Clash set to be an epic battle for the ages

By Tyler Maher

The last time Barooga made a senior Murray Football League grand final was in 2008.

The Hawks came close to booking a place in the decider last season, but were knocked out on the penultimate weekend by competition powerhouse Nathalia.

James Hazelman and his troops will seek redemption for that defeat tomorrow against last year’s vanquished grand finalist Numurkah.

Although the Hawks have comfortably won both meetings between the teams this campaign, tomorrow’s Echuca South Recreation Reserve preliminary final clash promises to be a battle for the ages.

‘‘I rate them as high as anyone in the competition to be honest,’’ Barooga co-coach Hazelman said of the Blues.

‘‘We played them a few weeks back but they had a lot of injuries. We’re under no illusions, (tomorrow) is going to be as tough as any game we’ve played this year.

‘‘We probably haven’t focused on (missing last year’s grand final) a lot during the year, but now that there’s no tomorrow (it’s been spoken about).

‘‘This group has been together four or five years now and we haven’t gotten a lot of reward for it.

‘‘This is our best chance and it’s very exciting.

‘‘We’ve worked very hard to get where we are and the group is pretty mature so they know what’s at stake.’’

The Hawks have been in ripping form all year, losing to just Nathalia (round 19) and Cobram (round one), and continued on their path of destruction with a 51-point drubbing of Finley in a qualifying final.

Hazelman and Tom McNeill return to the line-up for tomorrow’s contest, with no excuses for the Hawks to not deliver their best football.

‘‘It was a bit of a luxury to have the week off, it probably came at a good time,’’ Hazelman said.

‘‘We’re in a really good position with a full list to choose from, so we’ve got no excuses.’’

Barooga big men Brodie A’Vard and Cameron Cloke will have a huge battle in the ruck against Numurkah’s Mitch Price and Michael Griffiths, while the likes of Tyrone Downie and Callum Leighton-Daly will go head-to-head with Nick Fothergill and Brad Vassal at ground level.

On the outside of the contest, the lightning-quick speed of Billy Andrew will be tested against the slick wheels of Mitch Jones and Jye Warren, with Matt Demaio (41 goals) and Cloke (35) waiting in the wings for Barooga and Nathan Hicks (44 goals) and Fothergill (43) sure to prove dangerous for Numurkah.

The Blues limped into finals with a number of losses, including a 70-point defeat at the hands of the Hawks, but have been galvanised by tough finals victories against Echuca United and Cobram.

With both outfits nearing full strength at the right time of the season, tomorrow’s match could reach its final moments before a clear winner emerges to stamp their ticket to the big dance.

‘‘One of Numurkah’s biggest strengths is their midfielders hitting the scoreboard,’’ Hazelman said.

‘‘It’s something that we’ve talked about a little bit that our boys need to make the most of their opportunities when they’re up forward.

‘‘The midfield is going to have a big say, both match-up very well against each other and have very good ruckmen feeding it down, so I think that’s where the game’s going to be won.’’