It was a tale of what could have been for the Murray South East men’s side at the 2021 SA Country Football Championships last weekend.
Facing the state’s top regional footballers the zone side fought hard but could not deliver when it mattered most on Saturday before a dominant Sunday display salvaged some pride to place fifth.
Although Murray South East dipped out in straight sets with losses to Central Zone and Southern Districts, coach Adam Merrett said if things went his side’s way, it may have received the chance to fight for the trophy.
“We had the team to go further which we proved on Sunday, but we just did not capitalise on our opportunities and turned the ball over too much,” he said.
“On the opening day we played the two sides who played off in the grand final, so we had a tough draw and the group was pretty disappointed on Saturday afternoon, but I was still proud of the boys.” The Murray South East side featuring six Western Border players, five Mid South Eastern representatives and 11 Kowree Naracoorte Tatiara clubmen was thrown into the deep end straight away with its first game against eventual champions Southern Districts.
In a tightly fought game, zone team vice-captain and East Gambier playing coach Matt Willson oozed with class in the centre.
The likes of Nick McInerney and Clint Gallio also fought hard in the middle to create opportunities for goal kickers Tobin Cox, Curtis Mccarthy and Sam Demischele.
In the end, Southern Districts’ defence forced Murray South East into mistakes and an agonising eight-point win was the result.
Despite the disappointment, Merrett said his men pushed the 2021 winners to the final siren with some small mistakes proving costly.
“If there was another five minutes of footy, who knows what would have happened,” he said.
“We probably had 60% of the ball in the first game and just overused it trying to share it around too much.
“When you turn the ball over against experienced players they capitalise on it and move into their forward line really quickly.
“They had a fairly dominant ruck-man, so we did not get first use much, but I still thought we could claim it because we broke even, but felt chocked up in the forward line.” Merrett and his support staff had less than an hour to respond for the must-win encounter against Central Zone.
Murray South East responded in excellent fashion storming to a usually unbeatable 20-point lead in the opening half.
Willson and McInerney again played key roles, while Jake Mcgrice, Brad Bryant and Under 21 player Todd Reid stepped up to the plate.
With Cox, McGrice, Sam DeMichele and Thomas Whittlesea all hitting the scoreboard early, Murray South East had the high ground, but Merrett said everything fell to pieces after the break and there was nothing to stop the avalanche.
Tyler Andrews and Leigh Ryswyk both kicked two vital goals as Central Zone ran away with a 12-point win in the dying stages.
“We played some good footy for the first 20 minutes and I was confident we could get a big win and even play in the grand final, but everything that could have gone wrong, went wrong in the second half,” he said.
“We probably did not lock down when we needed to and then the decision making and turnovers cost us.
“They just got a run on us and we panicked a bit, so the game was history.” Having learnt some harsh lessons across Saturday’s two fixtures, Murray South East was keen to make a statement in the fifth-place playoff at Encounter Bay and did just that.
In an extended four-quarter game, Eastern Zone proved no match for Merrett’s men, who took control from the opening bounce.
The KNTFL contingent of Cox, Curt McCarthy, James Hinge, Brad Crabb and Bryant plus MSEFL’s Tom Wachtel were at their very best to smash the opposition to the tune of 80 points.
Merrett said the team finally clicked after encouraging a more open and free-flowing style of football.
“We regrouped and had a good chat about everything on Saturday night and on Sunday they came out there with a lot less pressure and played some great footy,” he said.
“We played with a more open forward line and moved the ball better through the midfield, so it was a great all round performance.
“We added Brad Bryant to the backline and he was very composed and then young Todd Reid made our backline stronger.” This strategy parted the seas for former Port Adelaide forward Cox, who produced the individual performance of the competition scoring an incredible 10-goal haul.
Merrett said it was one of the most outstanding efforts he has seen at the SA Country Championships.
“I have been involved in the SA Country Championships since 2002 and Tobin’s performance was as good as I have ever seen in rep footy,” he said.
“We gave him a lot of space to let him use his pace and it was not until the third quarter until the opposition double teamed him.
“He worked very hard because he took big marks in the air and when the ball was on the ground he was electric.” For his grand effort Cox was named in the team of the championships alongside Crabb and Bryant, who were “generals” in the back-line.