It's tough, it's hard, and it's almost impossible to predict - the McDonald's Ballarat FNL competition for Season 2021 just keeps on delivering.
Scoop previews Round Five
Head-to-head since 2018: Melton 2 - East Point 4
Expect a battle of attrition between these two highly-rated clubs, with the depth of both lists on display with injury to key personnel.
The Bloods will be Dyson Stevens, Ben Archard, Lachie Watkins, Matt Denham and Luke Heaney shy of their best 22 and will also be without their number two ruckman, Ashden Crone.
The Kangas casualty list, meanwhile, continues to grow by the week. There was no Baird, no McQueen, no Bilney, no Lovig, no Hayes, and no Quick in last week’s 31-point loss to Bacchus Marsh, and there must be doubts on Martin, Lukich and Brown after they limped off at various stages against the Cobras.
Kangas coach Jake Bridges is a proud man, grateful to be even playing the game in this post-COVID existence and will accept no excuses, whatever the result on Saturday.
Let it be known East Point will be the roughest chance in any game since 2018. Can Aaron Tymms' Bloods win this game, the one they're supposed to win at home against the undermanned champs?
They'll need to be good.
Tymms’ young men will need to withstand the physicality for a fifth consecutive week to get the job done. With such a young group, the Bloods are due for that below-par performance but will be hoping to put it on hold for another week, at least.
The Bloods focus today will be putting their opposition away early, denying the Kangas a sniff after they looked heavy in the legs and lame after quarter-time last week.
Melton doesn't look heavy in the legs at all, in fact, their leg speed is arguably their greatest asset. Expect Kevin Klix to return and pair up with Braedan Kight and the Carter brothers forward to take it to the Kangas defence, who were beaten last week despite giving their all.
Matty Johnston, Joe Dodd and Mickitja Rotumah-Onus will need a day out for the Kangas to provide enough opportunity forward to post a winning score. One positive for the Kangas is the likely return of Aden Nestor who was Best on Ground in the Twos last week.
Head-to-head since 2018: Lake Wendouree 1 - Sebastopol 2
2021 flag fancies Sebastopol are on the road again to Lake Wendouree, who will be hopeful of drawing square with 2 wins from 4 matches since 2018 – and they will have to do it without James Richards (ruck) and James Keeble (forward) unless they've made miracle recoveries from hamstring strains.
In fairness the 'Burra has been in both of their losses, for the most part, falling agonisingly short against Melton by just 1 point before being opened up in the final term against North Ballarat who ran away 32-point winners.
This weekend is the perfect opportunity to correct a two-game losing streak – if two games can be called a streak - but it won't be easy.
Lake Wendouree have been lively in their opening three games, with close wins over Ballarat (by 5 points in Rd 4) and North Ballarat (by 7-points in Rd 3). Even their Round Two loss against the reigning champs East Point (47-points) had the tell-tale signs early, these Lakers have something to offer.
There's no doubting they're buoyed by the inclusion of four talented Ballarat Rebels, while the pathway comp is temporarily on hold. Furthermore, Ashley Simpson and boom signing Nick Rippon will ask questions of a deep 'Burras midfield eager to return to the winner's list.
'Burras coach Mick Searle has said his sides' primary focus was to be better performed away from home in 2021, given they don't play on Marty Busch Reserve until Round Seven.
For Dale Power's Lake Wendouree, another footy audit awaits. They will need 10+ goals on Saturday to win, a feat only achieved in 8 of their last 29 games. A score of 75, weather permitting, will prove enough here to land the points.
Head-to-head since 2018: Bacchus Marsh 1 - Redan 1
Redan will need to contain Bacchus Marsh forward duo Aaron Willets (12 goals from 4 games) and Jake Owen (11 goals from 4 games) to give themselves every chance to go 3-1 come 5 pm Saturday.
While the Lions themselves rank #1 in the competition in attack it's their miserly #10th ranked defensive returns that spark some concern. Given the Cobras rank just #9 in attack despite two wins, the data puts even more onus on the return of Owen and Willets, who have combined for 23 of the Cobras 39 goals - or 59 per cent.
The Lions are a completely different proposition when key midfield duo Orren Stephenson and Lachie George are both in the team. For the record, Redan is 9 wins from 12 games when the two are together (4-4 without), averaging a four-goal win (93-69) in the process.
'The Big O', who hasn't played a game in 2021, would be a huge into combat star Cobras ruckman Daniel Burton, who is flying. At ground level, the midfield battle will be crucial - first use out of the middle will give the respective forwards every opportunity to impact.
For the Lions, everywhere you look, there are goalkicking options forward. Dean Chester, Izaac Grant, Grant Bell, Lachie McLean (if he plays) will test most BFNL defences. Bacchus Marsh could well be their next victim.
Weather permitting, converting on the scoreboard - given the evenly matched midfields - will tell the story of the day.
Can the Cobras go back-to-back season-best performances and get the job done in Ballarat? It will be a tough ask, as many have fallen short up and down the highway since 2018. In 94 Home & Away games involving East/West travel, only 25 have gone home successful (26%). The Cobras East/West travel record is: Played 10, Won 2, Lost 8 - the jury rests.
Head-to-head since 2018: Ballarat 0 - Darley 3
Both sides will be happy their fixtures have returned to the normal daylight schedule when they meet at Alfredton Oval on Saturday afternoon. Ballarat (played 4, won 1, lost 3) will enter the game as favourites on their home deck, despite a run of three straight losses.
It's difficult to match up the two sides’ form, given one has spent the opening month in the east side of the comp, and the other in the west.
On the Swans front, although comfortably beaten by Redan by 54 points in Round Three, they have finished within a kick of Lake Wendouree (lost by 5 points) and North Ballarat City (2 points) and could easily be sitting second on the league table at 3-1, but instead have only tomorrow’s opponents Darley (sitting 11th) below them.
The Devils have been in all three games early but have fallen away for the remainder with losses to Sunbury (by 29 points), Bacchus Marsh (by 56 points) and Melton (by 34 points).
Darley will miss a large contingent of their more experienced group again as they opt for an injection of games into their youth, following a similar path to Ballarat's 2019.
But for Swans coach Joe Carmody, he believes his group is ready to take the next step by winning games and pushing for finals. According to Carmody, his (once) boys are now men, 40-50 games in with a body type solid enough to match it with anyone.
It really is a must-win game for Ballarat, who will be keen to dent the young Devils’ confidence early or potentially face the music of a young band with their tails up.
A highly anticipated Josh Gibson Swans debut and the return of livewire forward Andrew Hooper will not be on the Devils wish list this week. Fingers crossed for them, that scenario is put on ice for another week.
Head-to-head since 2018: Sunbury 1 - North Ballarat 1
Lions coach Travis Hodgson would be wondering why the footy gods have been so unkind to him in the opening five weeks, as they face yet another team brimming with confidence off the back of a big win the week before.
Firstly, the loss to Melton in Round Two (beat Melton South in Rd1 by 69 points), East Point (beat Lakers Rd2 by 47 points) in a Round Three loss, Melton South (beat Bacchus Marsh in Rd3 by 30 points) in the Round Four loss, and now North Ballarat City (who beat Sebastopol in Rd4 by 32 points).
This match shapes as a real beauty, as McCartney's group travel to the wide-open spaces of the Clarke Oval to consolidate their position in the Top Six and arrest a horrible track record for the club in any games involving highway travel.
Since 2018, City has made eight highway trips for just one win and if they fail to turn up on Saturday, they will be made to pay by a Sunbury outfit keen to arrest a three-game losing streak and reassert its winning reputation at home in the process.
North Ballarat options for goal will be concerning for Sunbury in the lead-up - they're all tall, mobile athletic youngsters who've found some synergy forward, ranking #3 in attack and #2 for shots on goal. They will again create plenty of chances, you would think, while their pressure under McCartney will be made accountable. Sam Glover's inclusion (pending) from Collingwood VFL can only improve their chances.
This game is a line in the sand, pride in the jumper game for Sunbury who must respond at home in front of their fans and dispel any creeping doubts on where they sit in 2021.
While Sunbury's gains from its VFL affiliates, FIFO's and NAB stars will help the selection process in the short term, some weight has to be given on what effect it will have on continuity moving forward.