IT’S been a long time between drinks – 39 years, to be exact – but the townships of Tullibigeal and Lake Cargelligo are daring to dream.
Tullibigeal-Lakes United will never get a better chance to end their Group 20 premiership drought than on Sunday, when the Sharks face a battered and bruised Leeton in this season’s grand final.
They’ve gone close before – just 12 months ago, TLU found themselves in this very position, only for arch-rivals West Wyalong to spoil their party and extend the wait that little bit more.
Captain-coach Brent Pike wasn’t with the Sharks last year, but knows all too well the agony of failure on Group 20’s biggest stage.
“The boys are still hurting from last year,” he told The Area News.
“I’ve been telling them to keep remembering what happened last year and how they felt at the end of that 80 minutes, and to make sure we don’t feel the same way on Sunday.
“I know in 2011 when I was captain of Leeton – it was my first year as captain in the first grade, we lost the grand final and it still hurts.
“That’s going to give me a bit of extra motivation to help the boys over the line on Sunday.”
Last week crowned Group 20’s best and fairest player, Pike – who came to TLU at the end of last year and unexpectedly landed captain-coach responsibilities after Jaden Kelly’s son fell ill – is keen to end one of the best seasons of his storied career on the right note.
He’s won premierships before – in 2002 with Temora and in 2007 with Leeton – but none would feel quite as special as snapping the Sharks’ agonising wait for grand final glory.
TLU president Colin Ward said Pike has quickly earned the full respect of the team, the town and everyone else in his short time with the side.
“He’s been terrific and has come on in leaps and bounds over the last few weeks,” Ward said.
“This club’s had some pretty hard times over the years. The town’s not getting any bigger.
“Last year was the first time in 40 years we were in the grand final and we were overawed a bit.
“This year, with a bit more experience, hopefully it will stand us in good stead.”
Standing in the way, however, is the fearsome spectre of a Greens outfit that has proved itself to be the most consistent side of 2013 – even if their absolute best football hasn’t been seen for some weeks.
The minor premiers may still be counting the cost of Sunday’s brutal preliminary final win over Yenda, but captain-coach Willie McDonald promises Leeton will be up for the challenge.
“We’ve got a few sore boys and the week off would have done Lakes the world of good, but you don’t know until you’ve played the game,” he said.
“It all comes down to the day. It’s the biggest game of our lives, really, and everyone needs to be firing on all cylinders.
“(The Yenda game) will take a toll on us but we’ve played under that pressure, we’re
battle-hardened, we’ve had that experience and hopefully now we can benefit.
“I’ve been pretty lucky, actually, to get the opportunity to coach such a great, talented bunch of guys.
“I’m not the best coach in the world.
“All I’ve done is put in a simple game plan and get us all on the same page, working for each other.”
The Greens are sweating on the fitness of Group 20’s leading tryscorer Kolo Lomu, who lasted just 15 minutes against the Blueheelers due to injury.
Warren Lloyd and John Russell are also under injury clouds, but McDonald will not make a final call on their fitness until Sunday afternoon.
Either way, the Greens’ chances rest on the performances of a forward pack led by Chris Latu and Shayne Roden, who were both sensational in the preliminary final.
“Everyone knows we’ve got class backs but if we can’t get the go-forward from them it’ll be hard for us to do what we’ve done all year,” he said.
That pack could receive a timely boost in the form of Ben Fisher, who the rumour mill suggests could be back in Leeton colours on Sunday for the first time since his jaw was broken in a melee during a clash with TLU earlier in the year.
Pike needs no reminder of how dangerous the Greens forwards can be, having enjoyed Sunday’s match from the stands with his teammates as TLU soaked in the week off.
“I thought Roden was best-on-ground last week,” he said.
“He did a lot of work early and in the middle stages when Leeton had a lapse, he was trying to inspire them going forward.
“They’ve got a lot of great finishers and some special players who can create their own magic.
“It’s obviously going to be a very tight game.
“Everyone will just push each other for the first 20 minutes, see what they’ve got, then it’ll settle down and we can go about our business.
“We’ll leave no stone unturned.”