Hockey players in the Wimmera are eagerly looking forward to Saturday when competition hockey returns for the first time in a year and a half after the entire 2020 season was abandoned.

After 581 days with no competition, the first round of the Wimmera Hockey Association 2021 season will be played on Anzac Park in Warracknabeal, but it will look slightly different to recent years. Along with the expected social distancing requirements, there will be two fewer teams, and teams will play with nine players per team on the field, down from the usual eleven, to help those struggling to field a full team.

The Dimboola club does not have the players available to field an Under 16 team, and Warracknabeal will not be entering a Women’s team, which has introduced a bye into both of these divisions.

With no competition games for eighteen months, the form of all teams will be unknown going into the first round. Most teams have lost players since they last played, and those who are left will be that little bit older. Several clubs have recruited some new players, but their abilities are yet to be experienced.

Above - Yanac won the trifecta in 2019 - premierships in all three competitions - and will be aiming for a third such achievement when the 2021 season hits off at Warracknabeal’s Anzac Park.

The action hits off on this morning at 11 am with a replay of the 2019 Women’s grand final with reigning premiers, Yanac Women, taking on the Dimboola Roos, with both tipped to be missing members of their grand final teams.

Most interest will be in Dimboola’s line-up, which will feature several former Warracknabeal players after an agreement to allow the latter club’s players to continue to be involved despite not fielding a team in its own name.

These two teams have enjoyed a fierce rivalry dating back twenty years to 2004 when Dimboola won their first premiership in forty years by defeating Warrack Women, the most dominant team of the era. Although they are yet to meet in another season-decider, they have played out many thrilling encounters during the seasons since.

It is great to see that this rivalry has been put aside in the best interests of both clubs and the competition, as another team would have been lost without this collaboration.

In the other Women’s game, Kaniva Women might prove to be a surprise this season as one of the few teams to have plenty of players on their roster. As a team that has rarely progressed to the finals, this could be their year.

Today they take on Nhill Thunderbirds, who can field a mix of youth and experience but may also struggle for numbers.

Horsham Jets have the bye and will start their season in round two.

The Open competition will still feature three games per round with no bye, and the nine players per side format should lead to some very even contests.

It is hard to imagine a team with such a proud history as the Yanac Tigers, who have played in all but two grand finals in the 29 seasons they have played in this Association, falling far off the pace. Their first-up opponent, the Dimboola Burras, have been very close to a grand final appearance over recent seasons and will look to go at least one better this year.

An intense rivalry between the Kaniva Cobras and Nhill Rangers will ensure that this game will be fiercely contested regardless of the personnel who take the field.

The Warrack Hoops will be missing at least a third of their 2019 grand final team, creating the opportunity for the next generation of players to step up and fill the gaps, whilst the Horsham Hurricanes have struggled to field a consistent starting team for some years now, so the pressure for players this season will not work in their favour. This should still prove to be a very closely fought match as players find form after a year off.

The Under 16 competition reigning premiers, the Yanac Warriors, have another week off with the bye, giving the other teams the chance to set the pace from the start.

With the regular enforced changes in personnel between seasons due to top-age players moving on, this grade’s early form will be even harder to predict than usual.

The first game will see Kaniva Raiders play the Nhill Leopards, followed by the Warrack Revengers taking on the Horsham Bombers

By this evening, we will have a better, albeit far from complete, idea of where the teams stand after such a long break, although the two teams with the bye will remain a mystery for another week.