The Veterans ventured to Wantirna, with five “outs” from Round one: BG, Brett Maylin, Swoopa, Simon Devine and Ryan Hendy. Swoopa was a late withdrawal – pity he didn’t do that nine months earlier (good luck with the new bubs Swoopa!). Into the side came Big Burnsy and three new blokes: Gurjan “Gia” Ustandag (German sounding name, Italian sounding nickname – go figure), Ross “Pink” Floyd, Andrew “AT” Tranquilli and John “John” Caldarelli. Along with other recent recruits like Cusamano and Podlewski, we were beginning to look a bit like the United Nations.
It was an arm wrestle in the first quarter, but Eltham lost their whole interchange by quarter time, with Troy straining a hamstring and Ryan Kafoure taking a knee in the ribs then kicking a long-range goal before exiting stage left. Wantirna piled on 6 goals in the second quarter and went to the main break with a 3 goal lead.
Gia was lighting-up the game with his fluorescent boots, repeatedly dashing up the ground taking more bounces than Ben Simmons before always delivering the ball astutely to a teammate. Cusamano and Finn on the wings were creative and clean, growing in confidence and influence as the game wore-on and AT was classy. Eltham’s star Lorenzini was in everything, getting so many kicks that it seemed like there were three of him.
By the third quarter, Jay Donato, the smiling assassin, had strained his hamstring and refused to come off, realising we had no interchange left. Despite the mounting injury toll, the Panthers surged back into contention led by Lorra and Gia, with Coathy and Podlewski firing up forward outsmarting their opponents and converting truly. Meanwhile, Burnsy played a kick behind the play and took about 75 marks in one quarter.
Daniel Chapman and Heath Waters were also playing great intercept football across half-back and Belch was doing a good job containing the opposition’s best midfielder. All the new players this year (8 blokes in total) were combining well and having no trouble synching with their new teammates.
At the last change, the Panthers were 14 points down but had that sense of belief. Storming home in the last quarter, they briefly took the lead, with Podlewski kicking his 4th for the game. But Wantirna nudged back in front and then AT succumbed to a hamstring injury (wisely staying on the field, realising it was a long way to the interchange bench). With a couple of minutes to go and Wantirna leading by 3 points, Cocker marked confidently at CHB, played-on, looked like he was going to charge the length of the field but then got gang-tackled and brought down. Cocker had a few choice words to say to the umpire about the holding-the-ball decision and was penalised 50 metres, bringing Wantirna within 15 metres of goal. But Cocka wasn’t sure the umpire heard him correctly, so he emphasized his point again just to make sure there was no miscommunication. And as certain as day follows night, the umpire awarded another 50 metre penalty, whereupon Wantirna duly converted.
Eltham may have lost the game but they refused to wilt in the face of mounting injuries and showed true spirit to even be in with a chance of winning. The on-field and off-field chemistry of all the new players with the old was impressive and something to build plenty of hope upon. With a few blokes returning next round, and the injured blokes probably only having to miss one game, the Vets have cause to be optimistic.