COBDEN will have to defeat Warrnambool for the first time in more than four years to win today’s Hampden league grand final.
Not since the Bombers won the 2008 qualifying final by 35 points have they tasted success against Warrnambool. That victory and one two weeks earlier in round 17 four years ago are the only victories the Bombers have savoured in their past 16 matches against the Blues.
Warrnambool’s 12-game winning streak against Cobden started two weeks later in the preliminary final.
From whichever angle you want to look at today’s showdown, it is shaping as a David v Goliath battle.
The Bombers were written off in the pre-season. Seventh was the best they could finish, according to most pundits, with only their optimistic first-season coach Wayne Robertson predicting they would make finals, albeit fourth.
He was wrong. The broader Hampden league fraternity was wrong. In just about each of the 21 matches they played so far, they have started underdogs. But time and again they have won and should have silenced their critics.
They finished third after the home-and-away season and now they are one win away from finishing first.
It would be a feel-good story for the Bombers to win today. But for all the mountains they have climbed this season, they are merely molehills when compared with today’s challenge — Warrnambool, the league’s Everest, the competition’s most successful club.
The Bombers have won two premierships since 1949 and they came in 1997 and 1998. Cobden has won six premierships and lost eight in the league’s 81-year history. Warrnambool has won 23 and lost 11 in the same period. This is the Blues’ fifth consecutive premiership decider.
Cobden’s most recent success was its golden era of back-to-back flags in 1997-98. Most of today’s side, dubbed the Baby Bombers, would barely have been out of nappies then.
But you can’t draw comparisons between this Cobden outfit and the ones of 1997-98.
Today’s team relies on run, run and more run. The teams from ’97-98 had running players but they also had key marking targets in attack. Today’s team doesn’t have a 10-goal forward like Daniel Beard who kicked a bag in ’97. And therein lies the challenge for Robertson, a member of those two triumphant sides.
Until the qualifying final, Cobden’s most number of goals in a game against a side in the top seven had been 12 — once — and it averaged just eight goals a game in 15 matches against those sides during the home-and-away season. In the qualifying final it kicked 13 and last week 19.
Warrnambool kicked 13 or more seven times in the same period against the same top seven and averaged 12 across the 15 matches, with power forwards Jason Rowan and Travis Graham the keys.
Robertson said after last week’s win that he had been waiting all year for a big ground and dry day for his side to showcase its ability. It was good viewing, at times clinical and others brilliant. Can the Bombers repeat the performance today?
No one should write them off. Their running ability, skills and determination will ensure they are in the contest for a long time. But who will kick the goals? History says premiership teams need a power forward.
Aidan Cole kicked three last week but has started in defence more times than attack this season.
If he starts back today, the Blues may struggle to find a match-up for full-back Sam Cowling. That would prompt Warrnambool coach Scott Carter to shift Cowling to attack where he has proven several times this season he can be a match-winner — advantage Blues.
But has Robertson got an ace he hasn’t played yet?
Warrnambool has two weaknesses: a lack of height in the ruck and its leg speed. The Bombers have the speed and they have a genuine ruckman in dual Maskell Medal winner Levi Dare.
While Warrnambool ruckman Rob Bright uses his leap to overcome height deficiencies, what would happen if the Bombers switched Dare to full-forward? He is a proven goalkicker. In fact, he is the Bombers’ leading goal-scorer with 37 goals.
How then would Warrnambool counter a Cobden Goliath?