YOOGALI FC has shot into genuine Billabong Cup premiership contention after outmuscling Hanwood FC to a 2-0 victory yesterday at Noe Santolin Oval.
In a physical and often spiteful encounter, two goals from Archie Watkins - both headers from corner kicks - were enough for YFC to leapfrog Hanwood and move into equal top spot on the ladder ahead of another blockbuster against Yoogali SC next week.
Using his height and strength to his advantage, Watkins rose for his first goal two minutes before the half-time break and then scored in nearly the exact same fashion just after the hour mark to secure three valuable points for his side.
But the tone for the match was set in the opening stages, when Yoogali FC players asserted their presence by flying in with several dangerous, studs-up tackles to which referee Diego Menegazzo turned a blind eye.
His refusal to issue a single caution was interpreted by players on both sides as permission to respond in kind and for large stretches of the first half, it appeared more a rugby league match than a game of football, such was the mess of clattering bodies.
YFC coaching director Peter Jennings told The Area News: "It's a shame it got to that stage but it was a battle of attrition - two styles of football, one composed, one aggressive.
"I don't think goals were the objective at that stage - not for the first 15 minutes.
"It was to show who was (most) dominant on the park."
Hanwood FC coach Anthony Agresta said Menegazzo should have shown at least one yellow card to rein in the early physicality and end the tackling free-for-all.
"It would have changed the game, of course. But there's not much you can do," he said.
"It was physical but once the boys got used to it, I don't think they took a backward step."
The match eventually settled down in the second half - and when it did, YFC were still the better side, having successfully disrupted Hanwood's usual rhythm with their combative game plan and aerial prowess.
"That was a class of its own, that first goal," Jennings said.
"But it's something we work on.
"Even though we've got the height there, those little technical things are part of what I've brought to Yoogali."
The visitors had few clear-cut chances except for an early Matt Fearon header and a late Joey Schirripa penalty, which was saved brilliantly by a diving Jone Ralulu.
That penalty was awarded following a handball from YFC's Sitiveni Watkins, who Agresta argued should have been sent off, having already been shown a yellow card for a deliberate handball nine minutes into the second half.
But Agresta admitted there was little Hanwood could do to stop Yoogali FC's impressive play once they took control.
"They're very well structured and dangerous from the set-pieces," he said.
"We spoke about it before the game but unfortunately we couldn't deal with it.
"It's pretty hard to counter. There's not too many teams in the league that are that big, so every team will find them tough."
Yoogali FC will have the opportunity to take outright leadership of the Billabong Cup ladder on Sunday, when they face bitter rivals Yoogali SC at EW Moore Oval.
But they may have to do it without influentual pair Sam Kautoga and Uraia Loki, who both came off with hamstring injuries.