“It’s not a two-team comp any more.”
Cardiff coach Nathan Harkness was entitled to claim his Hawks had joined the Black Diamond AFL party after a convincing 18-point victory over minor premiers Terrigal-Avoca at Hillsborough Oval on Saturday.
The final-round win completed an unbeaten season at home for the Hawks and means the top three teams in the competition have all beaten each other this year.
The long dominance of Terrigal and 2016 premiers Newcastle City prompted the league to implement an equalisation policy this season, and it appears to have opened the door for Cardiff to become a serious finals contender for the first time since they lost the 2012 decider to the Panthers.
But perhaps more significant for the Hawks has been the arrival of Harkness this year from Inverleigh in the Geelong and District Football League.
Cardiff were fourth last year, 32 points behind City, and last in 2015 with only one win. They had not beaten either of the two powerhouses since edging both by a point in 2013.
But, under Harkness, the Hawks beat City on the first day of the season, repeated the feat five weeks later and have now knocked off Terrigal, who finished the season only one win ahead of them on the ladder.
The two sides will resume hostilities in the qualifying semi-final at Nelson Bay’s Dick Burwell Oval on Saturday from 11.30am before City face Nelson Bay in the elimination game at 2pm.
“It’s definitely what the league’s wanted. It’s not a two-team comp any more. We’re putting our hand up, and we’re doing the right things and starting to believe in ourselves,” a buoyant Harkness said on Sunday.
“There’s still a lot to go, but we’re really happy with where we’re sitting and what we’ve done this year.
“We’re starting to play desperate, committed footy, and everyone’s doing it now.”
Panthers veteran Jason van Dam missed Saturday’s game, but Cardiff were also without first-graders Nick Chapman, Zac Metcalfe and Bryce Graetz. Tom Yensch, who played full-forward, ruck-rover and in the ruck, kicked four goals in a stellar performance while Cam Jones booted three.
“The last two years we’ve been 20 goals from Terrigal and City,” Harkness said. “We hadn’t beaten City for four years. It’s been a massive turning point. We’ve got some really good people come to our club which we’ve hunted and wanted.”
Harkness attributed much of the club’s success this season to a change in attitude.
“It makes a difference with a change of culture. That’s the major issue we wanted to change. You lose a few blokes changing the culture, but you get a lot of good people back.
“I don’t owe anyone any favours. I don’t care if you’ve played one game or 400 games for the club. You need to train and you need to do the right things.
“You need to be hard at it, you need to be committed. If you’re not committed, you’re not going to be committed when the whips are cracking with five minutes to go in a final. You’re going to throw the towel in like you have done all year.
“That’s just the way humans work. You have to have really good habits, be committed, invest in the team, invest in the game, and once you’ve invested so much into it, it means a lot to you.”
City again dominated the final quarter to subdue a plucky Warners Bay side 9.13 (67) to 7.6 (48) at Feighan Park and end the Bulldogs’ season.
Ben Eddy kicked five goals as Nelson Bay cruised past Killarney Vale 16.15 (111) to 7.7 (49) on the Central Coast to break a five-game losing streak and secure fourth spot, although they have not beaten any of the sides above them on the ladder.