By Murray Silby
“When they finish up their footy careers with NT Thunder they will leave a massive legacy with the football club, being there from day dot, and they’re a big part of what the club is today and what it stands for.”
The pair Thunder coach Andrew Hodges is talking about is club legends Darren “Boof” Ewing and Cameron Ilett.
They may be advancing in years, but the two foundation players, who have lined up for Thunder since its inception in 2009, underlined their undiminished talent and value to the club by taking home more individual honours from the 2017 NEAFL awards night.
Ilett finished runner-up in the NEAFL MVP award, having led by four votes into the final round while Ewing took home his third consecutive NEAFL leading goal-kicker award with 61 goals.
It’s fair to say that despite the discussions around retirement in Ilett’s case and possible retirement in Ewing’s, they’d still be walk up starts in just about any NEAFL side, perhaps even the AFL clubs, whose agendas can be a little different to many of the league’s other clubs.
A five-time club champion, Ilett is one of the most decorated and respected players to have played in the competition. In a stellar 2011 he captained Thunder to premierships in both the NEAFL’s northern and eastern conference when the league was divided into two and its overall championship. He also won the medal for best on ground in that championship final.
He’s been named in the NEAFL team of the year six times – four times as captain – and in the QAFL team of the year twice.
Ewing has been the club’s leading goal-kicker for every one of the club’s eight years, including 115 in 2011 when he became the first NEAFL player to kick a ton. He booted his 700th goal in Thunder colours during the 2017 season and was the Northern Conference’s leading goal-kicker in 2011 and 2013 when the NEAFL was split in two.
Ewing’s been named in the NEAFL’s (including the Northern conference) team of the year for seven consecutive seasons.
“They’re both the ultimate professionals in the way they train and prepare, play, they’ve just got that selfless attitude and put the club and team before themselves,” Hodges says of Ilett and Ewing.
“That’s really important when you’re building a culture at a club, that they are driving that. They do that really well.”
Former St Kilda and Brisbane player in the AFL Xavier Clarke is now an assistant coach at Richmond in the AFL and coached both Ilett and Ewing when he was in charge of Thunder for the 2014, 15 and 16 seasons.
“I think people probably underestimate a little bit how vital they have been to the club,” Clarke said.
“They’ve been there from the start, from when Thunder started in 2009. Those boys, they’d have plenty of excuses not to play on year-to-year and when things did get tough, Thunder obviously has its knockers, those guys stuck fat, they always turned up, they always delivered on their word.
“Both are ultimate professionals and great to have around the footy club.”
Clarke said it was great for him in his first coaching role to have two such experienced and professional players to lean on at times, and not always for serious reasons.
“The best thing about Boof, and even Cam, I think we take footy too seriously sometimes these days and coaches are very much to blame for that, but those guys keep it pretty light hearted and you need to,” Clarke said.
“Boof loves a laugh. Sometimes in team meetings, I know his body is there, but sometimes I wonder if his mind is actually there,” Clarke says laughing, “but he’s a smart footballer. His game face is on when it needs to be.
“When he gets on the field he likes to have a joke with his opposition player. Especially when playing AFL teams, you know, he’s playing on some good quality opposition and he’s kicking goals on them, I think he likes a little bit of a sledge here or there.
“You know, ‘Good old plumber kicking goals on AFL defenders’. I think he likes to pull that one out every now and then.”
The pair has played in three Thunder premierships together and Ilett laughs when their relationship is described as “special”.
“Ah yeah, you could say it’s special,” Ilett says.
“Some players this year have made comment that we’re pretty tight and have a special connection, but I think the more time you spend with someone the greater the bond and to spend nine years at Thunder playing footy with Darren Ewing, this might sound corny, but it’s been an honour, it’s been a privilege and it’s a part I’ve really enjoyed.”
Honour seems to be a common thread that binds the pair, especially when one is discussing the other.
“It’s been a great honour playing with him,” Ewing says of Ilett. “He’s probably the best allround player I’ve ever played with. Just the way he prepares. He’s the hardest worker on our team. I’d probably be a lot better player if I worked as hard as he did.
“He’s just a machine and outside of football he’s a good family man and he’s been brought up by a great family and he’s just a great person.
“We’ve had some pretty good times. We room together when we go down to Brisbane so there’s a few good stories we’ll be able to look back on when we have our premiership reunions.
Ilett says it’s been important for both himself and Ewing to remind themselves occasionally why they play the game.
“Whilst we both are really professional and try to get the most out of ourselves, the reason why you play any sport is because you love it and enjoy it and the people you play with,” he says.
“I wouldn’t have done it for that long if I didn’t enjoy it.”
It’s been almost a decade that the pair have been involved with Thunder for and they’ve seen a raft of players come and go in that time, some of them legends of NT footy in their own right, but both agree that one stands out for outright talent – Ross Tungatalum.
Ewing says there was plenty of talent running around for Thunder in its 2011 premiership year, but one stood out.
“Andrew McLeod came back and played for us that year so that was awesome and we had a pretty good side of old blokes and young blokes so that was a really special year – the Ilett brothers (Cameron and Jarred), Shannon Rusca, Jason Roe, Iggy Valejo, Jake Dignan won the best and fairest and the medal in the grand final.
“But out of my nine years at Thunder, the bloke with the most talent would be Ross Tungatalum. He was just awesome,” Ewing says.
Ilett comes to a similar conclusion when asked about the most talented players he’s lined up with in Thunder colours.
“Early days we had some pretty talented players running around. Relton Roberts, Shane Thorne, Steven May and then as the years progressed Zephy Skinner was exceptional and Troy Taylor early days was playing really good footy.
“Then getting the opportunity to play with Andrew McLeod in 2011 was really special and in later years getting to play some footy with Nakia Cockatoo, Adam Sambono’s a bit of a freak and Francis Kinthari.
“There’s a couple of guys that I think people forget how talented they are. I’m a huge fan of the Rioli boys, Shannon and Benny. I think their talent is unbelievable.
“I’ve been very lucky to play with some pretty talented players, but Ross Tungatalum really sticks out for me. Just a freak of a player,” Ilett concludes.
Current Thunder coach Hodges says when Ilett and Ewing do step away from the club, the young squad they’ve been playing with this season will continue to draw on their experience in a range of ways.
“I think at the start of the year we talked about that we’ve reduced our average age from 24 down to 21-and-a-half or something like that,” Hodges says.
“We’ve got a lot of young guys around the group that are just starting their Thunder journey so it’s pretty exciting to see who’s going to be the next Cameron Ilett or the next Darren Ewing within the group that we’ve currently got.
“The Nick Yarrans, the Sam Smiths, the Michael Coombes, the Braedon McLeans, the footy club’s in really good hands with those guys.
“The opportunity that Cameron and Boof had to rub off on those guys over this season and even previously, it’s pretty exciting to see where we can go in the next few years.”
Clarke says that when the club history is written about the establishment and sustained success of NT Thunder, then Ilett and Ewing must be credited for its existence to the same degree as former AFL star Michael Long, former AFLNT boss Tony Frawley and the Thunder coaches.
“We talk about the coaches, Longy and Tony Frawley for setting up the footy club, but those two boys and Aaron Motlop, I’ll throw his name in there, I think deserve a lot of praise for being able to stick fat, play good footy and drive the club to what it is, and they’re certainly a big, big part of that,” Clarke said.
“Cammy’s the ultimate professional, but Boof’s very similar. Those two guys, a lot of people look up to them within the program, not only the NT Thunder program, but the NTFL as well. What those two guys have done for footy in general is great.”
Ewing says he gets great satisfaction from helping the younger players in the squad reach their potential.
“It really keeps me going the young blokes having them around,” he says. “When I first started I was only 21 or something like that 22, now I’m the old bloke.”
Likewise, Ilett says he admires what the whole Thunder program is achieving on and off the field.
It’s designed to utilise the power of Australian Rules Football in tackling anti-social behaviour, deliver educational outcomes and provide employment opportunities for Territorians.