GRAND FINAL: RANGERS 35’s v LEICHARDT SAINTS – 27 AUGUST 2016
By Diarmuid O’Connor
Rangers 35’s v Leichardt Saints WON 2-1
Goals: Akio Matsui, Diarmuid O’Connor
Rangers went into this seasons Div 5 title decider as the rank outsiders, facing a Saints team who had finished 13 points ahead of them in the regular season. However Rangers had a quiet confidence about them, having been the only team to beat Saints this year and having scored 6 goals in total against the leagues tightest defence.
Having a fit squad of 17 to choose from, Paulie volunteered to stand down and be the number one supporter for the day. That left a full complement of 5 subs for coach Rob to work with. During the regular season, the only consistent thing about Rangers was their inconsistency, especially when it came to defending. However this had been remedied during the finals series, with the concession of just 1 goal thus far, and solidity was again called for at the back. Despite the injury to Rob, the centre back position was well covered in terms of personnel by the return of Stella, partnering the Columbian colossus Alejandro, with Stephen providing backup (despite having literally just hopped off a plane from Texas). The evergreen Hughie and Riki manned the full back positions as usual. If Rangers were to win, it was essential that this group of 5 hold strong and give support to Richie, the man orchestrating everything from the goalkeeping position. Stewie returned to partner Leo in a physically intimidating central midfield pairing and DV and James occupied the wide roles. The front pairing was the twin strike force of Akio and Diarmuid, who had already bagged 27 goals between them this season.
Rangers won the toss and decided to play up the hill and into the sun in the first half. This strategy meant that they would have an advantage in the second half. However it also meant they couldn’t afford any mistakes or they would have a mountain to climb, both literally and figuratively speaking. Any notions that the Saints had about this being a walk in the park for them were put to bed straight away as Rangers absolutely dominated the play from the start. Rangers were first to every ball, were more aggressive in the tackle and put pressure on the Saints defence at every opportunity. Saints could not get the ball out of their own half in this opening period. While no clear cut chances were created, Stewie’s long throw ins and James’ corners caused difficulties in the Saints defence. The breakthrough eventually came when Rangers won a free kick just inside the Saints half. Alejandro’s floated free was only half cleared. The ball fell to James at the edge of the box and after his half volley was turned on to the post by the keeper, Akio was quickest to react and he headed home from close range. This was no more than Rangers deserved for their positive start to the game. Saints had not expected this and were slow to respond. They eventually got a foothold in the game with the arrival of their playmaker into the fray. However the Rangers defence, marshalled by their sweeper Stella, held firm against the onslaught. A well hit effort was kept out by Richie, once again making a difficult save look easy. Stephen was on at this stage and he slotted seamlessly into the Rangers back four. The midfield, ably assisted by the arrival of Diaa and Tiger, was getting through a huge amount of work and didn’t give Saints any time to get their passing game together. Saints chances were restricted to dead ball situations but Richie was always on hand to punch the danger clear. When the ref blew for half time, Rangers left the field with a pep in their step, knowing that they would be playing down the slope in the second half, which would suit their speedy attackers.
The second half turned out to be an epic battle. Hoffy and Sus joined the action and were involved straight away. Saints were doing most of their attacking down the right hand side of the pitch but this was not a wise move on their part, as Riki was giving an exhibition of full back play and he swept up everything before him. Finals are usually won by the team who wants it the most and in this regard, the Rangers were not found wanting. They put Saints under all sorts of pressure. The pace of Akio and Diarmuid up front was paying dividends and a number of chances were created. Akio nearly got on to the end of a couple of through balls. Stewie’s aerial presence nearly resulted in goals from a corner and a free kick. From another corner Leo and Diaa combined but the ball came off the upright. Leo, Diaa and Diarmuid tried to luck from long range but couldn’t find the target. The closest effort came from Akio. A sumptuous cross from Hoffy was headed goalward by the spring heeled Japanese flyer but the ball flew inches wide. At this stage there was a concern that all the wasted opportunities would come back to haunt Rangers, as so often happens in football. Saints still posed a danger and their skilful forward players kept plugging away. A firm shot by their playmaker was dealt with by Richie, who got down low to save. But with 20 mins to go, Rangers got the vital second goal that their hard work deserved. Hoffy, again, floated a lovely ball over the top which Akio ran on to. Despite the attention of 2 defenders, Akio managed to square the ball to the unmarked Diarmuid and Rangers top scorer made no mistake, with a firm shot into the corner of the net. The game was now Rangers to lose. The intensity levels were raised and the tackles started going in hard and fast. But the Saints were not going to lie down and they got themselves back into the game, courtesy of a wonder strike from all of 30 yards from their centre forward. It was now 2-1 with 15 mins to go. Game on. Saints now tried to take the initiative in search of the equaliser but Rangers responded and somehow found more reserves of energy. The work rate from the entire team was relentless. The intelligent use of the subs during the game by coach Rob now started to pay dividends as Rangers finished the game stronger. Diarmuid brought the ball into the corner to run down the clock and managed to waste valuable time. With 2 mins to go, there was to be one final piece of drama as Saints won a free kick in a dangerous position, 25 yards from goal. Their playmaker lined up a shot in the hope of forcing the game into extra time. The shot was too high however and with that went Saints last chance of glory. The ref blew for full time shortly after and Rangers celebrated a fully deserved victory.
Having lost the Grand Final two seasons ago, this made victory all the sweeter for Rangers. They produced their best performance of the season when they needed it most. Saints had no complaints and were generous in their praise after the game. They knew they had been beaten by the better side. They say championships are won by the team with the best defence and this proved to be the case once more on Saturday. During the regular season, Rangers shipped a whopping 14 goals in their 4 games against the top 2 teams – Saints and Fraser Park. But when they met these two teams again in the preliminary final and then the grand final, they only conceded a solitary goal and that was a wonder strike. The contribution of coach Rob cannot be underestimated. Losing him from a playing perspective was a blow, but in hindsight it worked to Rangers advantage and his in-game management was crucial. To win a final you need heroes and Rangers had 18 of them on Saturday. The work rate and commitment by all the players was phenomenal with many giving seasons’ best performances. After a regular season which had as many downs as ups, the three performances in the finals series were characterised by a never say die attitude which resulted in three narrow wins. Rangers hit form at just the right time and are worthy champions for 2016.