WERRIBEE is possibly the club that has lost most from the entire COVID situation.
A barnstorming finish to the 2019 season would have seen the Tigers enter 2020 in the top three premiership favourites, if not the No.1 seed, and they held a similar status heading into 2021.
Losing esteemed coach Mark Williams to Melbourne in December was quickly offset by Michael Barlow's return and meant Werribee could expect a seamless transition.
But two weeks into the season, it looked like unravelling.
Narrow home defeats to a Collingwood team boasting 16 AFL-listed players and traditional powerhouse Williamstown ensured the Tigers would be chasing their tail for the remainder of the year.
Then the real Werribee clicked into gear, belting Richmond and Box Hill before equalling its club record win against the Northern Bullants and having an easy win over Greater Western Sydney to be 4-2 with a percentage over 200.
Two more losses meant the Tigers finished ninth on match ratio – but Barlow said it would provide a good platform for 2022.
"You've got to take the glass half full approach that getting some games away was great, but it's not really what you sign up for and I feel for the players – they put so much in and to fall short of a season again is pretty deflating," he said.
"We felt when we did get some continuity we started to play quite well and we saw individuals really improve.
"Those first two games – Collingwood had about (16) listed players, which is a challenge even when you're 10 games into a season and you've got momentum, but 70 per cent of our guys hadn't played footy for 18 months.
"The next week we played Williamstown, which was as physical a game as I've witnessed. It was a dewy night game and two teams who were absolutely committed to the contest and married up similarly in terms of skill, ability and attitude.
"In a 16-game season it's going to be hard to chase it when you're 0-2, but we put ourselves in a pretty good position by the time the season was called."
Barlow dismissed his late return to Avalon Airport Oval as a factor in the Tigers' slow start to the year compared to the constant interruptions to the season.
"Being a first-year coach, especially at VFL level, there's a lot that comes with it and I was going to learn a bucketload, and coming in two or three months into the pre-season didn't completely overwhelm me because I had been in the environment for two years anyway under 'Choco'," Barlow said.
"I felt like we had good scaffolding to prepare for the season, there was just that lack of continuity, which was tough for us as coaches because it felt like you'd learn a lot and start to put things in place and get some positive affirmation, and then the stoppers would get put up again.
"In an ideal world you'd start with them in October, but I knew the group really well and having played with them as well creates that automatic connection – obviously it's a different connection when you become the coach, but that was pretty well already established."
Every standalone club needs a strong leadership group and having the likes of Liston medallist Tom Gribble and experienced heads Michael Sodomaco and Matt Hanson ensure Werribee certainly has that.
"The fabric of the club is really strong and a lot of our guys have been at the club a long time," Barlow said.
"There are a lot of reasons why you would leave semi-professional football at that age, but the highlight for mine has been the buy-in from those senior guys like Michael Sodomaco, Tom Gribble, Matt Hanson, Dom Brew - guys in that demographic often step away from VFL footy and look for opportunities that align more with their professional and social lives.
"(But) they've got a bit of a chip on their shoulder on where they want to take this club and they just haven't got there under their reign as yet, and I'm aligned with those guys to make sure we get the best opportunity to do that."
The perfect example of that fabric this season was Gribble playing his 100th VFL match but refusing any fanfare because he considered his 100th club game would be more important.
"That says a bit about Tom and the connection he has with Werribee," Barlow said.
"I wrestled with it a little bit the week he played his 100th game whether we make mention of it or how we approach it, and we didn't because I know how Tom operates and that it wasn't as significant for him as it will be when he plays his 100th Werribee game.
"Playing with his brother Noah in the last game was a special circumstance for the club – they lost their dad about 12 months ago and that was important to them, but it was absolutely earned from Noah’s point of view.
"(Tom) is a special case and my heart bleeds for a lot of these guys in terms of the effort they put in and a lot of them are AFL standard in their own right – clearly they have their limitations at the same but all you need is a bit of luck at times."
At the other end of the scale is continuing to regenerate and find the next Werribee 100-gamers (as well as AFL draftees, a list the Tigers added Kye Declase to when he went to Melbourne mid-season).
There were breakout seasons from Jack Henderson and Louis Pinnuck, who are on the verge of 50 matches despite being just 21 and 22, and Richmond recruit Shaun Mannagh, while a batch of youngsters earned VFL debuts this year.
"We saw some guys come in and play some really good footy – Jesse Clark played every game straight out of the NAB League, Lucas Rocci, Connor Thar, Harry Stubbings, so the future of the club is really bright," Barlow said.
"In 2019 (Hudson Garoni's) talent was there for all to see … 'Choco' and Nick Daffy told him 'you're not fulfilling your end of the bargain' and he got to work over the COVID year and had a huge (2021) – his growth came when he didn't have such big games, his absorption of feedback and where he needed to get better.
"He's a really good player to coach, a 'yes coach' type of player – however you say it, he'll take it and he'll get to work on it and overwhelmingly he executes on it.
"Jack Henderson is another one we love, he gives a bit of roadmap for young guys about how to approach it – Jack was never on draft boards (of AFL clubs), but his attitude is unbelievable and I don't think he's missed a VFL game in two and a half years.
"The effort these guys put in is huge and I have an intimate understanding of it, having done it, but at the same time the environment the club provided me when I was coming through made it easy to do – the club and the aspirational environment – so that's what we're trying to do, make it nice and fun but at the same time trying to make these guys better, which comes with a lot of training and hard work."
5-4 win-loss, 9th
What went right: The Tigers equalled the biggest victory in their club’s history when they smacked the Northern Bullants by 160 points in round five – coincidentally the other one was against the same opponent at the same ground 30 years ago. Big wins also over Richmond and Box Hill had them in good shape mid-season.
What went wrong: Losing their first two games at home as they blew out the cobwebs proved to be a headstart they couldn’t reel in as it gave them no wriggle room when mid-season defeats derailed their comeback. Losing Mark Williams midway through the pre-season was another blow, but Michael Barlow slipped into his chair in seamless fashion.
Best and fairest prediction: Matt Hanson just keeps on keeping on without any fanfare, and he is favourite. Young gun Hudson Garoni should poll strongly with some big goal hauls while reigning Liston medallist Tom Gribble is a proven votegetter and Shaun Mannagh also had an excellent season.
Best young players: Garoni is on track to follow Ben Brown, Josh Corbett and Jake Riccardi into the AFL and would be at least a top four pick for the Fothergill-Round-Mitchell Medal. Jack Henderson, Louis Pinnuck Harry Stubbings, Jesse Clark, Lucas Rocci and Connor Thar all look to have big futures.
Coach status: Barlow signed a two-year contract to replace Williams at short notice during the pre-season. "I'm looking forward to being a part of it, I’d just love a bit of continuity, sink the teeth into it personally and understand what my pathway looks like," he said.
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