NT Thunder faces one of the more difficult challenges of the NEAFL in Round 19 on Saturday when it travels to Henson Park to take on Sydney University.
The Students sit third on the ladder with 11 wins and four losses, but a loss to Thunder would allow the fourth-placed NT side to pull level on wins.
University opened the season with six straight victories and after 12 Rounds had only lost one match – to ladder leaders the Sydney Swans.
In the six rounds since Round 12 though, the Students have lost three games from five matches, falling behind the Swans and Brisbane, which have only lost one and two games respectively.
Despite the apparent slump in form, all University’s losses have come at the hands of AFL clubs Sydney and Brisbane and in their previous encounter in Round 10 at TIO Stadium in Darwin the Students defeated Thunder by 68 points.
Thunder can take confidence though from its record on the road this season, with four wins out of five attempts. The stand-out was a 146-point loss to the Swans in Round 17, but up to eight first-choice players were missing from that line-up.
When they mostly returned, including captain and on-baller Shannon Rioli, first ruck Ryan Smith and key backman Justin Beugelaar, injecting 415 games of experience into the team that played Southport last weekend, the impact was immediate.
Thunder booted 17 goals to Southport’s two in the first half for a 96-point lead at the main break. The Sharks hit back in the third to reduce the margin to 51-points at three-quarter-time, but Thunder’s experienced players helped steady the ship in the last for a 47-point victory.
Thunder coach Andrew Hodges says it was pleasing to see the side respond in the way it did.
“The group showed some really good mental strength to bounce back, especially early in the game, after the result against the Sydney Swans so it was very pleasing,” he said.
“It was great to get back some experienced players on the weekend, but it was also great to see some of the young guys perform really well – Nicky Yarran, Abraham Ankers, Sam Smith, these guys who are in their first season at Thunder really bounced back and two of those guys did play in the Sydney Swans game and it was fantastic to see them play well on the weekend against Southport.”
Sydney University will be another challenge though, especially on its home ground.
“They’re a really good side, they’re one of the benchmark sides in the competition,”
Hodges said. “They had a really good win last week (against Aspley), obviously they beat us here at home earlier in the season so it’s going to be a really tough challenge to go down to Henson Park and take them on but it’s a challenge we’re looking forward to.”
One of the negatives to emerge from last week’s victory for Thunder was a number of injuries with Adam Sambono, Michael Coombes, Jack Shannahan, Tony Olango and Justin Beugelaar either hampered during or unable to take the field in the second half.
“At this stage we’re going through some medical reviews, we don’t know our exact make up of the side, but at this stage we don’t have any serious injuries and we have some extra guys who potentially will be available – Jonathan Peris and Michael Hagan are looking in pretty good shape for this week,” Hodges said.
Anything less than Thunder’s best will make it very difficult against a side brimming with talent, including former AFL players Xavier Richards who can hold down key positions in attack and defence and on-baller Tom Young who’s been one of the best on-ballers through the season.
Thunder found its mojo again last week though and it’s mix of youth and experience can really damage teams if given any space to run and carry.
University repeatedly punished Aspley last week on the turnover so Thunder’s best chance of winning against their highly fancied opponents is to withstand that defensive pressure while also applying their own to create space for their pace to take over and put scores on the board.
Saturday 5 August
NEAFL Round 19: Sydney University vs NT Thunder – Saturday 2:00pm, Henson Park, Marrickville