Being a good Catholic boy, Michael McKenzie knows all about miracles.
But I bet he still can’t believe the one he saw first-hand at the Findlay Oval yesterday.
They call Michael ‘Burkie’, a nickname which stuck as a kid when he and Nathan Burke, the legendary St.Kilda player, both wore helmets.
Actually, ‘Burkie’ probably reckons that two miracles occurred this week-end. Firstly, that he was actually selected for a senior game after 56 Reserves and 34 Thirds games with the Wangaratta Rovers.
And secondly, that his debut would unfold the way it did, with him picking up a few kicks, each one being met with raucous applause from his mates on the balcony. Then being showered with Powerade by the players to commemorate his first win as a senior player.
This was much more than an against-the-odds victory . As an excited Laurie Burt said to one of the young players after the game : ” You’ll remember this win for years to come”.
To those of you who mightn’t be familiar with the lead-up to the match, I’d better paint the picture, although I must divulge that I’m looking at from an angle of complete bias.
Albury had lost one game for the season. They had just come off a 90-point shellacking of Yarrawonga last Sunday. They are rated the $1.25 red-hot favourites for the flag.
Lavington had belted the Hawks by 84 points ; some had wondered whether they had been let off lightly by the Panthers, who could have tightened the screws even more.
A slender percentage margin of 3.67 stood between the Rovers (ninth) and Myrtleford (tenth) in the battle to avoid the wooden-spoon.
But the good judges predicted that the Saints could upset a ‘cold’ Wangaratta at McNamara Reserve, in which case it would leave the Hawks with their first piece of the dreaded timberware in 65 years………
Apart from the late withdrawal of Morris Medal favourite Dean Polo, there was no indication that the Tigers were anything but switched-on.
They had two goals on the board, against the breeze, in the space of four minutes, the second coming from the boot of the demonstrative Irishman, Setanta O’halpin, who was in the hunt for his second Strang Medal. It was to be his last goal for the day.
Dylan Stone pegged one back with a typically classy piece of play and a clever snap. Another came not long after. The Hawks indeed looked to be up for the contest.
Their tackling and pressure was first-rate and at quarter-time the scores were level in a free-flowing, good-standard game.
If anyone was in any doubt about why Tyson Hartwig commands such exalted standing among Rovers supporters they saw it in the second quarter. He stood up time and again and had good support from those around him, particularly Benny Kneebone.
The Tigers attacked persistently and their ball movement was withering at times. Their A-Graders, Joel Mackie, Daniel Maher and Brayden O’Hara were the prime-movers and a much-touted young mid-fielder, Elliott Powell, is a real dasher.
They led by 10 points at the long break and, with news coming through that Myrtleford were all over the Magpies, the ‘spoon’ appeared headed for the Maroney Pavilion.
But the Hawks continued to take the game on and their attack on the ball was ferocious. Their disposal, which had brought them undone on many an occasion this year, was spot-on
The third term was conspicuous for some Daniel McCullough wizardry, as the uncanny forward, conceding height to his opponents Caleb Simmons, then Michael Thompson, marked strongly and kicked truly. He finished with four goals for the game.
From early in the third to half-way through the final quarter, the Rovers booted five unanswered goals to have their fans roaring with delight.
The crowd was getting more than it had bargained for. Could an upset of monumental proportions be looming ?
The Hawks had players firing everywhere. Ryan Cobain, who has enjoyed a magnificent season, continually found himself in the clear and pumped his side forward.
The tall left-footer, with 15 kicks, 12 marks and 12 handballs, vied for best afield honours with the ever-consistent Sean O’Keeffe (who turned in another pearler) and the dominant Hartwig.
But really, the list of good players was as long as your arm.
Dale Martin and Dylan Wilson defied their diminutive status to tear into packs and exhibit courage, and Shane Gaston again controlled the ruck duels and picked up plenty of kicks around the ground.
Lochie Dornauf and Alex Marklew bobbed up everywhere and young ‘guns’ Stuart Booth, Dylan Stone and James Smith showed how much maturity they’ve gained this year.
As the minutes ticked away, the Tigers no doubt sensed that a game they felt they could stitch up at any given time, was slipping away from them.
A Hartwig goal deep in the final quarter brought celebrating Hawks from all corners of the ground. They now realised that the game was theirs.
The clock ticked into time-on and the margin was 16 points. It was too late for the champs, who had been ‘mugged’ by a side they had belted by 59, 57, 75 and 143 points in their last four meetings.
It seemed that every Rovers supporter had converged on the clubrooms. It was a heart-throbbing atmosphere and the suffering players and their coach, who had been through a bit this year, celebrated with abandon.
Paul Maher’s two seasons as senior coach had ended on a high. He coached many of this group when they began their journey in the Thirds and was keen to re-assure them that they had the talent to bring further success to the Club.
His successor, he said, had plenty to work with if the group stuck together.
Meanwhile, as news of Myrtleford’s demolition of Wangaratta came through, it prompted a hasty bit of arithmetic to decipher the destination of the wooden-spoon.
It belonged to the Saints, by 1.56 per cent.