A lot of cliches are trotted out during footy finals – one of the most popular is that a champion team will always beat a team of champions.
Like many cliches there is an underlying truth to it and the Maitland Blacks of 2018 are proof as they prepare for Saturday’s preliminary final against Merewether Carlton.
Both teams have champions, but it will be the quality of players in the bottom half of the squad, their ability to complement the stars and stand up and play their role in attack and defence when called on that will ultimately decide the outcome.
It’s taken three years of hard work, dedication, perseverance and trust, but the Maitland Blacks have developed a first XV and eight-man reserve bench that can match and beat their opposition from top to bottom in the rigours of finals footy.
That forward Alistair Fraser and back Rob Williamson have started from the bench in most games in first grade is testament to this.
“Alastair would be a certain starter in any other side’s forward pack, but he is a local boy and he has decided to play his footy at Maitland even if it means he isn’t guaranteed a starting spot in first grade,” Blacks co-coach Ryan McCormack said.
“He has been such an important player for us. He is able to fill a variety of spots and will be in the starting side this week with John Birrell out as he has the mandatory week off after sustaining a head injury.”
Fraser’s commitment to the team was never in doubt, but he left everyone in awe after coming on early to replace Birrell and playing out the game after already playing a full 80 minutes in reserve grade last week.
Williamson has been relegated to a reserves spot simply because incumbent wings 19-year-old Isaac Ulberg in his first season of first grade and league convert Dale Clacherty’s form has been too strong to be dislodged.
Clacherty has taken his game from being a solid contributor on the wing with a great turn of speed to an excellent reader of the game who can inject himself into play to unravel defences.
Ulberg earned his spot in first grade after playing with the NSW Country Colts team and hasn’t looked back.
His NSW Country Colts teammate Ben Wood, who was voted Country’s best player, is part of the the quality eight-man reserve group.
Wood has been a revelation in the second-row but is still behind Michael Howell, Travis Brooke and James Johnston in the chopping order.
Howell, Brooke, Johnston, Chris Logan, Carl Manu, Nick Davidson and Josh McCormack have proved again this season they are legitimate stars of the competition.
“Those guys will stand up when needed as they have done all year, but we have improved from one to 23 this year and we can rely on all the players in the team to play their role and seize their opportunity when needed,” McCormack said.
“It will require a full squad effort to get the job done against Merewether and Hamilton if we make the grand final.
“We are confident that we can do it, the boys have tremendous belief in each other and there is a real winning culture and excitement about the place.
“The whole club is excited from the players through to the supporters. We are expecting another huge Maitland crowd.”