Tigers begin charge to finals
Rochester has taken the first of what it hopes will be a series of five steps to reclaim its place inside the Goulburn Valley league’s top six and a spot in the first post-COVID finals series.
The 2020 and 2021 seasons were decimated by the pandemic, which makes the up-coming play-offs of even greater significance.
The league’s top four teams appear locked away, Echuca two games clear on the top rung of the ladder, with Euroa, Mansfield and Mooroopna almost locked away in the next three places.
Three teams will battle for the final two positions in the finals, fifth-ranked Kyabram, Seymour (sixth) and Rochester.
Rochester finished fourth in 2019, winning an elimination final against Seymour before falling to Echuca in the second week of finals.
Its 99-point win against Benalla on Saturday has it sitting on the periphery of the top six, equal on points, but with an inferior percentage to sixth-ranked Seymour.
Seymour held its place in the top six with an upset 33-point win against now fifth-ranked Kyabram at the weekend, but in the final four weeks faces fourth-ranked Mooroopna and second-placed Euroa.
Rochester’s 18.17 (125) was on the back of four majors from coach Steve Stroobants, now with 30 majors for the season, and included a 10-goal-to-one second half as Benalla managed only 4.2 (26) in reply.
Stroobants left the ground only minutes into the third term after suffering complications from a corked thigh suffered a week earlier.
He had taken seven marks (all inside 50) and kicked 4.3 from 10 possessions to that point.
Key forwards James McPhee and Mitch Cricelli kicked three majors to combine with Stroobants to account for more than half of the Tigers’ six pointers.
Cricelli and McPhee kicked three straight as 10 Tigers joined the goalkicking feast.
It was Atley, again, who provided the spark for 58 forward 50 entries.
He was responsible for only one of those himself from his 36 disposals, dishing out 29 handballs (only seven kicks) from a game-high 18 contested possessions.
Stroobants said Atley’s return had been amazing.
“He is naturally fit, after 10 years in the AFL that ability doesn’t leave you,” he said.
Stroobants was also complimentry of Grant Fuller, who he described as “hungry’’ after a few weeks on the sidelines mid-season.
Nicholas O’Connor, who also missed a month of football mid-season, kicked two goals in the win in his best return of the season.
Rochester was still without key defender Hamish Hooppell, who trained last week and is expected to play against Tatura this weekend.
Hooppell has not played since June 5 and will slot neatly in alongside Nathan McCarty and Jacob Atley in the defensive end.
Hugh Hamilton, Shaun Atley, Christopher Jansen and Nathan Kay now form a mid-field to match any within GVL ranks.
Adam McPhee has missed the past three weeks with an ankle injury, but is also expected to return this week.
Stroobants said his team was aware its major opposition to making the finals, Seymour and Kyabram, had also suffered injury problems during 2022.
“Seymour is now getting a few back from injury and Kyabram will also start getting a few back before the finals,” he said.
“We just need to keep winning games of footy, but on the weekend we got through without injury, which was nice.”