Time flies. It's difficult to believe a decade has elapsed since one of Old Xavs' more memorable semi-final victories. Those who were there will remember it well and with the 2018 Round 8 clash with Old Scotch upon us this week, it will no doubt arise in conversation.
Two reports from the game, both incredibly impartial, appeared on oldxavs.com in the days that followed.
HOODOO GURUS. JINX INTACT.
It is thirteen minutes into the final quarter and the Xavs are five-plus goals adrift. The battle has been fought, hard and fair, but is as good as lost now. A 49 year jinx, a season, and perhaps some playing careers, are all at an end: Scotch, strong, methodical, skilful and worthy winners.
The Cardinals' skipper Lewis has possession. He is clear. He runs. A loud voice from behind me shouts "Go on Will, kick a captain's goal." He bounces, he steadies to deliver the final nail . . . and James Scanlan, one of the two hardest runners ever to play on the Plain, rips him to the ground with the perfect tackle. Perhaps it's not over yet, perhaps . . . nah.
A minute later, Damian Lynch kicked his fourth and the red and black time-bomb that so often blown up in Scotch faces was detonated. Howard snapped truly at the fifteen-minute mark and the crowd sensed a comeback. Josh Douglas goaled on the run at eighteen minutes. Then Dustin Lloyd levelled the scores with his first, and put the Xavs ahead with his second. Mercuri led, marked and drilled a beauty. Eight minutes, six goals, and the Claret and Stout was now twelve points to the good.
The Cards replied, but it took them five minutes and time-keeping fingers were already hovering over the button. The Xavs defence, threatened again, held firm. And then it was over. Larceny on the grandest scale, in broad daylight, undetected and never to be solved.
Old Firm clashes are always hard-fought affairs. There is little love lost between these clubs, but plenty of respect. It is undoubtedly the greatest rivalry in VAFA football today, with Old Scotch the dean of A Section, and Xaverians their consistent tormentor of many years. Two weeks ago at headquarters, Xavs had smashed the Red Men by seventy-five points. Not even the greatest of optimists expected a repeat of that today. The Cards returned with a stronger line-up and there were a few butterflies in the Xavs' camp - and not just the usual finals' time jitters.
Those butterflies departed early, replaced by more severe cramps, as Scotch peppered the goals at the Glenhuntly Road end. The Red 'n' Blacks looked slick enough into the wind, but couldn't find the ball with enough regularity. Andy Ryan got the X Men on the board with a beauty at seven minutes, Mercuri struck gold a few minutes later, but the Presbyters took over and kicked the next four. Lynch split the uprights from long range as the quarter wound down and the rain arrived.
As he had been at quarter-time in the round nine clash at Scotch College, coach Lethlean was in a testy mood. It was the first in thirteen quarters that the Xavs had dropped at Elsternwick this year. The Red Men's four-goal lead would have been greater had they not squandered some opportunities, yet with Richard Eva and Adam Houlihan looking ominous and proving productive, they would have felt comfortable, even if just a little short of satisfied.
The Xavs' turn with the breeze brought an immediate return. Scanlan snapped a corker with his left, Lloyd got his first, Lynch delivered again, and the Claret and Stout looked better. The Haggis-eaters, not to be outdone, hit back with two of their own mid-quarter and then shut down the Xavs road to goal with strong bodywork and close checking. At the half, with just ten points separating the teams, few doubted it would be the imminent third quarter that would decide the contest.
Tim Clarke found the target at three minutes to settle the mob's post-pastie nerves. An early red card saw the X Men a man down, and Scotch added another two majors. Mags Mercuri replied at nineteen minutes with a special. After a wild scramble in the goalsquare, the little dynamo attempted le kick bicyclette from flat on his back and the ball sailed home over the desperate arms of the Cards' defense. The Xavs might have been well pleased with their efforts into the wind, but disaster struck for them late in the stanza, with the Presbyters adding another couple to blow the lead out to twenty-six points at the lemons.
It is at times like these when the fans resort to one of the game's most over-used aphorisms, to wit, "we must get the first goal." While any goal is handy, the first might set the tone. When a team needs five waves of the twin calicos to get up, certainly the first is preferable, perhaps even highly desirable. In any case, it was Scotch that raced away and helped themselves to the first of the final quarter. As we now know, it meant little. Lynch marked and goaled at the five-minute mark and then ensued for some eight minutes a goalless back-and-forth tussle with some great fight by the Xavs' back six. Then the fireworks began in earnest.
The final push for victory came not from any one individual effort, but from the combined determination of a team that plays well together. Nick Bye and Tim Clarke had sparkling final terms, but the on-ball work of Adam Chatfield, Andy Ryan, Luke Howard, Josh Agius and James Scanlan was consistent all day. Damian Lynch (four goals) and Andy Bowen (held Doherty to zip) were great bookends.
The post-match in the Xavs' rooms was a raucous but shortlived affair. There are harder days ahead for tired limbs and the week off to observe remaining rivals is welcome.
Many veteran observers of the X Men were tonight still coming to terms with the dramatic events they had witnessed on the Plain, and couldn't classify this win in the pantheon of Xaverian achievements. Some were capable only of responding with a wry grin. Others wondered how the Scotsmen might be feeling. I think they knew.
OLD XAVERIANS 3.2 7.5 9.5 16.7-103
OLD SCOTCH 6.8 8.9 12.13 14.13-97
Goals: D. Lynch 4, J. Mercuri 4, D. Lloyd 3, T. Clarke, L. Howard, J. Scanlan, A. Ryan, J. Douglas
Best: A. Chatfield, D. Lynch, A. Ryan, J. Scanlan, L. Howard, T. Clarke
MR CHIPS ON THE MIRACLE
Now it is September and even Mrs Chips is wondering some about football. Such mild fever rarely grips her, but she told me last Saturday night that she might have to keep track of things until season’s end.
That end, at least for the mighty Xaverians, appeared very close early in the last quarter on Sunday. I sat there in my jalopy, thinking about all the joy these young men in red and black have given me since 1923, and I felt quite sad that it should end like this.
I remembered my warning that all things must pass, that all fame is fleeting and that the 49 year hoodoo, the hex put on Scotch after their 1959 semi-final win over the Claret and Stout, must surely one day end.
“Sic transit Gloria mundi,” I muttered as Andrew Quail split the uprights to put the Red Men 32 points to the good and reached for my kerchief to wipe my teary eyes. I closed them to gather my thoughts and to dwell briefly on the consoling words I would offer to the president, the coach, the webmaster and the team. I prayed to St Jude, St Anthony, even St Elmo.
Suddenly, I felt very cold. I opened my eyes and sitting next to me in my old Austin was a strange woman. I say strange because I could see right through her to my pipe and tobacco that lay on the seat. I rubbed my eyes in disbelief and then she spoke.
“Chips, I need help. I need a second miracle and I need a solid witness.”
I looked at her up and down and it dawned on me that she was none other than the Blessed Mary McKillop.
Believing that I was in some strange dream – and why not, considering the scoreboard – I said I would assist in any way I could.
“A miracle, huh? Make Mrs Chips give up golf,” I offered.
“So selfish of you, kind sir,” she responded softly.
“Indeed it is,” I said sheepishly, “but with the Xavs finished here, I must think of myself.”
“Oh ye of little faith,” she said softly. “Just watch.”
At that very moment, Damian Lynch marked and goaled.
“That’s just the beginning,” she added. “You’ll be a happy man tonight, Chips. Please remember me when the postulator from Rome knocks on your door.” With that, she vanished.
For the next seven or so minutes, there was little to encourage me, save for a lack of scoring at the scoreboard end. Strange dream, very strange, I thought to myself.
Then the big full-forward goaled again. A minute later, the Presbyters’ full-back erred on the kick out and little Ronny Howard snapped. Then more and more. I rubbed my eyes again and looked at the scoreboard. The Xavs were level. Then ahead. Then young Jon Mercuri sealed it with a smashing shot from an angle.
“Mary, you dear old hot-cross bun,” I cried out crassly in my ecstasy, “you’ve pulled your second miracle. Sainthood is assured.” But there was no further vision and no voice from above. I jumped from the car but another Scotch goal sent me back behind the wheel. Then the Xavs’ defence held strong and the siren blew.
Most of my kind readers probably think me batty, as my bride did when I explained the story that night. Yet, I have rung Rome and received a sympathetic ear. “How else could this have happened?” asked a voice down the line in a rich, cultured and sympathetic Italian voice?
Indeed, how else can one explain the dramatic proceedings on the park late Sunday other than to write them off to some divine intervention?
How it happened, we cannot say with any precision. It was all too quick, too sudden. There was no storm warning, no air raid siren. But it happened. Somehow, the Xavs found a new way to torture a whole new class of Scotsmen. It was at once both a brutal act of unparalleled cruelty and a beautiful, courageous comeback.
I scrutinised the faces of the many I passed en route to the bar. Understandably, there was bitter disappointment on the dials of the Scotsmen. The Xavs faithful wore expressions that ranged between delirium and bemusement.
So Scotch is gone for another year. Personally, I’m very relieved. They were better this year, well-coached, well-resourced and a good blend of youth and experience. They will be better again next year, though predictions about next year in VAFA football must be made with extreme caution.
Given the whirlwind finish from the Xavs, there is hope of more to come. Next time, however, it might be wise to perform such feats a little earlier in the day. Who knows whether Mary McKillop will show up to help them again? Judging from the note she mailed me on Tuesday, she thinks headquarters a cold and dreary place, and might be content to listen to the remaining finals on the wireless. (Would-be saints get complacent when they think the second miracle is in the bag!)
The seniors are off this second-semi final weekend, but Xavs are represented by their Reserves, who play Uni Blues. These teams beat each other during the year, with the Red ‘n’ Blacks winning a month ago in a huge performance. The lineups will be interesting, with a number of players on both teams with good senior experience eligible to play. I expect the Xavs to win. They haven’t lost since Opening Day, which is a remarkable performance. They have a potent forward line with Dangerous Dan Rush, Sparky Larkins and John Pasceri all ready to dominate. Their midfield is superb, their backline solid. Then there’s the 270+ game veteran David Walsh, who just loves winning, especially in September. A tough affair awaits, but a successful outing is on the cards. Or so Mary's letter said.