by Murray Silby
A seven goals-to-one third term in favour of Aspley has denied NT Thunder a home final in the first round of the NEAFL finals next week.
The barnstorming third quarter helped lift the Hornets to a 45-point victory over Thunder in their Round 21 clash at Graham Road in Brisbane on Saturday, 16.10 (106) to 8.13 (61).
A victory for Thunder would have handed it the sought after reward of hosting a final at TIO Stadium in Darwin after the Sydney Swans did the right thing by the Territorians and defeated the Gold Coast by 67 points in their match.
Losing to their long-term rivals in the Hornets though now means Thunder will instead be taking flight again next week – the fourth time in six weeks – for its elimination final.
Thunder started the match against Aspley brightly enough, despite kicking into a three goal blustering breeze, with small forward Michael Hagan kicking the first two goals of the game within seven minutes of the opening bounce.
Aspley hit back with the next three goals to take an eight-point lead into the first change, but given the windy conditions, it seemed a good result for the visitors.
Their defensive and on-ball divisions were working well, and any short comings in the forward line could be put down to the unhelpful breeze.
Thunder then managed to put its nose in front at half-time by five points after outscoring the Hornets in the second term – three goals to one – although it also booted four behinds.
It had dominated possession for most of the quarter, but those missed shots for goal left the feeling that Thunder could have done more with the wind at their backs.
The third quarter would illustrate that point as Aspley set about putting on a clinic of how to play its home ground when the breeze is up.
Sam Talbot kicked the first goal of the term for Thunder to push its lead out to 12 points, and life was good for the visitors, but then the match was to take a dramatic turn to the Hornets’ favour.
Aspley would kick the next seven goals, all of them coming in a 14-minute burst between the eight and 22-minute marks, including two to young draft hopeful Oskar Baker.
When Thunder captain Shannon Rioli kicked a behind at the 20-minute mark, it was his side’s first score of any sort since the fourth minute and broke a run of 6.1 by the Hornets.
The result of Aspley’s dominance was a 30-point lead at three-quarter time.
The hope for Thunder was that they could turn on a similar sort of display kicking with the breeze in the final term, but despite having the ball in their forward line for the first five minutes, they only managed to kick two behinds.
Then James Nelis kicked two goals after five and eight minutes, and the game was being pushed further and further from Thunder’s grasp.
Another three behinds would be kicked by Thunder before ruckman Tony Olango booted his second for the match and reduced the margin to 32 points.
At that stage, with 19 minutes of the quarter played, there was still some hope for a remarkable win for Thunder, but a free kick at the following centre bounce gave possession to Aspley’s Ryan Holman who pumped the ball into the Hornets’ forward line.
A few minutes later and Ed Barlow would score for the Hornets with Ben Warren following up with his third and fourth goals of the match.
Ewing’s second goal of the game would be the final one of the quarter, but there was no fairytale heroics for Thunder this time around, just more travel.
As the squad prepared for the flight back to Darwin, and for some of them even farther flung places in the Northern Territory, the news was confirmed that they’d have to fly again next week, to Metricon Stadium on the Gold Coast.
Although disappointed to miss out on the chance to host a final, Thunder coach Andrew Hodges said the club is still excited to feature in the post-season contest.
“A final’s a final,” Hodges said. “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.
“It’s a new season, a fresh slate. To take on the Gold Coast down there is pretty exciting, and our boys are looking forward to that challenge.
“We’re just looking forward to playing a final, so the boys are excited to bounce back from this week,” he said.
Hodges refused to blame the windy conditions for Aspley’s advantage over the visitors.
“The conditions were tough, but I don’t know if they played a part in the result at all,” he suggested.
“Initially that first half was a contested ball game, and we stayed in the contest well, and we created some opportunities against the breeze, which was really good.”
Hodges admitted the Hornets’ third term had broken the game open.
“That third quarter, they just stayed in the quarter a bit longer than us and were a little bit cleaner around the stoppages, which was disappointing and once they got the ball on the outside they were really clean and used the ball well,” he explained.
Thunder’s better players included inside terriers Matt Rosier and Abraham Ankers while defenders Sam Smith, Ben Rioli and Daniel Weetra did their best to turn the tide without success.
Aspley’s Barlow was the best player on the field with 35 disposals, including 22 kicks and two goals. Ben Warren was another game changer with his 24 disposals and four goals.
Quick utility Baker has been talked about in the press as one AFL scouts are watching and he did his hopes of being drafted no harm with 18 disposals, two goals and several eye-catching runs into attack.
Its loss ensured Thunder would finish fifth on the NEAFL ladder rather than the preferred fourth, which was claimed by Gold Coast.
The Suns will host Thunder at Metricon Stadium on Saturday at midday.
Sydney’s win over the Suns ensured it finished top of the ladder a game clear of Brisbane.
The final NEAFL ladder: Sydney 64, Brisbane 60, Sydney University 56, Gold Coast 40, NT Thunder 40, Aspley 32, Canberra 28, Redland 16, Southport 16, Giants 8.
Or view the full ladder here.
Aspley Hornets 3.3, 4.6, 11.8, 16.10 (106)
NT Thunder 2.1, 5.5, 6.8, 8.13 (61)
Aspley Hornets: Ben Warren 4, Oskar Baker 2, Ed Barlow 2, James Nelis 2, Edward Mallan 2, Doug Lawrence 2, Ryan Holman, Jack Stanley.
NT Thunder: Michael Hagan 2, Darren Ewing 2, Tony Olango 2, Sam Talbot, Abraham Ankers.
Aspley Hornets: Ed Barlow, Ben Warren, James Ives, Ryan Holman, Edward Mallan, Oskar Baker.
NT Thunder: Sam Smith, Abraham Ankers, Matt Rosier, Ben Rioli, Daniel Weetra, Sam Talbot.