CLUBS are returning to pre-season training as focus turns to the 2023 Hampden and Warrnambool and District league seasons.
The Standard has compiled an A to Z list of reasons to watch both competitions next year.
Will there be changes to the region's age groups? Debate about what grades are best has been constant in football circles for years. Should all competitions be the same so it's streamlined or is it better to have different age groups across rival competitions?
Koroit has a knack of bringing former players back into the fold after time away. Levi and Clem Nagorcka are the latest. The brothers, who have been playing in Geelong, will add class to the Saints' line-up. Both have endured their injury battles of recent times but if they can stay on the park, it will be a huge benefit to coach Chris McLaren.
Cobden's busy off-season hasn't gone unnoticed. Dan Casey, entering his second year as coach, has focused on bringing past Bombers back to the club, including Brody Mahoney, Jesse Williamson and Jack Hammond. They're three classy players who will inject experience.
What would a HFNL and WDFNL double-header at Reid Oval look like? Would it be embraced and could it work? Let's say two senior games are played on a Saturday afternoon and night. The question would be what would happen to the other grades? Could the lower and junior grades be played at Mack or Walter ovals? Logistically a double-header throws up curve-balls but it's definitely worth a discussion.
A one-week gap between the HFNL and WDFNL grand finals this year meant everything was squished together. The traditional two-week difference would give each competition breathing space and more time in the spotlight. Plus, it provides Hampden - the region's major league - with the opportunity, if it desires, to schedule its preliminary final at Reid Oval. A clash with the WDFNL grand final meant it couldn't play its penultimate game at its best venue.
Portland took part in its first finals campaign after joining the Hampden league a decade ago - can Hamilton Kangaroos end their drought next year? Off the field the Roos have been a strong force since joining the competition - well represented in different finals grades with a passionate and visible supporter base - but their senior footballers are yet to finish in the top-five. Hamish Waldron - a respected midfielder the players follow - is onboard for another season. But does he have the depth at his disposal to give the club what it so craves?
Women's football is now entrenched in the south-west. The Western Victoria Female Football League, which is under a structural review, has given budding players a chance to immerse themselves in a sport they love. But will it remain in its current format where travel - some games require 2.5 hours in a car one way - can be seen as a burden or will the boundaries change? One thing is for sure it's a competition which is evolving and will see multiple changes in coming years.
The league decided to mix up its Maskell Medal format in September moving away from the traditional in-house vote count where players from each club in contention received invites. Instead all 10 clubs ran their own functions with a live-stream beamed in. It was used as a fundraiser and was, from reports, well received. Of course there were some logistical issues. It will be interesting to see if the format is implemented again in 2023 or if it was a one-off.
Nick Couch has stepped into the senior coaching role at Nirranda and inherits a quality line-up from Brayden Harkness. The Blues will aim to go back-to-back and you'd be hard-pressed to find a reason to tip against them.
Will he break the Hampden league goal-kicking record? The Warrnambool sharpshooter, courtesy of an 85-goal season, is within striking distance of Tony Russell's record of 1020. What a feat it would be.
AFL draft hopefuls from the region will strive to make their dreams a reality. South Warrnambool pair George Stevens and Luamon Lual - both immersed in the national talent pathway - are the two notable contenders at this stage but others could emerge from the pack.
He boasts the last name of one of the AFL's most prolific goal-kickers but emerging Koroit forward Mitch Lloyd will be out to make his own mark. The teenager - striving for a spot in the NAB League - is a talented key position player among the Saints' next generation hoping to keep the club's premiership run going. He played two senior games last season, for five goals, and slotted 27 in the under 18.5 competition, including five in the preliminary final, as Koroit made the grand final.
As farms get bigger and people on the land diminishes talk of clubs going into recess or combining will only increase. Two clubs - Terang Mortlake and Kolora-Noorat - held open discussions earlier this year before parking the idea, for now at least. But mergers will again be a talking point in 2023. For some they are seen as the end of an era but there are success stories across the country, including the two clubs mentioned above.
More grounds, including Warrnambool's Reid Oval and Mortlake's D.C Farran Oval, are now available - for night games. In theory matches under lights sound alluring but, given our region's tendency for wet and windy weather, the earlier in the season the better. Night games in the middle of winter should be a no-go.
Has a coaching appointment at local level been met with more excitement - both internally and externally - than Dan O'Keefe's commitment to Warrnambool? The former draftee was on an upwards trajectory at the elite level as Carlton's VFL coach and was immersed in the Blues' AFL system. But a desire to spend more time with his family meant the timing was right for O'Keefe to return to Reid Oval. His appointment is not only a boost for the Hampden league but sets a new challenge to his coaching rivals.
North Warrnambool Eagles' loss is Merrivale's gain. Brothers Tate and Jalen Porter have returned to the Tigers' den with Hampden experience under their belts. Tate was runner-up in the Eagles' best-and-fairest and was among their most impressive in the grand final loss to Koroit. Should dominate at District league level.
Tim Condon arrives at South Rovers on a mission and brings a quality resume with him. The new Lions coach played more than 300 WDFNL games for Panmure and spent the past four seasons coaching North Warrnambool Eagles' reserves. The Lions have been on the finals fringe in recent times and will be determined to jump back in the top-five.
Bradley Bull was a staple of the Warrnambool back line across a dedicated career which started in his teens and ended in his 30s. Now the defender is preparing for a treechange, having signed with Warrnambool and District league club Allansford. Bull will add hardness, reliability and experience to the Cats. A shrewd recruiting move.
Port Fairy is coming off a winless campaign which included a senior forfeit. Goals for 2023 should be simple - get a team on the park in both seniors and reserves each week and invest in juniors. Pre-season under new coach Dustin McCorkell is under way and numbers are strong on track. There's been work done to give the gym an updated look too as the club strives to rebuild.
The sling tackle was under the microscope in 2022 as competitions, from the AFL down, placed more importance on protecting a player's head. Locally players faced the tribunal for dangerous tackles and were handed hefty penalties in a bid to stamp the action out. Warrnambool's Harry Ryan and Hamilton Kangaroos' Rory Gill both received four-game suspensions late in the season. Will those bans be a warning to other players?
Shortages in umpiring ranks is a consistent issue plaguing leagues across the country. There were some WDFNL games last season which required clubs to supply umpires. It's not an ideal situation. Umpire recruiting drives are important as is appealing to former players to take up the whistle.
Dominant in the ruck, a force up forward. Nathan Vardy delivered in his first season, helping North Warrnambool Eagles to a grand final. If he can reach those heights again in 2023 then the Adam Dowie-coached side will be in the hunt. And, if rumours of a former AFL teammate joining him at Bushfield for a few games are true, then watch out.
As the old saying goes, ruckmen don't grow on trees. Luckily for Camperdown, one has returned to the Magpies' fold. Will Rowbottom, who spent time playing in the Northern Territory, will give Camperdown's midfielders first use of the football after re-signing with the Leura Oval-based club.
What impact will boom recruit Dan Nicholson have on South Warrnambool's premiership chances? The dynamic midfielder-forward is sure to add pizzazz to an already strong Roosters' line-up.
New recruits have landed at clubs - some have moved to the area, such as Port Fairy's Adam Stirling, others including Warrnambool's Will Lord and Terang Mortlake's Luke McConnell have experience at other teams in the region, while the likes of Alex Moloney (Bloods), Henry Kenna and Charlie Scanlon (Kolora-Noorat) are returning to their home clubs.
Football faced its obstacles in its full-time return after the COVID-19 disruptions but none as concerning as multiple forfeits which beset the HFNL and WDFNL competitions. Port Fairy's woes - it forfeited a senior match and numerous reserves fixtures - were well-documented. Let's hope a strong off-season recruiting drive means every game is played in 2023.
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