The rise of the Rosellas

For a long time Cheltenham’s standing in Division 1 of the Southern was a bit like a Matchbox Twenty tune, middle of the road.

The Rosellas have stayed in the top flight since 1996, but neither seriously challenged for a flag nor flirted with relegation.

They would appear in the finals here and there, then drop back to sixth or seventh. They couldn’t rise to the highest rungs.

This year, they have. They’re the resurgent Rosellas, and on Saturday they will play for the Division 1 premiership, against Shane Morwood’s Dingley, at the redeveloped Moorabbin ground.

Chelt’s most recent flag was in 1995, in what was then the second division of Southern.

But their last flag in a first division competition was in 1934, adding an historical element to the grand final.

“We need Chelt strong,’’ has been a refrain from Southern officials over the years, and under the coaching of Des Ryan the Rosellas have developed into an excellent team.

Ryan took over in 2016, joining the club after an association with nearby Beaumaris.

Des Ryan is in his fourth year with the Rosellas.
Des Ryan is in his fourth year with the Rosellas.

As he arrived, some key players departed, and the Rosellas finished at 7-10 that year, with a respectable percentage of 91.14.

“It was a bit of a start-again year,’’ former Richmond defender and Frankston VFL captain Ryan said.

Chelt improved to 9-9 in 2017 and were 9-9 against last year.

This season they climbed to 13-5 to finish third on the ladder and take their place in the finals for the first time in five years. They defeated East Malvern in the qualifying final and routed Dingley in the second semi.

“I feel we’ve got better every year, played a style of footy I’m more happy with, an honest brand, I guess,’’ Ryan said.

“We had a habit of starting slowly and coming home strong. This year we’ve been more consistent. Our highest losing margin was three goals. The other losses were by under two goals. We’ve really pared it back this year, to that contested footy, an honest, defensive brand. We build our game around honest efforts.’’

Cheltenham captain Jack Worrell.
Cheltenham captain Jack Worrell.

Much was expected of Cheltenham this year after it recruited leading Sandringham VFL players Myke Cook and Dylan Weickhardt, as well as former Sydney Swans NEAFL player Jack Davis.

During the season it also brought in two other former Zebras, ruckman Charlie Kelso and bull-at-a-gate midfielder Rob Iudica.

In a blow for the Rosellas, they lost VFL-listed key forward Josh Fox to an ACL in the pre-season, and Cook suffered the same injury in Round 3. Jackson Barclay also hurt his knee, though not as severely.

Underlining its depth, Chelt pushed on to a top-three finish, Fox’s absence covered by fellow key forwards Will McTaggart (46 goals) and Sean McLaren.

Ryan has also introduced a youthful zest to the line-up by blooding teenagers Cam Blitsas, Luke Garnaut and Finn Ryan (his son).

Blitsas and Garnaut both had a run with Sandringham Dragons this year in the NAB League, and have often been seen on the last line of the Cheltenham defence, as steady as a stream. Ryan is a tall forward and ripening into an exciting prospect.

Half back Sam Hayes and onballer Anthony Malamas are a little older but no less energetic.

“You know what you’re going to get with young blokes,’’ Ryan noted. “They’ll give you everything they’ve got. We’ve been really happy with how they’ve fitted in and performed. They’ve been helped along the way by some of our older heads in Cook and Weickhardt, Barclay and our captain (Jack Worrell).’’

Will McTaggart has been in fine form for Cheltenham.
Will McTaggart has been in fine form for Cheltenham.

Chelt has already reappointed Ryan for next year. President John Graham said Ryan, “tough but fair and a very caring person’’, had done an outstanding job.

“He’s performed above and beyond,’’ he said.

“He takes an interest in all the sides. He was instrumental in getting the Under 19s up and running this year, and he’s played a few of them too.’’

Ryan said the club’s committee had given him unstinting support.

“We’ve been able to stick to a plan of developing the list and the young guys, and integral to that is our junior club in Chelt Panthers. We talk about Cam Blitsas and Luke Garnaut and Cam Taylor, they all came through the Panthers,’’ he said. “It’s invaluable to have that feeder program.’’

A revitalised Cheltenham has generated interest in Southern from outside the competition; at a Springvale bowls club last Tuesday morning, two old-timers were yarning about the Division 1 grand final and mentioned 1934.

Mid-season addition Rob Iudica.
Mid-season addition Rob Iudica.

Ryan said excitement was closer to home too.

“We have past players’ days and we generally go to them to catch up with mates we haven’t seen for a while, take that one opportunity a year,’’ he said.

“But to have past players coming along the finals shows they’re really keen about what’s happening. I’ve encouraged our boys to enjoy that aspect of it.’’

He’s also seen how much enjoyment it has brought people like Col and Sue Anderson, who have given years of service in administration.

Chelt easily accounted for Dingley in the second semi-final to shoot to premiership favouritism.

But Ryan said Shane Morwood’s Dingoes, premiers in 2016, ‘17 and ’18, would be a formidable opponent.

“They’re a very proud footy club and a very successful footy club,’’ he said.

“We’ve got the greatest respect for Dingley.’’