After splendid wins over Japan, Laos and hosts Thailand, the Cambodian Eagles went down to Vietnam Swans on Sunday to narrowly miss out on a spot in the finals of the annual AFL Asian Championships involving 13 regional Australian Rules Football teams.
A hectic full day of footy saw sides from Cambodia, Thailand, Laos. Hong Kong, Singapore, Vietnam, Bali, Japan, China, Macau, Jakarta, Philippines and Malaysia compete for honours in the 14th edition of the premier event hosted by the newly formed AFL Asia at the Royal Polo and Equestrian Grounds near Pattaya.
Even before the start of the competition, which the Eagles missed last year, the side was hit by a number of late withdrawals, considerably reducing the squad strength – David Murphy, Gavin Murphy and David Bryce being notable absentees.
When it came to the crunch, traditional rivals Swans clipped the Eagles wings 2.0.12 to 0.0.0.
Despite the best efforts of backline stalwart Allan ‘Peg-Leg’ Sorteroteris, the Phnom Penh side’s lack of bench strength took a heavy toll and the Swans managed to exploit the situation.
But before this needle game, the Eagles were flying high.
First up was relatively unknown Japan. Though the Eagles were off to their conventional slow start, they put together some solid moves, allowing Callum ‘The Flash’ McCulloch to kick the only goal of the game. Cambodia held on to win a low scoring match 1.2.8 to Japan 0.4.4.
Realising that they had to step up their effort against Thailand in order to overcome a team they hadn’t beaten in many years, the Eagles got going after a decent spray from team general Trevor ‘Bagga’ Parris.
In a tight first half, the game was broken open by a fantastic spoil and running goal from Stephen ‘Socheat’ Higgins. This seemed to spur the Eagles, as they dominated the rest of the game with excellent run and tackling lead by captain Simon ‘Beardface’ Whitney. American debutant ‘Marine Corps’ Don Buer also scored a great goal in his first hit out for the Eagles, who won 3.1.19 to Thailand’s 0.1.1
The Eagles run and support strategy worked to a nicety against a tenacious Laos outfit as well. Joel ‘Two Flights’ Thompson and Matt ‘The Sailor’ Blomberg did a lot of damage, pumping the ball into the forward line time after time, while Ritchie ‘Spud on Legs’ Flanagan and Phil ‘Hammer-time’ Hammer worked tirelessly in the middle.
Player-coach Grant Fitzgerald played his best game of the day, kicking two goals for the match which Eagles won 4.3.27 to Laos’s 2.2.12. But that spirited run came to an end against the Swans.
With three wins and one loss the Eagles finished the day fifth on the ladder, just missing out on a place in the finals.
“This was an excellent result for a relatively small club in the region and proved just how far the club has developed over since it was founded in 2008,” coach Fitzgerald told the Post yesterday.
“I couldn’t be more proud of the team. We played some great football and to come away with three wins against quality opposition is a huge effort.”
The day was topped off with the inclusion of midfielder Phil Hammer in the All Asian team.
Sunday’s grand final saw the Hong Kong Dragons retain the title they clinched last year by beating the Philippines Eagles 4.5.29 to 2.3.15.
The Cambodian Eagles will now begin their preparations for the Indochine Cup, which they will host in Phnom Penh on November 9, taking on Thailand, Laos and Vietnam.