopes could depend on the productivity of their batsmen.
Despite the batting woes, Smith said the biggest struggle this summer has just been getting 11 players on the field each week.
However, he believes the quality is there to go all the way.
“I am proud of the group because it has been a testing year player wise with lots of ups and downs,” Smith said.
“I believe we have not fielded the same side in any game and used around 22 players due to injury and unavailability.
“But at the end of the day we are there.
“We have stepped up another level over the last two weeks and will give ourselves every chance knowing our best is good enough.”
With a pair of brilliant bowling attacks going toe to toe, an electric final can be expected when play starts at 1pm this Saturday and Sunday.