The Peter Jackson VFL’s oldest clubs will this week battle it out for the 250th time in their history, when Port Melbourne hosts Williamstown at North Port Oval on Saturday.
It’s the latest chapter in a storied history that dates back to 1886 when the Borough joined the competition – two years after the Seagulls – and has morphed from an at-times brutal rivalry to a modern one founded on mutual respect.
While the tales of battles between players – and fans – from before the turn of the 21st century are the stuff of folklore, today’s rivalry has adapted to the Seagulls returning to standalone status after being aligned to AFL clubs from 2001-13. They now join the Borough on their own feet in a challenging state-league environment.
The historical numbers say Port Melbourne has won 26 more head-to-head games than Williamstown and that both clubs have claimed 16 VFA/VFL premierships in their time, the Seagulls beating the Borough in grand finals four times and Port Melbourne trumping Williamstown twice.
But current Borough captain Toby Pinwill and his Seagulls counterpart Ben Jolley understand better than most that the rivalry today is about more than the history.
While in a bygone era it may have been sacrilege to suggest so, the VFL stalwarts are happy to admit to mutual respect based on the clubs’ similarities.
“I think the teams you hate the most are the ones you respect the most,” said 32-year-old Pinwill, a player at Port Melbourne since 2005 and captain since 2015. “We see things in the Williamstown boys that I guess are similar to what we see in ourselves at Port Melbourne.
“They’re a strong club with great leaders and they’re super competitive all the time. Even when they were aligned with the Bulldogs (from 2008-13), the Williamstown VFL list was really strong. I respect that they then took the decision to go standalone (in 2014), and it’s great to see a standalone VFL club be successful.
“I definitely think a bond (between the clubs) has re-emerged since they’ve gone standalone.”
31-year-old Jolley – a VFL player since 2005 and Williamstown captain since 2012 – agreed that each club could easily understand the challenges faced by the other.
“Every bloke (at standalone clubs) has either spent the week at full-time university or full-time work – or juggling the two,” Jolley said. “You’ve got that understanding that as much as the game of football is important and the rivalry runs deep, as soon as the game’s over we go back to normal life.
“And on a Tuesday and Thursday night at training when there’s a 20-knot breeze blowing from the bay and the temperature’s in single digits, both clubs understand what that’s like – the Port Melbourne blokes are sort of cut from the same cloth.
“I think the parallels are quite easy to draw: a number of players from both sides have ticked over the 100-game mark, we’re both coached by former Hawthorn premiership players (Andy Collins at Williamstown and Gary Ayres at Port Melbourne) and geographically we’re both by the water in working-class regions of inner Melbourne. That probably illustrates why the rivalry is so strong – because there’s not much that separates the teams.”
Pinwill rated the Borough’s 56-point VFL premiership triumph over the Seagulls in 2011 – capping an undefeated season for Port Melbourne – as one of his most memorable moments from the rivalry in recent times.
He pointed to the acquisition of goalkickers Dean Galea and Patrick Rose – “two of the people we hated playing against the most” – from Williamstown as key factors in that flag campaign, while battles against other enemies have continued to the present day.
“Ben Jolley’s probably the one that comes to mind the most,” Pinwill said of his most admired Seagulls opponents. “He’s the consummate professional, and you know every time you play against him that you’re going to be in for a challenge.
“Brett Goodes was also a super player who could turn the game, and he got the better of us a few times. Now there’s the likes of Adam Marcon, big Nick Meese and Willie Wheeler. I remember we were getting beat a few years ago and Willie said to me: ‘Give it away Pinwill, you’re too old!’ … Obviously I didn’t take his advice.”
Jolley returned the favour, saying he and Pinwill had “always battled pretty hard against one another”, but the 246-game veteran also sees some of himself in Pinwill’s predecessor as Borough skipper.
“As an older player now, I remember looking up to John Baird and seeing his longevity in the game and his continual ability to perform,” Jolley said. “He set a perfect example for me for how I want to carry out my VFL career.”
During that long career, Jolley has been on the end of all kinds of results in games against the old rival. While Saturday’s clash between second-placed Williamstown and third-placed Port Melbourne promises a close encounter, his experience means he won’t be taking anything for granted, saying that “regardless of where the two sides sit on the ladder, there’s the potential to be comprehensively defeated or to have one of those famous victories.”
Pinwill said he always felt the added tension in games against Williamstown, and that every match-up had the potential to be an “epic”.
“Without Willy throughout the years, I think the legend of Port Melbourne’s not as strong – and I think the legend of Williamstown is not as strong without Port Melbourne,” he said. “As much as you hate each other, I think you rely on each other to bring out your best.”
Hopefully for VFL fans, instalment number 250 will add to both legends.
Joined VFL: 1886
16 premierships: 1897, 1901, 1922, 1940, 1941, 1947, 1953, 1964 (d Williamstown), 1966, 1974, 1976, 1977, 1980, 1981, 1982, 2011 (d Williamstown)
Joined VFL: 1884
16 premierships: 1907, 1921, 1939, 1945 (d Port Melbourne), 1949, 1954 (d Port Melbourne), 1955 (d Port Melbourne), 1956 (d Port Melbourne), 1958, 1959, 1969 (Division 2), 1976 (Division 2), 1986, 1990, 2003, 2015
HEAD TO HEAD
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