Oakleigh Chargers' Jagga Smith picks up one of his 30 disposals in Round 1. (Photo: BLAIR BURNS)

Eastern Ranges and Oakleigh Chargers battled it out in Round 1 of the Coates Talent League season on Sunday with accurate kicking from the Ranges proving to be the difference as they ran away to win by 28 points, 13.4 (82) to 7.12 (54).

It was one of the most anticipated midfield match-ups of the season and spectators didn’t have to wait long to see some of the most exciting 2024 AFL draft prospects battle it out in the first round encounter at Trevor Barker Oval.

Five potential top prospects in this year’s draft pool played in this opening round clash with plenty of midfield talent on display.

Oakleigh Chargers trio of Finn O’Sullivan, Jagga Smith and Tom Gross have all been floated as potential number one prospects while Eastern Ranges’ Christian Moraes and Josh Smillie are also ranked among the best talent in the league.

Oakleigh finished the game winning the scoring shots 19-17 as well as the inside-50 count 43-36, but it wasn’t enough as Ranges barely missed when kicking for goal. The side kicked eight straight goals before they recorded their first behind of the game not long before half time. Ranges also won the disposal count 281-256 and marks 60-43.

Oakleigh started the game well when Zane Cochrane cut off a kick out from full back just two minutes into the match, before going back and putting it through for the first goal of the game.

Smillie put his strength on display early in the match as he broke away from a forward-50 stoppage and slammed a left foot snap through the big sticks to kick his team’s first major of the day and prove how dangerous he can be around the contest.

Another highlight for the Ranges was a centre-square bomb from Mitchell Gamel which sailed through and got the boys up and about midway through the first term.

The first quarter was an arm-wrestle as neither side was able to really stamp their authority on the game and while the play was free flowing from end-to-end. Ranges took a three-point lead into the first break thanks to a goal just before the siren from Jak Ryan which put Eastern in front.

Oakleigh continued to push hard against last year’s grand finalists, but it wasn’t enough as some incredibly straight kicking in front of goal stretched the margin further and further as the game progressed.

The lead turned into 13 points at half time and then 22 points at the final break and the Chargers would’ve needed something special to spark a comeback. The margin got out to 28 points at the final siren while the effective ball use of Ryan late in the match was a focal point.

No forward was able to get more than two goals on the day with both midfield groups drifting forward and having a big impact on the scoreboard. Smith was a standout for Oakleigh while Smillie was best on ground for the winning side.

Ranges’ defender, Cooper Trembath pulls down a big mark late in the fourth quarter on Sunday. (Photo: BLAIR BURNS)

Smith had stellar start to the season, the small and crafty Chargers midfielder had the footy on a string. He amassed 30 disposals and impressed with his evasive agility as opponents were seemingly unable to tackle him. He provided a great driving force for the side going forward with eight inside-50s and is incredibly smart in finding the right option, generally by foot – he also received five free kicks. The only thing that could’ve perhaps made his game better is if he took his opportunities to hit the scoreboard more effectively.

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Another highly touted prospect who was impressive through the Oakleigh midfield was Gross. Like Smith, he isn’t the tallest midfielder, but his work rate and stoppage work stood out on the day. He finished with impressive numbers including 26 disposals, eight tackles and a goal. Gross provided plenty of grunt in the engine room and stood up while O’Sullivan was struggling through injury.

To round out a star-studded midfield, Pat Retschko used the ball well and managed to help out at both ends with five inside 50s and three rebound 50s to go along with his 18 disposals on the day. O’Sullivan wasn’t at his usual damaging best due to fracturing his left thumb in the first quarter which he battled with as he played out the game.

On the winning side of the fence, Eastern Ranges showed that they will again be a formidable side in 2024 and have strong aspirations to go one better than last season.

Smillie was the Ranges’ best player on the day boosting his draft stocks with an exciting performance which included two goals, 24 disposals, as well as plenty of clearances and broken tackles. His sheer size and strength around the contest made him stand out to onlookers.

Christian Moraes who was one of the team’s best and most consistent midfielders last season started his 2024 campaign impressively with a very complete game. He spent a little bit of time on the half-forward line and had great impact kicking two goals. He was slick through the middle of the ground finishing with 25 disposals, seven marks and five tackles. His burst from the stoppage made him a tough match-up for opponents.

Another strong performer for Ranges was tall defender, Cooper Trembath who showed some really good signs in defence, playing undersized for a lot of the game and getting the job done to perfection. He took seven marks in defence including a massive high-flying mark late in the match. But it was his ability to win the ball that stood out as he collected 22 disposals.

It will be another tough test for Oakleigh Chargers this Saturday when they take on the reigning premiers, Sandringham Dragons, while Eastern Ranges will look to continue their early momentum against Northern Knights on Friday.

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