Wheatbelt towns lead the charge after drought-breaking flags

Shrill roars of delight fill Horsham City Oval all at once.

A few seconds later there is a lull, as the initial shock of joy subsides.

Then comes a high-pitched shriek, then another, then another, as the reality of what has just happened begins to sink in, person by person.

This is how it feels and sounds to make history in country football.

Celebrations like this are likely to last well into this week in the towns of Birchip and Rupanyup, after their football teams both broke 21-year premiership droughts on Saturday.

Both towns have worked hard to keep young people living locally.

Keeping the band together

Down by 21 points in the second quarter to Donald, the Birchip-Watchem Bulls came back to win by 21 for their first flag since 2001.

Club secretary Stephanie Coffey said when the final siren sounded, the relief was palpable.

“From 2017 to 2019 we lost three senior grand finals in a row, and then missing two years due to COVID — two years we thought we’d have a strong team as well — there was really a sense of ‘when will we get another chance’,” she said.

Birchip-Watchem play in the North Central Football League, which keenly felt the effects of the lockdown-era “ring of steel” barring Melbourne from the rest of Victoria — and vice versa — last year.

Other clubs in the league, Wycheproof-Narraport and Donald, had to forfeit matches because their Melbourne-based players weren’t allowed to travel to their clubs, before the season was ultimately cancelled.

Birchip-Watchem themselves were denied access to players it had signed from Melbourne and Adelaide, though Ms Coffey said that, luckily, they never had to forfeit.

“I guess that’s something we’re very proud of, the fact we’ve been able to keep everyone at the club and add a couple to the list as well,” she said.

“Players come and they enjoy our club, and possibly also that sense of unfinished business; people wanted to stick around and see out the journey.”

Ms Coffey was a high school student in Birchip the last time the Bulls won a premiership; she now has a young son and teaches at a secondary school in nearby Wycheproof.

She says premierships, especially in the senior divisions, change the entire mood of small towns.

“It’s a community celebration really, and it’s a feeling we haven’t had in a very long time,” she said.

Birchip is well known for having a huge sculpture of a red bull on its main street.

“We might have a few people riding the bull, and I don’t know what the players have in store for Monday — I might be better off not knowing,” Ms Coffey laughed.

A match for the ages

The Horsham District Football Netball League 2022 grand final is barely 48 hours old, but it is already being spoken about as the league’s most iconic matches ever.

Author: Ivan Robinson