By Russell Bennett
Bunyip is moving forward into an exciting new era after signing two of the most accomplished footballers ever featured in the Gazette’s Football lift-out as its co-senior coaches in the West Gippsland Football Netball Competition (WGFNC).
Great mates, and Bunyip residents, Austinn ‘Aussie’ Jones and Ricky Clark will take the helm together in 2018 and are hell-bent on taking the proud Bulldogs back to the top of the pack.
Clark retired at 34 last year an 11-time senior grand finalist as a player – six of those premierships.
In his last three seasons as a player he was named in the Gazette’s EDFL Team of the Year as part of a premiership-winning trifecta with Cora Lynn.
He made his name as a player with Narre Warren before heading to Gembrook-Cockatoo, where he ultimately spent a season as player-coach before moving on to play with the Cobras.
Jones, of course, is one of the south-east’s most decorated football figures – having played more than 220 AFL games with St Kilda and twice being named an All-Australian.
Since then, he’s coached Narre Warren to two premierships in what is now the SEFNL, and also taken on stints with the Gippsland Power in the TAC Cup, Beaconsfield in the SEFNL, and the now defunct Bendigo Gold in the VFL.
His most recent coaching roles were as Cora Lynn coaching director and Ellinbank and District Football League (EDFL) interleague coach.
Together, Jones and Clark are taking on a Bunyip side that finished second last in the WGFNC’s inaugural season.
But much of its core group has enjoyed real success since beating its famous rival Garfield to claim the 2012 EDFL premiership.
They faced Cora Lynn in each of the past two EDFL grand finals – ultimately succumbing to a Cobras side featuring Clark.
“Obviously we’re pretty excited,” Jones said about the opportunity in front of the pair at Bunyip.
“Rick has been living in Bunyip for five or six years and I’ve been there three years and I suppose we’d always spoken about having a positive influence on the community.
“We’re excited, but it’s been pretty hectic already. We’re back into the footy fold and we’re loving it.”
Both men already had an existing relationship with Bunyip through their kids in its Auskick program.
They’re excited about taking a club with an already established strong culture and tight-knit playing group into its next phase.
“They’ve got some good young kids coming through and even from the chats that we had, Rick and I weren’t concerned about ladder position or anything like that,” Jones said.
“We knew there’d been a good platform set by Brad (Walker) and Zac (Vansittart) with the structure and culture within the footy club. We just felt that, as outsiders – as we stood at that stage – we were able to freshen them up a bit and provide that new voice.
“The group of, say, 28 to 31-year-olds had probably been together for a long time and they’ve obviously got that experience in footy, but one thing we’re hopeful of giving that older group is just a fresh voice and a fresh outlook for their last one, two, or three years of the game.”
Bunyip favourite son and premiership player Zac Vansittart coached the senior side this year – taking over from his great mate Brad Walker.
Although the club has opted to move forward under new coaches, both Jones and Clark are adamant that Vansittart and his players are required as part of their plans.
“Our chats with the senior players have been positive,” Jones said.
“We’re keen to retain Zac as well because not only is he a quality player but he’s a quality bloke and obviously he’s got the respect of the players and the footy club.
“With where we’re at we need to improve so we can’t afford to lose any good players or any good people.
“You need everything to fall into place to be successful and I reckon that mateship is something that some clubs can underestimate sometimes.
“I reckon it’s critical in footy so that’s why we need to retain that group because they are really tight.”
Though Clark’s recent history at Cora Lynn is a deeper one, Jones praised the club for its response at the pair taking the helm of one of its rivals.
“I think they’ve got such a good culture that if you contribute positively to the footy club and then go and do your own thing that’s good for you, they haven’t got that hatred towards decisions like that. Well done to the individual,” Jones said.
“It just shows the class of how they’re run, how they operate, and what really matters to them.”
Both Clark and Jones will be non-playing coaches at Bunyip, despite rumours to the contrary.
Clark simply had nothing left in the tank – physically – after retiring following the 2016 EDFL premiership win over the Bulldogs.
“I’ve had the year off, which has been great, but I’ve only just started back doing some running so that’s been nearly 12 months,” he said.
“It’s been a year of trying to get the body back to square one.”
Though his body was no longer up to the rigours of the game, Clark had a coaching itch that needed scratching.
“Once the footy days were over I just wanted to get involved in a coaching gig again,” he said.
“Living less than a kilometre from the ground at Bunyip and being around the community with the kids coming through, I just thought that’d be the right fit.”
Clark said he was keen to get the Bulldogs’ excitement and love of footy back showing again after a down season.
And the playing stocks have already received a boost with former Gippsland Power, Caulfield Grammar, Drouin and Poowong player Jordan Wyatt signing on.
Clark admits it’ll be “different” coaching against Cora Lynn next season – particularly given one of his brothers, Glen, is David Main’s right-hand-man in their coaches’ box.
“He’s known what was going on the whole way through the process anyway,” Clark said.
“It’ll be a bit of a family rivalry, but a healthy one – it’ll be great.”
Speaking of rivalries – Clark said he can’t wait to be a part of Bunyip’s with their neighbouring clubs.
“If we can get Bunyip back up in the mix, it’s just going to be healthy for everyone – everyone is going to enjoy it and hopefully it’ll bring people to the games,” he said.
“I think having those rivalries builds a competition up.”