A sports reporter once asked baseball Hall of Famer Joe Di Maggio, who was a t stage in the twilight of his injury-plagued career, why he played so hard every day of the 154 game season. The Yankee Clipper told him he did so because there might be someone in the crowd who had never seen him play before and he didn't want to be thought of as someone who didn't give his all.
Today at Toorak Park, Old Xaverians won their first game of the year on the broad shoulders (and the boot) of Matthew Handley, Most of crowd have seen plenty from the formerly blond colossus since he debuted in sensational style against Old Melburnians in 2006.
But today, by dint of the U19 schedule and the inclusion of two of their own in the senior team, there were more than a few dozen first-time spectators there to watch the Red 'n' Blacks, and perhaps they too now understand why every good judge has the big Chopper written in ink on the short list of the club's greatest-ever players.
That the Claret and Stout preserved their perfect home record against a willing St Bede's/Mentone Tigers was due to a strong team effort, with all 22 playing their part. But it was Handley who had the spotlight in all the important scenes and his star shone bright. .
In the first term, he snapped one from a ruck contest to open the scoring, and after the visitors had taken control in the middle of the term, book-ended the term with a strong pack mark and a post-siren goal that brought the Red'n' Blacks back within a kick. The Xavs defence was resolute in the second, while up-front, it was the Gospel according to Matthew: Matt Merlo goaled, and so did Matt Margin, but splitting their efforts were two more from Matt Handley, including a goal of the year contender. The Incredible Hulk ran full pace into the scoreboard pocket, plucked the ball on the bounce and with a defender charging at him, wheeled on a dime and kicked a hard banana through the uprights.
He goaled again in the third, after first-gamer Jack Hewitt marked courageously and chipped it over to him, and then returned the favour by moving a pack to ensure that "Little Leyton" marked in the goal square. Xavs led by 25 and looked to be taking over. Not so, as two late ones from the Tigers brought them back within range, and three early majors in the final stanza took them clear.
At nineteen minutes, the X Men finally responded, with the great man booting his sixth. At the 25 minute mark, Jayke Barrack chipped a short one to Handley, who lined up hard against the fence in the grandstand pocket. No banana this time, just the perfect drop punt that split the centre and put the Xavs back in front. Two minutes later, Brendan Goss kicked the sealer. Or so we thought. The Tigers bounced back with another goal and then attacked relentlessly as the clock wound down. Desperation replaced system. a long kick from a Xavs defender cleared the Tiger wall, but looked certain to be turned back. The final scene played out with Matt Handley, starting from the back marker, in a foot race for the Sherrin. He managed a kick off the carpet, and then followed up with a tackle to end the game.
Xavs fielded three debutants in the win, with two from the U19s. The pint-sized Michael Batten and Jack Hewitt threw themselves at every loose ball and inspired their teammates with their courage and skill. At the back, the long sleeves and fists of Joe Tobin were prominent and effective. In a defence that was put under further pressure with the loss of Brad Olsson, he blended nicely with John Milhuisen and the rookie Alex Trigar, who floated forward in the final term to grab two big marks and remind us of his versatility.
Chris Margin, Clay Johnston and Tim Golds showed plenty of dash, while Hayden Troiani tackled hard and when his time came, was razor sharp with the ball.
Again Xavs made many errors and paid the price. And again, poor choices and poor execution came in bunches. Coach Matt Hannebery pointed this out post-game. There's plenty of work to do, but this week they will approach it without the monkey on their backs. Two weeks ago, for the first time in his career, Matt Handley dropped two uncontested marks. Today he caught everything and played the best game in a career that has yielded 600 goals. Improvement is inevitable with hard work. In a tight competition, every player has a chance to change the fortunes of this team.
Old Xaverians 4.1-25 8.3-51 11.4-70 14.5-89
St Bedes/Mentone Tigers 5.1-31 5.3-33 8.10-58 12.13-85
Goal Kickers: M. Handley 7, H. Troiani 2, B. Goss 2, J. Hewitt, M. Margin, M. Merlo
Best Players: M. Handley, C. Margin, H. Troiani, J. Milhuisen, M. Merlo, C. Johnston