It was an unlikely prospect even as recently as a month ago but the Orange Tigers are now officially Central West AFL flag favourites after securing the right to host the 2017 grand final last weekend.
The Tigers stunningly upset the minor premiership-winning Bathurst Bushrangers Rebels in Saturday’s major semi-final, surging home after trailing at quarter-time to ultimately win by almost five goals.
The victory is Orange’s sixth on the bounce, the black and golds not tasting defeat since late June.
That one-point loss, to the Rebels in round 10, can easily be pointed to when trying to identify a turning point in the Tigers’ season, which started inconsistently.
“That game gave us a lot of belief, it showed us that we weren’t too far behind the pack when we played our best footy and then we got Josh Bubnich back the week after, which added to that,” Tigers coach Dale Hunter said.
“We set [winning the title] as a goal about six weeks ago and we’ve executed half of that plan now but we’re still pinching ourselves a little bit.”
Incredibly, despite ultimately winning 13.15.93 – 10.6.66 on the weekend, Hunter says the Tigers can still get better.
He pointed to the side’s slow start – a recent trend – as one problem it needs to rectify before the big dance, the Tigers trailed the Rebels by 19 points at the first break.
“I think we were quite wasteful in the first quarter, we didn’t use the ball particularly well,” Hunter said.
“We lifted a bit in the second quarter and then we had a really, really strong second half which got us home.”
Orange kicked five goals three to the Rebels’ three goals in the second quarter, slashing that deficit to just four points at half-time before running rampant in the third and fourth terms.
The Tigers outscored the Rebels 52-21 in the second half, including a huge 30-point final quarter, to seal the comfortable victory.
“It’s really pleasing to be able to run a game out like that,” Hunter said.
“It was easy for me to pinpoint what we weren’t doing at each break and the boys all agreed, grit their teeth and went out and fixed those things.
“A lot of that was the little things I’d identified leading into the game, like composure and holding the ball in the big moments.
“It’s pretty encouraging to see what we can do when we play the type of footy we’re capable of, the type of footy that wins these finals games.”
Being front-runners won’t impact the way the Tigers prepare or play, Hunter said, in fact he said his troops won’t buy into it at all.
He also said he’s not worried about which of the Bushrangers outfits his side will play on grand final day. The Rebels and Outlaws face off in a preliminary final derby this weekend.
“We won’t be reading into that, we know where we are and where we’ve come from so it’s just about getting ourselves ready now,” he said.
“We’ll look at training during the week off to break it up a little bit, maybe a bit of a 15-on-15 scratch match or something, to keep the boys together.
“I don’t have any preference in terms of our opposition, they’re both the Bushrangers brand and they’re the club we get the most enjoyment from beating,” he laughed.
“The thing is, we’ve played the Outlaws and Rebels in our last two games and beaten them both, so we’ll be confident no matter who we play.”
Chris Pethybridge kicked three majors in the win while Sandun Welisara and Logan Crimp booted two each.
The grand finals will be on Saturday, September 2 at Country Club Oval.