From my point of view the 2011-12 season was a rags to riches story. The Blitz were coming off their worst season ever from a performance point of view, a semi-final loss to the Steelers. The only other time we hadn’t reached the Grand Final was in our first year as a club. But the fundamentals of the club were never sounder and off-field the foundation was in place for success.
The Blitz lost several key players in the off-season on both offense and defense and so some key holes had to be filled. None was more fundamental to the team than losing starting quarterback Rohan Williams who went to Japan. Up stepped receiver Locklan Gilbert, who had backed up Rohan the year before. Of course gaining Locklan at quarterback meant losing him at receiver, and Locklan is an Australian representative so he was a big loss out wide. Luckily for the Blitz, Terry Niessen returned from Canada to play receiver, boosting our receiving corps immensely. We also lost running backs Loko Thompson and D Kahuroa so both the running and passing games were hit hard.
On the defensive side our squad was decimated in the off-season, losing 9 starters!!! (Mike Rose, captain Dave Cox, Darragh Farrell, Tyson Hornby, Matt Dulaney, Toby Hall, Nic Nottingham, Basti Ruediger and defensive MVP Mark Gaffney). Dudley Taylor stepped up to assume the captaincy and so the defense was effectively built from scratch around Dudley by new defensive coach Steve ‘Dozer’ Mathews.
Luckily for the Blitz we had recruited hard in the off-season and had a batch of excellent new players, many of whom became instant starters. The Blitz have always recruited strongly and this year was no exception.
I missed the first 2 games of the year as I was in the US but we won both in unimpressive performances, 22-14 over the Broncos and 14-12 over the Jets. Understandably our new offense was slow in gelling. The surprise was how well we played on defense. Despite losing so many players we were very strong defensively and all the credit goes to Dozer and Dudley for their leadership with this young unit.
Another narrow win, 30-24, over the Saints put us at 3-0 but we knew we were not a good team at that point. And we were about to face the Vipers and Steelers. Sure enough, they showed us up and we lost both games 0-38 and 6-10 respectively. We knew we had a lot of work to do. Subsequent losses to the fast improving Broncos (6-32), Saints (30-40) and Vipers again (18-28) put us at 6-5 and in a terrible position. We were staring down the barrel of potentially a losing season and missing out on a playoff spot (which would surely have seen me dumped as coach – and rightly so).
We needed to win our remaining 3 games to ensure a place in the finals. Our defense delivered, allowing just 12 points in those 3 games, giving us a regular season record of 9-5 and getting us into post-season play. It wasn’t a pretty regular season and we were still very inconsistent on offense, averaging just 22 points a game, but in the playoffs anything can happen and we knew what we were capable of.
We had beaten the Steelers 22-6 in the penultimate regular season game so we knew we had the formula to beat them in the semi final. We stuck to the game plan and deserved our win 18-8. That put us in our 4th final in 5 years and up against our old enemy the Vipers. We had not beaten the Vipers all season so it was only right that we should have to beat them to become champions.
As it turned out we had 2 weeks to prepare for the grand final. That was a double edged sword for us as, although it gave us time to heal, it resulted in us losing a couple of key players who were unavailable. But it did allow us plenty of time to gameplan for the final and we had lots of game film of both prospective opponents. Once we knew it was going to be the Vipers we worked very hard to come up with a scheme that we thought would stop their offense while giving us the best chance to score. We worked bloody hard that week at training and it didn’t come together until late on the last session but when the game started it was pretty clear from very early that we had a formula to stop the Vipers offense.
Meanwhile our offensive line had been steadily improving all season and as a result our running game was strong. Lui Luaiva pounded the ball hard all day and ran for an astounding 222 yards on 23 carries and 2 touchdowns in an MVP performance. That allowed Locklan Gilbert room to run himself and he notched up another 85 yards on the ground and a score. He also completed 6 passes for 93 yards and 2 touchdowns, with both going to Terry Niessen. We jumped out to a 20-0 lead until the Vipers finally got things going and started to move the ball. But as they scored, so did we and so the scores went to 26-6 and then 32-12 before they made a final onslaught with 3 unanswered scores to make it 32-30. Luckily for us we held strong at the death and took away our first ever championship.
The fact that we had such a high turnover of players this season and were still successful is a credit to Scott Smith and the Blitz committee who have placed the club in an excellent off the field position. Specific credit also must go to Steve Mathews who had to balance playing and coaching the defense.
This championship was a long time coming and I’m delighted for the players who have put in so much effort for the Blitz. They deserve this win. The Blitz have a short but proud history and it is fantastic to finally have our first win. I am so proud of our guys and delighted to have been a part of it. I look forward to many more successful Blitz campaigns to come. This really is a team of champions.
Perth Blitz Gridiron Club