Blue Skies – Part 1: Developing into Champions

Credit: Solstice Digital.

On Saturday October 17, 2020 at UTAS Stadium, the Launceston Blues won the TSL Development League, TSLW and TSL Premierships all on the same day in the one location.

In a year where the Tasmanian State League almost didn’t happen due to COVID-19, the club’s triumph is a collective story of overcoming adversity, with each side having its own tale to tell.

When Kane Sanders took over as coach of Launceston’s development side for the 2020 season, he faced the tough prospect of turning around a side that finished last on the ladder in 2019.

A former senior captain and dual Best and Fairest winner with the Blues, Sanders said it was the right time in his life to return to the club.

“It was an opportunity to get back into footy, to go back to the footy club after a long hiatus,” he said.

He acknowledged that it can be tough to return to your old club, but felt he was prepared after going away and being an assistant coach at Longford.

“I think there is a bit of pressure because people have a preconceived idea of what you are and how you would be as a coach,” he said.

“But it was the right time to come back and it felt like the right thing to do.”

Adding to the usual stresses of being a first-year coach, Sanders had to deal with the difficulties of navigating a global pandemic, with the season delayed and looking like it wouldn’t happen at one stage.

“It was strange because you don’t have the one on one interaction, you’re using Skype or Zoom and we had to get together in groups of twos or fours,” he said.

“We had to keep evolving or changing our training methods just in case a season went ahead.”

He said dealing with some of the restrictions (like only training in groups of 10) was tough, especially as he was trying to connect to the whole group.

“That was difficult because I only had interactions with one group of guys and I’m not getting across the whole group,” he said.

“In essence, I’m only coaching 10 people out of 30. It was frustrating for me as a first-year coach because I needed to get to know all these players because their new and fresh to me, and I’m fresh to them.”

Sanders praised his assistants and the playing group for gelling like they did under the circumstances, especially after finishing last the season before.

This was on full display from the first game, when the Blues posted a six-goal win over Glenorchy on the road.

“To go into Round One and get a win straight on the board was really good and it was really important going forward,” Sanders said.

(Kane Sanders after being announced as coach. Picture: Launceston Football Club)

While Sanders celebrated his first milestone as coach, ruckman Hamish Leedham notched up one of his own later that day.

Leedham played his 100th senior game against Glenorchy that Saturday, a significant achievement for the former co-captain.

The big man celebrated in style, amassing 47 hit outs and four clearances in a performance that saw him poll three votes in the Alastair Lynch Medal (the league’s Best and Fairest).

It was also his last senior game for the entire season.

Leedham was dropped the following week for Tim Auckland, who had returned to the club after playing in the SANFL with Central District.

“It was definitely tough, but I’ve been pretty lucky at Launceston. I’ve been here for seven to eight years and not had heaps of competition for the last four,” Leedham said on the experience.

“It was obviously hard to deal with at the time, but in hindsight, it was probably a better thing to have happen. Just even if you are playing well, there are other people who can potentially do what you do, if not better.”

He could have taken the decision as a slight, especially after calling the number one ruck spot his own and being a former co-captain, but saw it as an opportunity to better himself and the team.

“It would have been easy to go the other way, have a bit of a sook about what had happened and say, ‘I’m not going to worry about playing well, I should be playing seniors but I’m playing development league so I’ll just have a cry about it and go in half-hearted’. But that doesn’t put anyone in a better position, so I thought I might as well go back have a decent crack.

“There’s a lot of promising young guys in the development league, so if I can go back and help them as well as play my role, it’s beneficial for me and the team.”

This attitude was reflected in the way he played, immediately becoming a leader within the team due to his experience and the presence he brought.

(Hamish Leedham in action. Picture: Solstice Digital)

It was due to the efforts of players like Leedham the development side saw such a drastic rise in 2020.

After only winning three games in 2019, Launceston only lost one game on its way to a Grand Final berth.

This success was mirrored in the senior side, who were also set for deep finals action.

“I think having a development side playing well and putting pressure on the senior side actually makes them better because there are guys knocking on the door for selection,” Sanders said.

But with only 22 spots in the senior team, it inevitably meant there would be some unlucky players who missed out.

Leedham dominated in the ruck and claimed the Rodney Eade Medal as the Development League’s Best and Fairest.

But he still could not get his spot back in the senior side, with Auckland keeping him out and Joe Groenewegen being selected over him when the side opted for a second big man later in the season.

“That sort of man-management can be quite difficult,” Sanders admitted.

“But I think if you keep the communication lines open and you’re honest with each other it can work quite well, which it did for us.”

Leedham was hardly the only person in that position, with several experienced players like Jack Donnellan, Grant Holt, James Gillow and Bowen Pearce in the same boat.

Sanders stressed how proud he was of those guys and how much of a help they had been to the young group, saying their commitment was a crucial part of being a strong development team.

“It’s not a demotion, as an experienced player ‘I’m here to help the kids’ and ‘I’m here to get myself back into the senior side’,” he said.

“To me that’s a true development team, you’ve got guys trying to get into the seniors and you’ve some under 18 kids who want to play D-League because they see that as a steppingstone. That’s true development, because your club’s developing as one.”

(The team photo on Grand Final day. Picture: Solstice Digital)

The big day finally arrived when Launceston took on cross-town rivals, North Launceston, in the Development League Grand Final.

The wet conditions meant the match was a tight contested struggle, with only five goals kicked for the entire game.

It ultimately came down to the final minutes, when the game rested on the boot of Jayden Hinds after he received a high free.

Both Sanders and Leedham recalled that Hinds had missed a similar shot earlier that quarter, but he didn’t make the same mistake the second time around.

The goal gave the Blues a three-point lead, which they held onto as the clock ran out.

(Launceston celebrating the victory. Picture: Solstice Digital)

It was the first Grand Final Leedham had played in and one he’ll certainly remember.

He was awarded best on ground honours, but remained humble when describing the achievement.

“It’s definitely good to have, but I reckon you could pick five guys from that day who deserved it as much as me, if not more,” he said.

Sanders credited his side’s never give up ethos for the win, while also contextualizing the significance of the Premiership within the club’s “all or nothing, three in three out” attitude that it brought to its three Grand Finals that day.

“That’s why it was really important for our D-League to get off to a good start, to get the positive energy going through the day. If we had lost who knows what would have happened later on.”

(Hamish Leedham getting his medal as best on ground. Picture: Solstice Digital)

Looking onto this year, Leedham will have an even stronger role with the Development team after becoming an assistant coach.

“I thoroughly enjoyed the year and Kane spoke to me post-season and said I have a plan for you if you’re sticking around. I’ve been here for eight years and it’s definitely a great club to be at, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else,” Leedham said.

“Obviously I want to be playing seniors, I’m going to put the work in and try as hard as I can in that aspect to get that going, but to be able to help the guys out in the D-League, I’ll really enjoy it.”

“He’s got a lot to offer, I wanted to enhance that and help with that. He speaks really well and all the young fellas look up to him,” Sanders said when talking about Leedham’s new role.

(Kane Sanders and Hamish Leedham. Picture: Launceston Football Club)

In a year where the world stopped moving, Launceston’s Development team grew into something special.

Going from cellar dwellers to Premiers, its story is one of what football teams can achieve even when faced with unexpected odds.

(Picture: Solstice Digital)

About Hamish Spence 52 Articles
Hamish writes about Aussie Rules, cricket, basketball and all things Tasmanian sport for The Inner Sanctum. His experience includes working for organisations like 10 News First, AFL Tasmania, The Mercury, the TSL, the Hobart Hurricanes and Draft Central. He recently finished a media degree at The University of Tasmania.

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