Jack Steven may not have been in his customary red, white and black, but his return was a welcome sight for all football fans on Sunday afternoon.
The 29-year-old was prominent against Footscray with 21 disposals, three marks and three tackles across three quarters before sitting out the final term in a pre-arranged move.
Steven lined up for 15 of the 16 centre bounces by three-quarter time, with his blistering pace and trademark bursts through congestion on show.
But even with the four-time Trevor Barker Award-winner’s inclusion, the Zebras weren’t able to clinch victory, going down 8.10 (58) to 13.14 (95) against a polished Bulldogs outfit.
Footscray’s scoring from stoppage (9.7) ultimately put the game out of reach despite Sandringham’s promising start, as too did their ascendancy in contested possessions (+25), ground-ball gets and efficiency inside 50m (64%).
The Zebras took the game on late and upped their intensity despite having three on the bench in the last, but by then the damage had already been done.
Bailey Rice was nevertheless a massive influence throughout, amassing a career-high 27 disposals – 10 of which were gathered in the first term – along with eight marks and four tackles to be best on ground for Sandringham.
Rice did it all for the Zebras, spending time up forward, down back and through the midfield in a desperate attempt to will his side to victory.
As always, the gritty defender refused to throw in the towel, warranting praise from coach Aaron Hamill post-match.
“I reckon everyone in here would put their hand up and say, 'you’re doing a bloody good job under difficult circumstances',” Hamill said to Rice in front of the playing group post-match.
“Don’t be defined by wins and losses; be defined by whether or not you can be trusted to play your role.”
Rice was joined by close mate Brandon White (31 disposals, 10 marks) among the best afield, whose precise ball use and clean execution across half-back only bolstered his chances of a senior recall.
Sam Rowe (18 hit-outs, one goal) and David Armitage (14 disposals, six marks, three tackles) offered valuable experience and composure at the coalface, but both ultimately fell to respective ankle and concussion issues in the second half.
Rowe was tried up forward and booted a handy goal in the shadows of the third term, before Jonathon Marsh was thrown in front of the ball late in the game.
Ed Phillips’ comeback from a hamstring injury was without incident, resulting in a handy 21-disposal return, while Jack Mayo (13 disposals, one goal) flanked the No. 30 along the opposite wing for most of the afternoon.
For the secon week running, defenders Marsh and Oscar Clavarino were aerially impressive with eight marks each.
Joining the duo in defence was newcomer Daniel McKenzie, whose gruntish approach bore six tackles, while Robbie Young was tossed into the midfield sporadically – before becoming a mainstay following the loss of Armitage – to chalk up five tackles of his own.
Sandringham will return to Wilson Storage Trevor Barker Beach Oval to face Casey for the 2019 Pride Cup.
SANDRINGHAM 2.1 3.5 5.5 8.10 (58)
FOOTSCRAY 1.6 4.9 9.15 13.17 (95)
Sandringham: Haidon 2, Fox, Mayo, Phillips, Hille, Marsh, Rowe
Footscray: Gleeson 3, Edwards 2, Gowers 2, Scott 2, William 2, Boyd, McComb
Sandringham: Rice, White, Steven, Armitage, Rowe, Seccull, Phillips
Footscray: West, Gleeson, Sweet, Morris, Scott, Roberts, McComb