By sports editor Russell Bennett
At 5.45pm on the Thursday before a blockbuster Round 1 clash, ‘The Kennel’ would normally be pumping.
It’d be a hive of activity, with Phillip Island footballers and netballers, club members, sponsors, and their families all taking in the atmosphere of the last main training session before it all gets underway.
But today, it’s a ghost town – just like every other community club around the country.
Of course, there’s so much more at play here than ‘just’ community sport.
Lives are quite literally on the line – and are being lost – in the battle against Covid-19, and some throughout the community still don’t seem to fully grasp just how important measures such as social distancing truly are.
The longer the small minority thumb their nose at this pandemic, the longer it’ll be before they – and the over-riding majority – can get their lives back to normal. Or, at least, a new kind of normal.
While sport is such a comparatively small part of the bigger picture right now, it does play a huge role in the lives of just about everyone throughout the community.
In times of triumph or tragedy, their club is there.
But this time around, it’s at a distance.
Phillip Island Football Netball Club president Chris Ross knows just how much a lot of the smaller towns and communities throughout Gippsland must be hurting right now, let alone his own hometown and its powerhouse WGFNC club.
“When you drive past our club at this time of year, it’s all happening… only this time around, it’s a ghost town,” Ross said of his club’s home base.
“There’s no one there. We can’t hold committee meetings – nothing.”
Phillip Island was due to open its season on Sunday in Cowes in front of what would have surely been a mammoth crowd for the grand final rematch against Cora Lynn.
Last year’s thrilling decider is still fresh in the minds of anyone who had the pleasure of watching it unfold, and there was enormous excitement surrounding what their next clash would produce.
Now, that game is a distant prospect, and the scheduled Easter Saturday clash against another WGFNC powerhouse that the Island shares a rivalry with, Kooweerup, and Inverloch Kongwak’s scheduled showdown with Cora Lynn on the same afternoon have been scrapped altogether.
It’s through nothing of their control, and that’s what the biggest source of frustration is. They know it has to be this way as the country continues to come to grips with this battle at hand, but it doesn’t make it hurt any less.
“Losing our Easter game is just a devastating blow, mate,” Ross said.
“It sets us up for the year, clearly, so to miss out on that – financially – is shattering. It’s a hell of a kick in the guts.”
But through one of the many dark clouds attached to this pandemic, there is a shining light – the way in which the community has come together in an hour of need no one alive has experienced before.
“We’ve got sponsors, members, even local residents wishing us all the best and asking if there’s anything they can do – as if they don’t already have enough to worry about,” Ross said.
“That’s incredibly touching.
“I’ve had players call me and tell me they’d be happy to play for free if this season got underway – that’s what this place means to them.
“I choked up when one of the boys called me to tell me, because it really does show this place is one, big family.
“Even though it’s not a massive amount, a lot of these players rely on the money they make from footy – it helps pay for their car, their rent, their groceries, you name it. It really does help them survive.”
Ross spoke about just how important sponsorship is to his, or any other community sporting club, but as a local business operator – himself – he’s fully aware of the economic situation currently facing companies and families.
“I absolutely get it if they do withdraw, because these are such tough times – unprecedented for most of us – and they’ve got their own loans, businesses, staff, and family to worry about,” he said.
But in a time of such deep stress – stress of the unknown of what tomorrow will bring – the boys and girls of the red, white, and blue are standing together as one, even if they can’t physically come together right now.
“The players have a massive social media group going, like in any other club, and it’s so important for their mental health right now,” Ross said.
“Beau (senior coach Beau Vernon) has been a huge driver of keeping everyone together at a time like this.
“The big picture is what everyone’s going through, and how they’re dealing with all of this – it’s not a game of footy.”
While the players are doing their bit and self-isolating, they’re also motivating each other to push forward – particularly in their physical preparation for when they do, eventually, return to the field.
“Our leaders have been huge with that – taking six to eight blokes through different training plans each over things like FaceTime.
“It could be things like a gym routine together, or running sessions – they’re staying on top of it.”
But for now, that return to the field is a long way off.
The Island’s netballers have barely had a chance to get acquainted with their new facilities, and it hurts.
Speaking with trademark honesty, Ross said he has serious doubts there will even be a 2020 season of community football and netball. And he’s absolutely not alone in that line of thinking.
But for now, that’s not front of mind. The community, and its people, are.