McConnell and Stafford stand out in cat fight as reigning premiers bring winning form into new season

Reigning Bendigo Bank Western Border premiers North Gambier sent a statement in the opening round by smashing Casterton Sandford at Vansittart Park on Saturday.

Despite cold conditions and a slippery surface creating a tough environment for players to cleanly use the Sherrin, top Tigers Sam Stafford and Justin McConnell had no such concerns.

The duo entertained the large crowd by putting on a clinic inside 50 and slotting 13 goals between them. Stafford was particularly impressive by kicking seven majors off his own boot, which was the same amount the entire Cats team could manage.

The new-look Victorian team was never in the contest after North controlled proceedings from the first bounce. The home side was armed with new ruckman Luke Powell, who gave the hungry midfield of Brad Stafford, Nick McInerney and Dylan Munn first use consistently.

Their efforts ensured the Tigers moved the ball ferociously with speed and gave regular delivery to Sam Stafford and McConnell, who presented perfectly inside the open forward line. The end result was damaging on the scoreboard with North racing to 44 before the first break, while a triple-figure win was on the cards at three-quarter time.

Despite recording 17 fewer scoring shots than the Tigers, Casterton Sandford salvaged some pride with a spirted final term. Two goals each to Adam McKinnon and Charlie Jarrad allowed the Victorians to more than double their tally.

But it did little to overshadow the North’s formidable performance, which was finished off in style by Will Stafford, who kicked truly in the last play of the day. Tigers co-captain Brad Stafford said his men were raring to go for the big game and wanted to unleash an attacking brand of football in the opening passages of play.

“It had been a long time coming this season and we were just keen to get out there and play,” he said. “We wanted to go back to moving the ball nice and quick with a slingshot style of footy. “It was a bit of a rainy and windy day and it is always hard to know how you will go in the opening round skills wise, but we were pretty happy with the start.”

Stafford paid credit to club debutant Powell, who has been a valuable addition to North’s setup putting the midfield a step ahead of their opponents. “We had only played a couple of trial games with Luke, so it takes some time to get used to a new ruckman, but it all came together quite well,” Stafford said. “His tapwork was fantastic, so as a little rover like myself, it makes life a lot easier.

“Casterton’s strength is probably in the midfield and we knew that, so we tried to knuckle down and being windy, clearances were important to just get the ball straight in the forward line where Sam and Justin made a big difference.”

Although there were a number of impressive individual performances, Stafford said an injection of youth was the biggest takeaway. After impressing on the training track, young guns Ethan Norman, Joel Griffith, Adam Prosperi-Porta and Jay Turner all played their maiden A Grade games and their new captain could not be more impressed.

“The four who debuted have been at every training so far, so it was fantastic to get them in the first-round team,” Stafford said. “The debutants were not out of place at all and it looked like they played 100 games each. “Joel kicked his first goal everyone got around him and they are the moments you play footy for.

“We have been sort of rejuvenated with these young fellas coming in and it has allowed people like Tim McInerney playing a different role.” North enjoys another home game with arch-rival East Gambier this Saturday.

The contest shapes up to be an unmissable battle and Stafford cannot wait to see what the Bulldogs have up their sleeve. “We expect it to be a pretty good contest and it always is when we play East,” he said. “There is a bit of a rivalry there and it will probably be a pretty fast-moving game, so the four quarters are going to be very important.”

Meanwhile, Casterton Sandford has the comfort of home conditions and meets Millicent at Island Park where both sides search for a maiden win of the season.

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