By Terry Wilson
A fresh new coaching panel, some impressive recruiting – and hopefully an exorcism of the injury plague that haunted them last year – have the Labrador faithful looking for a return to the top in the QAL this year.
After four seasons that produced premiership flags (2015, 2016) and runners-up finishes in 2014 and 2017 the Tigers have done something about restoring pride at Cooke-Murphy Oval.
Former player Liam Burke has been charged with resurrecting the Tigers after a bitterly disappointing 2018 campaign, one wrecked by injury after injury – with a number of key players hit by the curse.
Last weekend Labrador came from behind to beat Mt Gravatt in a practice match – and Burke liked what he saw of what is basically a new side bolstered by the returns of four past top-liners.
Skipper Bryce Retzlaff and forward-ruckman Jake Goldsmith are yet to return to the side, but what Labrador showed against Mt Gravatt is that they have worked to cover up glaring deficiencies in their on-ball and midfield brigade.
Heading the list of newcomers to Cooke-Murphy Oval is dual Adelaide Amateurs league best and fairest Alex McKay, a dynamic midfielder from Tea Tree Gully.
“Alex really put his stamp on things, and so did another of the new guys Hugo Barry,” Burke said.
Barry is a former South Australian under-18 rep who has been with North Adelaide.
He is a tall forward and is set to provide Labrador with a triple threat of tall forwards alongside Retzlaff and Goldsmith, although he can also go into the midfield.
But again, it is in the guts that Labrador have recruited well, signing small forward-midfielder John Boxer from Golden Grove in Adelaide, Daniel Middleton and William King from Jindelara, Jessie Maple from North Hobart and an interesting one in Ben Fagan from Mansfield.
Fagan is a nephew of current Brisbane AFL coach Chris Fagan.
As bonus recruits four former Tigers are back in the yellow and black.
They are Dane Watmuff and Billy Hicks, both coming back from knee reconstructions, dual premiership defender Jayden Young from Southport and Tom Davidson, who had 2018 off.
All in all, it has been a busy time in the off-season and hopes are high that the club is set to bounce back from a 2-018 campaign that yielded only four wins.
As is the case for all clubs, finals football is the target, but Burke has a priority – to regain that winning feeling that existed at Labrador for four successful seasons.
“Initially getting that hunger back is the aim – and I think we noticed that against Mt Gravatt with a desire to come from behind,” Burke said.
“Every club aims to play finals and in this competition, you really want to target top three, but there is a long way to go before talking about that.
“Getting the winning feeling back is the number one priority.”
Burke was captain-coach of Otwey in the Victorian Yarra Valley League for the past two years but maintained interest in Labrador’s performances over the disappointing season.
“Labrador had been strong and perhaps took the foot off the pedal and the other clubs leapfrogged them,” he said.
“In a competition that’s improving every year, if you don’t build that is what happens because all clubs are bringing in younger players.”
There is an interesting background story attached to the appointment of Burke as head coach at Labrador.
When he first played at Cooke-Murphy Oval in 2012, his coach was Brad Moore, now with Surfers Paradise.
An assistant coach was Chad Owens, who won the past two QAFL flags as coach of Palm Beach Currumbin.
Like Moore and Owens, and also like new Mt Gravatt coach Adam Boon, Burke is a school teacher.
This will not be the first time Burke has coached sides at Labrador.
He served an apprenticeship of sorts when he mixed playing with coaching the club’s under-12 sides from 2013 to 2016.