by Murray Silby
Since the NT Thunder and Gold Coast Suns began playing each other in the NEAFL back in 2011 they’ve met 11 times and the Thunder has won all 11 clashes with the AFL club.
They’re undefeated and unless Thunder makes it 12 from 12 in their NEAFL elimination final at Metricon Stadium on the Gold Coast on Saturday it will be the end of their 2017 season.
Thunder missed out on hosting the final in Darwin due to it being defeated by Aspley last weekend. That allowed the Suns to secure fourth spot on the ladder, the home final, and pushed Thunder down to fifth.
Speaking after last Saturday’s loss to the Hornets, Thunder coach Andrew Hodges said he didn’t mind where the match would be played.
“A final’s a final. It would have been fantastic to have it at home in front of our home crowd, but the reality is that we’ve got to travel to take on Gold Coast and we’re really looking forward to that,” he said.
Preparing for this week’s match, Hodges said Thunder’s inconsistent form in recent times has been challenging, but said he’s confident his team will get it together on Saturday.
“We’ve had some disappointing losses over the last month, but the boys have really focused on making the most of our opportunity, leaving no stone unturned I suppose,” he said.
The Suns and Thunder have only clashed once this season in Round 7 with the Thunder recording a 30-point victory at TIO Stadium in Darwin.
On that occasion first year Thunder forward Adam Sambono was in full flight kicking five goals. By Round 10 he’d kicked 26 goals in eight games and was running second in the NEAFL MVP award.
Representative duties as an overage player for the Allies in the Under 18s Championships has him on the radar for AFL recruiters, but that, along with illness, deprived Thunder of his talent for much of the second half of the season.
Despite that however, last weekend Sambono was named the NEAFL rookie of the year and so, if available and in form, he could be a key to Thunder’s chances of knocking over the Suns and keeping their season alive.
Other potential match winners in Thunder’s forward line include full forward Darren Ewing, who’s wrapped up his third successive NEAFL leading goal-kicker award with 61 for the season, and goal-sneak Francis Kinthari.
If all are getting their hands on the ball it’ll be difficult for the Suns to prevent at least one of them breaking open the match.
Thunder’s engine room – the onballers – has been fuelled by inside players Abraham Ankers and Matt Rosier with Shannon Rioli and Cameron Ilett helping out under the packs, but providing some skill and flair on the outside.
When they’re on, Thunder is on, and if they can hold the Suns’ key onballers in Mitch Hallahan and Darcy Macpherson at bay, while also creating space for some Territory-styled running footy then those dangerous forwards will seriously come into play.
Hallahan, Macpherson and running half-back Ryan Davis were all named in the NEAFL team of the year and so will be difficult to subdue.
A vital player in trying to achieve that for Thunder is Ryan Smith in the ruck and whoever supports him.
Smith regularly comes up against much taller opponents, but has a knack of shading them around the ground, if not always in the pure hit outs for and against columns.
He’s variously been supported this season by Tony Olango, Neil Vea Vea, Daniel Russell and Scott McLeod.
Missing last week, Vea Vea could possibly be the most important inclusion if he’s fit to play.
His physical style strengthens Thunder’s defence, alongside the likes of Justin Beugelaar, Daniel Weetra and Thomas Davies, and he can also be thrown into the ruck if necessary.
Adding to Vea Vea’s importance to the side is the fact the Suns have no shortage of height on their list.
Dan Currie, Keegan Brooksby, Cameron Loersch and Tom Nicholls have all taken stints in the ruck and/or forward line in recent weeks. Each is either a senior-listed Suns AFL player or rookie-listed and at 197 centimetres, Brooksby is the shortest. Each of the others is above 200 centimetres tall.
Smith is 195 centimetres, Olango 198 and Vea Vea 190.
As if Gold Coast didn’t have enough tall timber already, two weeks ago, when it upset the second-placed Brisbane Lions, it was an 18-year-old academy player Brayden Crossley who stepped into the number one ruck position. He went on to record 17 disposals, eight tackles, 22 hit-outs, five clearances and six inside 50s.
So there’ll be no respite for the Thunder talls on Saturday, whichever way they look.
But that might be where Thunder also finds its advantage. With all those talls moving in and out of the forward line, that gives rise to the opportunity for turnovers and Thunder’s quick transition from defence into attack with the likes of Ben Rioli, Nicholas Yarran and Sam Talbot ready to take advantage when the ball comes to ground.
Gold Coast lost to minor premier the Sydney Swans by 67 points last weekend, and went into that game with only seven AFL-listed players compared to Sydney’s 19. How many they field in the elimination final against Thunder will add another interesting dynamic to the contest.
Hodges says excitement is building around the club with it reaching the finals.
“The feeling amongst the group is really positive. We had a disappointing loss on the weekend but the boys are really keen to bounce back and make an impact in this finals series and we know we can do that so we’re just looking forward to Saturday,” he said.
“We had a good win against the Suns back in Round 7, which was here at home and obviously it’s a different ball game when you go to Metricon, but Metricon’s a very similar size to TIO so we’re really looking forward to getting down there to its nice wide open spaces and playing a really good brand of Territory footy.”
Hodges said that depending on a couple of fitness tests, he’ll have close to a full squad to choose from.
“Yes, the hope was to be as close to full strength as possible and we’ve got some fitness tests to go through to make sure guys are right, but we’re as close as we possibly could be to being full strength,” he said.
Five-time club champion and former captain Ilett has announced his retirement from Thunder at the end of the season and questions remain over the future of Ewing so team-mates and supporters alike will be hoping their careers are prolonged for at least one more week.
“They’re both champions of the footy club and legends and obviously they’re going to leave a massive legacy with us and that’ll carry on for a long time so pretty exciting to see what happens in the next couple of weeks,” Hodges said.
Saturday 26 August
NEAFL Elimination Final: Gold Coast Suns vs NT Thunder -12pm Metricon Stadium, Gold Coast