By: Daniel Cencic
The two perennial powerhouses of the Eastern Football League renew acquaintances this weekend.
The undefeated Vermont hosts the resurgent Balwyn in what is set to be another memorable chapter in the League’s biggest modern-day rivalry, and a likely preview to the 2017 Division 1 finals series.
The pair have met 29 times since Balwyn’s inception into the EFL in 2007.
Balwyn holds a comfortable advantage, winning 18 of those encounters to Vermont’s nine, with two draws.
Perhaps one of the most epic chapters in the rivalry’s 11-year history came last September in the 2016 finals series.
Vermont came from 18 points behind at the final change to topple the Balwyn juggernaut in the second semi-final, but it would be the Tigers a fortnight later in the grand final who would laugh last.
Balwyn led all day on its way to a fourth flag in five years, defeating the Eagles by 12 points.
While not exactly sweet revenge, Round 1 saw Vermont defeat Balwyn at home for the first time in 10 years.
Vermont has seen its share of rivals come and go from the EFL’s top flight competition, namely Mitcham, East Burwood and Donvale.
Vermont stalwart Lee Bidstrup, who arrived at Terrara Road in 1962 and is now the club’s administrator, has seen his beloved Eagles battle many foes over the years.
“They’ve (Balwyn) won four of the past five flags, two against us, and I guess at the moment they’re our main enemy,” Bidstrup told Inside Football in May.
“In fact (in April) we beat them at Balwyn Park.
“It was very satisfying to finally notch one because we dread going down there.”
Respective new eras for both clubs under new coaches in 2017 have begun another chapter in the rivalry, with opposing coaches Harmit Singh and Marty Pask to face-off for just the second time this weekend.
But one man who was central to the rivalry over a number of years is former Balwyn coach, Dan Donati.
Donati, who coached the club from 2012 to 2016, led the Tigers to four premierships including two against Vermont in 2012 and 2016.
The four-time premiership coach remembers the significance of the rivalry from day one in at the Balwyn helm.
“The Vermont rivalry was one in all honesty built out of respect – they’re such a great footy club,” Donati said.
“I’ve been asked (about the rivalry) a few times.
“In the last five years it’s been Vermont, Balwyn, Noble Park (and) Norwood who were probably the most consistent sides and whenever you played any of them, they were big games because you just knew every year that you were probably going to play them in the finals.
“When I first got the Balwyn job, the president at the time was telling me he wanted to really emulate what Vermont had done because they’d been successful over a couple of decades and were a footy club that everybody looked up to.”
As a former skipper of fellow Division 1 powerhouse Noble Park, Donati also remembers battling the Eagles on the field, and often during September when the stakes were at their utmost highest.
“Even as a player, playing for Noble Park for eight years and losing a couple of grand finals to Vermont, they were a side in local football that were definitely revered,” he said.
While clichés in football may dictate that this week is ‘just another week’ for both clubs, it is anything but according to the former Balwyn coach, who always had his side primed for the occasion.
“We knew that every time we played them, if we could beat them, that gave us a mental edge,” he said.
“I think we lost to them once in my five years, and we drew twice and beat them in a couple of flags.
“It wasn’t like we hated each other at all, there was mutual respect, but it was our biggest game of the year every time we played them.
“As soon as you’re playing Vermont, it’s a massive week, it’s a bigger build-up.
“It didn’t matter where they were on the ladder, it didn’t matter where we were on the ladder –it was going to be game-on.
“(Across 2015 and 2016) we played two draws, we drew on Anzac Day and on the year after we drew again – it was just a huge game every time we played them.”
Arguably, this weekend poses as perhaps the biggest home-and-away clash of all between the two, despite the eventful history of jubilation, despair and melancholy experienced by both camps throughout the rivalry.
While Vermont sits atop of the ladder undefeated, Balwyn has only lost once since Round 3 to answer the critics who had deemed its era over.
Donati believes that despite Balwyn’s 50-point loss to Doncaster last weekend, it had one eye firmly locked on this weekend’s showdown.
“It’s a huge game for both clubs – Vermont would argue they’re up top and a couple of games clear,” Donati said.
“You can write the Balwyn loss off last week – they had a number of injuries and two on the bench in the second-half and one eye on the week after.
“I think the Tiges understand that they’ve now had four losses, and another loss puts them at five so that’s obviously dangerous.
“But with Vermont being on top of the ladder, you want to win every game (and) it’ll be an absolute cracker.”
While the rivalry has seen its share of epic encounters over the years, it may very well have peaked last September when the pair fought out two seesawing battles.
Vermont’s three-point win in the second semi-final typified the rivalry, as the two gladiatorial combatants slogged it out in the wet, Donati remembers before his side went on to claim the flag a fortnight later.
“You can look back to the last five, six, seven, eight years, and look at the results but the finals series last year, that first final was a tough, hard game of footy, and it went right down to the last minute of the game,” he said.
“I remember distinctly after the game after losing that, I was ropeable.
“I really lost it after the game – a spot in the grand final was on the line and a week off and it was such a big reward, so to lose that was bloody disappointing.
“To come back two weeks later and have to do it all again against the same side who’d finished on top of the ladder was huge.
“They’re such a bloody good football club, Vermont – both clubs are, they’re both successful and extremely competitive.”
The stories and sub-plots that arise within the clashes amidst the quality line-ups of both sides is something Donati appreciated from the coaches’ box across his five-year tenure as Tigers coach.
“Every time we play them, there’s always the little stories within stories in games,” he said.
“Whether you pick up this bloke, whether the side targets (Tom) Schneider this week or whether Adam Parker gets off the leash or who gets Rennie Gilchrist, there’s just a quality 22 players on both sides.”
The clashes have become as psychological as they are physical – and with Balwyn’s comfortable advantage from 29 outings against Vermont, the Tigers would always make a point of their head-to-head record under Donati.
“Certainly when I was coaching, we’d play that up a little bit that they just couldn’t get us,” Donati said.
“However, if you look at the last three years, it’s pretty even.
“But now because there’s been quite a bit of turnover from Vermont’s end, I’m not sure they’d feel it as much, but certainly the Balwyn boys go into a Vermont game pretty confident having beaten them a lot over the last five years.”