So we finally head into the final round of Gridiron Victoria, and it has been a most memorable season.

Now what should we expect in the final round? One thing we do know, the Crusaders will continue towards their Vic Bowl Championship, but there is much that is still very much up in the air. Which team will Geelong send out onto the field for their last home game? Can the Buccs keep up their finals streak? Will the Rangers fall to 4th in spite of this writer claiming they had 3rd spot all tied up? Are the Royals the real deal, or cashing in on some subpar performances from their opponents? Can the Preds steal a second win for the season and continue to show enough glimpses of a much stronger future?

“A coach is someone who can give correction without causing resentment.” – John Wooden, R.I.P. Peter Halson

Geelong Buccaneers 5th (3 – 6) vs. Melbourne Uni Royals 4th (3 – 6)

Last time: Geelong won a tight game by a score of 26 – 20

Looking initially at Geelong, this is a team that has more personalities than Sybil. On one hand, they will drop a game to the Preds, and on another day they will come out with an upset win against the Rangers. Looking at the past 3 weeks displays the many faces of the Buccs. Despite the GV ladder, I was under the impression the #1 deciding factor for splitting ties on the ladder was forfeits, which the Buccs did only 3 weeks ago. It was a mistake for GV to schedule games on Father’s Day, although a lack of officials left them with few options, and we know the “Sunday Buccs” tend to be lighter on players than their Saturday counterparts. Then 2 weeks ago we saw the Buccs slip past the Rangers in what was seen as the “Upset of the Year”, although I for one did not see the rapid decline of the Rangers coming, but more on that later. Then the Buccs turned up last week, on a Sunday and against their BFFs, Monash Warriors, and walk away with a credible loss of 28 – 0. So which team will take the field this week? With a Saturday game at home, I am expecting to see their best squad of the year, with a very vocal local support pushing their team to one of their best performances of the year. Let’s keep in mind, this is still a team in the rebuild phase, but with some great experience guiding their newer players, they have managed to keep themselves in the finals picture up until the final round – but I have a feeling we will see Geelong miss the finals for the first time in many years.

Firstly, my deepest condolences to the Royals on the loss of Peter Halson. Coach Halson was a great player, and a great coach in our sport and I am hopeful that the future will see the Royals and the Raiders play for the “Halson Cup”. In mentioning the Raiders, let’s compare where these 2 teams have come since 2014. These teams finished 9th and 10th in the expanded Div 1 of 2014. While the Raiders could not drop to Div 2 any faster, the Royals started to build a team who would develop through tough losses and foundation skill development, as Robert Smith and Co. understood the need for resilience to contend for Div 1. Looking at the second half of the season, it is not too far of a stretch to suggest the Royals are the biggest improvers of 2017. In the past 4 weeks, while sitting “5th” for most of that time – they have outscored their opponents by 11 points. That includes games against the top 3 teams of the league, and now they come up against Geelong for another “Win and you’re in” game. BUT, this is a MUCH healthier team, with no key players missing for state duty. Look at the off-season inclusions, and this should be a team pushing for a Vic Bowl appearance. Unfortunately, the Royals will not only need to win this Saturday, ideally, they would also be cheering on the Preds to upset the Rangers to gift them a semi-final against the Warriors. The Royals Defense has been outstanding for the past 4 games, and it looks as though their Offense may have finally started to click up a gear at the right time of the season. In what has to be “Game of the Round” despite a 1st vs. 2nd game the following day, this game will be a classic mental and physical battle where the cooler heads that focus on the “team goals” will prevail, and play finals.

Prediction: I will be there to watch the Royals take revenge for their loss earlier in the season, take revenge for the loss of the last round of 2016, take revenge for all the losses against the Buccs in the past and honour the memory of their coach, Peter Halson with a score line of 30 – 22.

South Eastern Predators 6th (1 – 8) vs. Croydon Rangers 3rd (4 – 5)

Last time: Rangers won by a healthy score of 44 – 12

Yes, the Preds had a huge loss against the Crusaders, but they went into the game looking at what they could improve on. Yes, the Preds are going to finish in last spot of Div 1, but this is a team that fought against many unimaginable adversities and come through each week to face their next opponent. Not many will be expecting the Preds to collect another win for the season, but it appears as though they have come up against a weakened Rangers team. For the Preds to win this game, there will need to be many things fall their way, but many will know that final rounds have thrown up upsets in the past, and it is not completely outside the realm of possibilities to see an outcome that will give the Preds an even greater hope for their future. As there is no chance we will see this team in the finals, congratulations to those players who have stuck by their team and fought out every play.

How the mighty have fallen. The Rangers were looking at the second best team in GV as we reached the middle of the season, and cruising towards a spot in the Vic Bowl, but nothing could be further from the case now. While there is no possibility of the Rangers missing the finals, they are going in with no form. The Rangers Offense has scored 6 points in the past 4 games. This is an Offense that is just not clicking, and they are putting far too much pressure on their Defense. My understanding is that the Rangers are still trying to overcome several key injuries, but their back-up players are just not developing as fast as the Rangers need for finals preparation. Defensively, the Rangers had still been quite admirable until they came up against the Royals last week. Allowing 34 points in one game was surprising to many outsiders, and it demonstrates how important it is for teams to make use of the ball when in the hands of their Offense, as no Defense can shut down every play. Without knowing if any key players are returning this week, I will have to base my prediction on form, and currently, the Rangers have no form at all. Or, will we see a preview of a Rangers team that recaptures some form as they start training for what will be a very tough finals campaign.

Prediction: I am going to pick the Rangers to win this game, but without any great conviction as I smell the potential for an upset here. Rangers to win 18 – 16

Monash Warriors 2nd (7 – 2) vs. Western Crusaders 1st (9 – 0)

Last time: Crusaders won the rematch from of the Vic Bowl, and established themselves as 2017 outright favorites by a score of 32 – 13

In what should be the “Game of the Round”, with 1st vs. 2nd, the likely preview of the Vic Bowl – what will this game offer us? In my opinion, I guess this game will offer up a slight “We can beat them” mentality, but I do not expect too much coming from these teams in exposing their plans B, C and D, of which they will most likely be developing in preparation for the finals. Monash has another season of being a top 2 team, and they have shown they can win it all from 2nd place, but that was in the past and this Crusaders team is a very impressive unit. Monash will need to look at getting game time into those players returning from injury, upgrading from the Barbs and just making sure they have cohesion as they enter the finals. Monash has shown their experience can ensure this team keeps winning, but these wins are not with the dominance shown in past years. Their special teams are missing that extra “X Factor” and they are well aware their passing game needs a strong run game that draws the LBs in. On the Defensive side of the ball, the Warriors continue to make teams earn every yard, but now they come up against a team that earns their yards, and then some.

There is nothing more to be said about the Crusaders. They win, and they win convincingly. The score from this game should be closer than their 34 – 0 win over the Royals, but we know there is that little extra that the Warriors have when playing against their former Head Coach. While the Warriors have that, never underestimate what players will give for their coach against his former team. The biggest factor for this game will be “cool heads” where the Crusaders will need to test how their players avoid silly penalties. I am expecting Coach Wilson to be preaching the message of “stay in the play” as they avoid exposing any flaws in their armour. The biggest question for the Crusaders will be whether they place more importance of a perfect record, or if they will use this game to fully test their depth at many positions. With unfortunate injuries suffered by the Cru in last year’s Vic Bowl, it is so essential for teams to be able to adjust to their B plans before their opponents can counter. Even with the use of some backup players, I am looking forward to attending this Vic Bowl preview on Sunday, with some weather conditions that may only enhance the Crusader’s dominance in 2017.

Prediction: Crusaders to finish with a perfect record, but realising that Monash still have enough in the tank to still make the finals enjoyable. Crusaders 34 – Warriors 26

Gridiron Victoria Division 1 – Week 14 (or Week 10 of the Premier Division)

Robert Hunter

Hunter is a former player for the Nunawading (now Monash) Warriors, and was the inaugural Head Coach of the Bendigo Dragons. He spent the last two seasons as Head Coach of the Melbourne University Royals, and is now our newest contributor

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