Belmont-Swansea United (4th) vs. Cooks Hill United (1st)
Saturday 18th August, 2:30 pm, Blacksmiths Oval
Regular Season Meetings: Round 1 – Cooks Hill 1, Belswans 0; Round 12 – Belswans 2, Cooks Hill 2
Finals are finally here and for the first match, fans are in for a treat as last year’s Grand Finalists go toe-to-toe in the attempt to return there once again.
For the first leg, Cooks Hill will travel to Blacksmiths – a place that they’ve only won once at since joining the competition in 2015 – and they’ll be hoping to create some kind of advantage before heading into their home leg.
Belswans have endured a rollercoaster of a season after encountering one of their worst starts in club history, to amazingly jump their way back into second following a 13-game unbeaten streak.
That streak was ended last weekend against West Wallsend however, and their opponents are still enjoying an unbeaten run that’s now up to 14 games and across those games they’ve scored a huge 63 goals (average of 4.5 a game).
Despite Belswans being one of the more challenging sides that the Cookers have faced, they’ve only beaten the back-to-back premiers once in their past five outings and that’s largely been due to the efforts of Lee Ashton who’s scored five in those games.
Ashton finished the season with another tremendous record scoring 20 goals in the 14 matches he played, and both he and his fellow attacker Nick Russell, who won the 2018 Golden Boot award, will need to be the men that Belswans focus on.
A statistic that works in the favour of the boys from Blacksmiths though, is their fantastic record when playing semi-final football. This will be their third straight season here, and they managed to work their way through to the Grand Final each time before.
Belswans coach Josh Rufo said that although they’re now paired against the championship favourites, his side isn’t concerned.
“From our end, we’re only interested in what we’re doing,” Rufo said.
“Every team is a good team regardless of their name, so we’ll just go there with the aim to win and that’s all.
“I don’t think Graham [Law] will pay too much attention to us, and we won’t be paying too much attention to them. We’ll go there with our game plan, and if it works it works, but if it doesn’t, we’ll try again next week.
“We’ve worked very, very hard as a hard team from the playing group and the coaching staff to get to the finals, and now we’re here, we’ll just see what happens now.”
Rufo admitted his team didn’t showcase enough desire to win last weekend again West Wallsend and is hoping that they’ve improved in that area when facing Cooks Hill.
“Last week was a very good example of what happens when you don’t turn up,” Rufo said.
“At this level, I believe half the battle is your attitude and your work-rate.
“When a team wants it more than their opposition, that’s [defeat] what usually happens.
“I’m not going to eat for a couple of days, so I’ll be hungry, hopefully, the players will be the same,” Rufo joked.
West Wallsend Bluebells (3rd) vs. Thornton Redbacks (2nd)
Sunday 19th August, 2:30 pm, Johnston Park
Regular Season Meetings: Round 3 – Thornton 6, West Wallsend 1; Round 14 – West Wallsend 0, Thornton 2
Both these teams were forced to fight their way into the finals series and now that they’re here, you can bet that they’ll be continuing to do everything they possibly can to qualify for a historic Grand Final.
It’s the first time since 2013 West Wallsend have featured in the semis and if they can work their way past the Redbacks over the two legs, then they’ll qualify for their first Grand Final since 2007.
That won’t be an easy task though as Thornton has beaten the Bluebells both times this year, and in fact, haven’t lost to them since May 2014.
While West Wallsend will be eager to return back to the Grand Final stage, it’d be the first time in club history for Thornton if they were to qualify, however, recent form suggests it’ll be an uphill battle to get there.
Thornton is coming off the back of two victories, but couldn’t manage a win in the four games before that, while the Bluebells, on the other hand, have won five from their past six.
These two share similar offence/defence numbers from throughout the year, meaning the result of this one could possibly depend on who is able to win the midfield.
Trent Partridge and Jarrod Olivieri are two names who have shone for their respective sides and may prove to be the difference, however, while those two battle it out, there’ll also be an interesting contest at opposite ends of the field between star forwards Jye MacKellar and Tye Jones who have showcased their scoring talents recently.
Thornton Redbacks’ coach Gary Wand confessed that after only solidifying their spot in the finals with the last game of the year, he didn’t mind who they squared up against over the two legs.
“To be honest, I was just happy to be there [in the finals]. It didn’t really bother me who we got,” Wand said.
“I think everybody would have assumed that Belswans would have beaten Westy on the weekend, but they’re on a roll now.
“I think Westy will be happy to play us instead of Cooks Hill, and I think it’s fair to say we’re feeling the same.”
The match this weekend features two sides that haven’t had all too much ‘big-game’ experience, but Wand is confident that his players can step up.
“It’s a big game for both teams. You just hope they don’t get overrode and they just go out there and play,” Wand said.
“We’re going to try and win the game just like they’re [West Wallsend] going to try and win the game as well.
“I just want them to turn up, enjoy the moment and not let themselves down.”
Other Grades Semi-Finals:
Saturday 18th August, Blacksmiths Oval
23s – New Lambton FC vs. Thornton Redbacks (12:30 pm)
19s – Toronto Awaba Stags vs. Kahibah FC (10:45 am)
Sunday 19th August, Johnston Park
23s – Cooks Hill United vs. Cessnock City Hornets (12:30 pm)
19s – West Wallsend vs. Cooks Hill United (10:45 am)