THERE are few certainties in life and even fewer in football, but one of them is Williamstown contending for the VFL premiership.
The Seagulls made at least the preliminary final every year from 2010-19, including three Grand Finals and the 2015 flag.
And they were building nicely towards another top-four appearance, with their 6-2-1 record usually securing better than sixth place.
They celebrated captain Adam Marcon’s 100th club game in style against arch-rival Port Melbourne in round three and unveiled a young key defender in Charlie Dean who is a big chance to be drafted in November.
Mitch Hibberd’s immediate return after spending 2020 at Essendon showed the club’s culture, while luring Jack Leslie, Teia Miles, Jordan Gallucci, Harry Macreadie, Cam Polson and Noah Gown fresh off AFL lists, as well as former Greater Western Sydney Giant Tom Downie, also spoke volumes.
Coach Justin Plapp, who quietly extended his contract until the end of 2023 this month, said it was a fantastic result given the change in playing style he had instilled into a seasoned group.
“We felt we were starting to establish a clear brand and we were building some consistency, and like a lot of clubs our issue was consistency of player and game,” he said.
“I felt we were going to be a finals team – where on the ladder I’m not sure, but time would have been the most important thing.
“We ended up having 16-17 players leave after 2019 and we went from a contested defensive-based game to valuing offence a bit more.
“(Former coach) Andy (Collins) established a strong brand of footy and I was keen to come in and add to that.
“The DNA is still around the contest and defensive side of the game but the offensive part was a highlight when we were playing the right way … (and) we should be able to retain a lot of players and give it another go.”
Plapp paid tribute to Marcon, who has retired after a decorated 161 VFL game career.
“He’s a generational player and the club is really lucky to have had him – there’s not many of those types of players that reach the heights that he did and hang in there and do what he’s done,” he said.
“I have a lot of admiration for Adam, he’s been fantastic for our club and a brilliant person – he’s going to be sorely missed from a playing and leadership point of view and I couldn’t wish him any more success in what he ends up doing with his footy because he has been a tremendous role model.”
Most of the young Seagulls given opportunities grabbed them with both hands, led by key back Dean, who has been invited to next month’s NAB AFL Draft Combine.
“Charlie is a young key position player who really exceeded the expectations I had on him – he’s a really hard trainer and a real pro in the way he goes about his footy and what he invests into his footy,” he said.
“He played on some really good players, he was able to have an impact in the air and rated in the top five or six (in the VFL) for intercept marks, which for a young boy is outstanding, and he was really damaging by foot.
“He’s got a big career ahead of him and I expect he will probably be taken, (AFL recruiters) will have seen a lot of growth in him from his top age year as an under-18.”
Plapp was also impressed by Toner, who had a fine debut season in defence, and young ruckman Sam Conway.
“Jack went to South Australia last year and played under one of our assistant coaches, Jeff Andrews, at Central District – for a young boy he’s done some exciting things as a small defender,” he said.
“Darby came through as a midfielder but we played him forward and he was able to execute a good role and play every game – he’s a professional young kid who is going to turn into a really good VFL player.
“Sam is a really exciting prospect who came in when Tom Downie was injured … big boys take more time but he did some things which made us sit back and say with some good coaching and consistent training he can be a really good player.”
The quickest way to develop young talent is to have experience around them, and Williamstown had that in spades with Marcon joined by Hibberd, Jake Greiser, Luke Meadows, Nick Mellington, Nick Rodda, Teia Miles, Billy Myers and Liam Hunt, with one set to be the new captain.
“Luke was fantastic from a playing and a leading point of view, he came to the club at the end of 2019 and has been instrumental,” Plapp said.
“Mellington leads the way in that area, Greiser has been at the club for a long time, Nick Rodda and probably Billy Myers – they are some household names to Willy and the VFL, so one of those boys we are really confident can step in and do a great job for us.”
Plapp said the new rule stating teams must have six players under 22 meant regular selections such as Joel Ottavi and Jaylon Thorpe often missed out.
“They were hard decisions – those boys have been pretty good players for the club but they were a victim of circumstance,” he said.
“It is a good rule but it has some challenges, (although) the exposure of our younger players – Charlie Dean and Jack Toner, Darby Henderson, Daly Andrews, Mitch Mellis, even Noah Gown, he’s still a young kid coming off Essendon’s list and he had an exciting year, so while I think they need to do a bit more work on it, the exposure of those boys was exciting.”
Plapp was excited about the VFL’s possibilities, but said it was now important to find stability or risk losing players to the SANFL or WAFL.
“It looks like an appealing and exciting competition, but I don’t think we got to see it because of what we’ve had to face – (there was) a lot of frustration with a lot of clubs about COVID and travelling … so in hindsight it was the right thing for the year to not go on,” he said.
“Everything is set up for it to be a good comp but we just need to get out there and play and get some consistency … there’s a lot of things for the VFL to work through but it has got a lot of aspects that can be very exciting.
“There was a lot of excitement around the Queensland clubs like Southport (which) added a different environment … and it would have been good to be able to test ourselves against other states.
“The most important thing is to retain and instil belief because I reckon there has been a bit of trust lost from our players.
“My gut feeling is the comp might suffer a bit because players want to go interstate where there is some security – there’s a bit of that happening now from all reports, so that’s going to be interesting (to see if) we can provide that and the players can stick fat in their belief in VFL footy.”
6-2-1 win-loss-draw, 6th
What went right: Despite losing half their list since the 2019 Grand Final, the Seagulls were again a strong contender with an average winning margin of 37.7 points, while their two losses were by just nine and 12. Another brilliant season from stars such as Mitch Hibberd and Adam Marcon, while the next breed led by Charlie Dean slotted in seamlessly.
What went wrong: The season was cut short as Williamstown was building and meant they missed playing in a preliminary final for the first time since 2009. The new age restrictions meant quality players were forced out of the 22. Brayden Monk couldn’t get on the park either.
Best and fairest prediction: Hibberd picked up where he left off after a season at Essendon and will take a power of beating. Teia Miles also had a fine year after crossing from Hawthorn, while key defenders Jack Leslie and Dean can also be expected to amass healthy tallies.
Best young players: Dean was a revelation as a key backman, averaging 15 disposals and seven marks to earn himself an invite to the Draft Combine. Jack Toner was outstanding in the pocket beside him, while Daly Andrews, Darby Henderson, Mitch Mellis and Sam Conway also look the goods.
Coach status: Justin Plapp quietly extended his contract for another two years earlier this month, locking him in at Downer Oval until the end of 2023. “I’m quite hopeful we can get this (COVID situation) sorted out and I’m excited about working with this group moving forward,” he said. “I’m lucky I’m in a good position and we’re working really hard at the moment to get our list together for next year.”
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