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By: Daniel Cencic
A club-first mantra has driven the South Belgrave playing group this pre-season.
The Saints have settled in to their new state-of-the-art facilities and welcomed a host of new names, as senior coach Robert Johns enters his second season at the helm.
South Belgrave finished 10th on the Division 3 ladder in 2017, recording just four wins, with the club recruiting aggressively this off-season.
Reuniting with Johns in 2018 will be six-foot-six ruckman and playing assistant coach, Brad Neurath.
Neurath (pictured below, left) hails from Sebastopol in the Ballarat Football League, having also played at North Ballarat, Lara in the Geelong Football League and most recently East Malvern in the Southern league.
Johns is confident Neurath can fill the genuine ruck void at the club.
“I coached him at a previous club and we didn’t really have a genuine ruckman last year,” Johns said.
“I asked Brad to come along and offered him the chance at 28 years of age to step up as a playing assistant.
“He’s a genuine ruckman and we’ll hold our own against most sides in that area.”
The Saints have also welcomed Jake and Liam Kidd who are expected to bolster the midfield stocks.
Liam played in Knox’s Division 2 flag in 2017, while Jake returns from Rowville, having played his junior footy with the Saints.
“We’ve been lucky enough to get Jake Kidd and Liam Kidd to the club,” Johns said.
“That’s really strengthened us in the inside-mid area and the outside-mid area so I think we’ve added there.
“We’ve got some good plans there with those guys to get the side to gel together a little bit and some of that might come to fruition and give us the ability to stay in games longer.”
Todd Burley returns to the club after two seasons with Dalyston in the West Gippsland league, along with Anthony Bernado who last played for the club in 2015.
In a coup for the Saints’ defence, Burley, a key defender, played in South Belgrave’s 2013 Division 4 premiership side, when it defeated Forest Hill in extra-time.
“It’s good to have a genuine six-foot-five key back,” Johns said of Burley.
“We’ve got a young half-forward and half-back in Jack Brettoner that’s come from Berwick – if he’s down back he adds a bit of run, if he’s up forward he gives us a six foot one, six foot two potential target to look at.
“Ben Hodgson has come from Narre Warren and he’ll be handy for us as an inside-mid as well.
“I think we’ve picked up and strengthened a bit; our depth might get questioned if we have an injury or two but you can only do with what you’ve got and deal with what you’ve got – we can’t worry about what we haven’t got.”
Speaking of what the Saints have got, the club has overseen a $2.4m upgrade of facilities, unveiling new club rooms featuring social and meeting rooms, an industrial bar and kitchen along with a gymnasium and sizeable change rooms for both home and away teams.
The project was a joint-effort by local council and government, along with donations from the Saints’ staunch supporter-base and cricket club.
The upgrade joins the club’s LED lighting which was installed in 2017, which saw South Belgrave host Ferntree Gully under lights in Round 3.
South Belgrave football operations manager Danny Blomley told EFL.org.au in November that he expected the lighting to have a significant impact on support and revenue in 2018.
Above all, no longer will the Saints be operating out of the local scout hall and containers, as they did in 2017.
“It’s a bit different, it looks fantastic but given that last year was my first year at the club, there were no real club rooms,” Johns said.
“It was knocked down and we were operating out of the scout hall and containers so I’m pretty sure that even if we weren’t coming from the once in a generation change at the football club, it’d stand up in most eras and with most football clubs as decent rooms to have.
“Everyone at the club and people who are involved in fundraising, collecting the monies and putting it together they should be pretty proud of what they’ve come up with at the end I think.”
Up to 11 South Belgrave under-19 players made six or more senior appearances last season.
Among them was then-16-year-old Jay Robertson who played 13 senior games rotating in the ruck.
Johns believes we may see Robertson don the red, white and black for half the season, as he balances his TAC Cup commitments.
“We advise a lot of the guys to play as high as they can for as long as they can and Jay’s got a really deep-seated yearning to play TAC Cup if he gets a chance,” Johns said.
“He’s down at Oakleigh Chargers at the moment and at this point it looks like he’s going to go okay there.
“We will definitely utilise him when he comes back but I would expect that we might see him for half the year maybe.
“If he goes with our blessing, and he learns and brings back some of those things, it’s a benefit to the club anyway.”
For Johns, bridging the gap to become a finals side comes from a ‘club-first’ mentality which the playing group has adopted in the lead up to its 2018 campaign.
“We’ve become a more evenly-balanced side from what I can see this year,” Johns said.
“This is no disrespect to anybody that’s not at the club anymore but we’re more of a selfless side, I think we’ve got more of a club-first mentality and the players that are there, it’s a whole-team buy-in into what we’re doing.”
It’s a mentality that’s been driven entirely by the playing group, with the buy-in evident on a recent weekend away.
“We’ve just had a weekend away where the guys actually set the standards of the rules of engagement for qualifying as a player of the club,” Johns said.
“We did that on purpose, but if they’ve helped set the standard then they’ve automatically bought in.
“That’s going to strengthen the group and if that makes us good enough with what we have in our ability to qualify us for finals, then that’s where we’ll be.”
South Belgrave will host Ferntree Gully in a night match at South Belgrave Recreation Reserve in Round 1, kicking off at 6.10pm.