…The paradox of NT Thunder
by Murray Silby
The NEAFL might only be approaching its third week of the 2017 season, but having a bye this weekend has come at an ideal time for NT Thunder.
With one win (over Aspley by 57 points) and one loss (to Brisbane by 26 points) in the first two rounds Thunder’s form has suggested the club is on track for a promising season.
The NT side is unique in the NEAFL in that it draws its players from across the Territory and all of those signed in 2017 played for Northern Territory Football League clubs in what is the off-season for leagues around the rest of the country, such as the NEAFL.
That brings with it advantages and disadvantages.
One of the advantages is that Thunder coach Andrew Hodges has players, who have not been limited to a pre-season campaign that aims to simulate games but are match-fit, a fact coaches of the NT’s first two opponents were aware of.
“We all know it’s a hard road trip, the weather conditions, the humidity, we didn’t have all our blokes as match hardened as we’d like, and once again the NT have had the advantage of blokes coming in off a pretty rigorous footy season, that prepares the Thunder players a little bit better than ours,” Aspley coach John Blair said after his side’s loss to Thunder in the opening round at TIO Stadium.
It was also a factor that Brisbane coach Mitch Hahn considered during preparation for the Lions’ Round 2 clash with Thunder.
“NT challenged us a few times. A lot of their players have come off a season, they’re match-hardened, for our guys to come up here, we haven’t won up here since 2012, so our ability to come up here and get the four points is really great for this group,” Hahn said.
Hodges’ players may be playing actual games rather than just training before the NEAFL season starts, but their involvement with local clubs means he has limited access to them while planning his campaign.
“Most of the guys play quite a few games towards the back end of the NTFL season,” he said.
“There’s definitely a benefit to us in that the guys are match-hardened, which is fantastic, but also we just need to manage them to make sure that we’re not overloading them and they’re not breaking down, that there aren’t any issues with injuries or anything like that.
“There’s a fair bit of management that goes into it January, February, March leading into the NEAFL season, so in some terms, it gives us an advantage but also we don’t get the guys together three training sessions a week. They train once with us and twice with their clubs. We just manage their load to make sure they’re not overloading.”
The limited access Hodges has to his players before the season starts adds to the challenge of bringing a squad from, not only Darwin but also remote and regional regions such as Alice Springs, Tennant Creek, Lajamanu, Katherine and Croker Island together.
“It’s always a challenge, but the beauty of the Territory, because we’re a representative side when the guys come together they come together pretty tight, and they’re pretty proud to represent the Territory,” Hodges said.
“As soon as they put that jumper on it makes it a bit easier, but it’s challenging. We’ve got guys that are remote or regional at the moment all training at their bases, and they’re doing a really good job to keep their bodies right and prepared to play.
“Abe Ankers, from Alice Springs, has travelled the last two weeks and played really well. Lochlan Dhurrkay (Nhulunbuy/Elcho Island) and other guys have travelled from remote regions and done a really good job over the last couple of weeks, but we’re really mindful that it’s a long season with a lot of travel for those guys, so whenever we can give them a rest we’ll rotate them through and give them a break. Just to make sure that at the pointy end of the season they’re feeling fresh and ready to go.”
Hodges has not only had to bring his squad together from vast distances but also to get a group that has plenty of new faces in it to gel.
“We’ve had eight guys play their first games for NT Thunder in the first two rounds, which is a real positive for us and we’re giving guys opportunities to play at a higher level,” he said.
“Every opportunity we can we’ll try and bring them in on a Thursday, work permitting or school or whatever it may be, those things are really important.
“They come before anything else so if it affects school or work we won’t, we’ll get them in on a Saturday, but where possible we’ll try and get them in to train with the squad before a game or at stages throughout the year.
“A lot of the guys might come in for a week’s holiday and just stay in Darwin and train with the squad, so anytime we can expose them to that we will.”
Hodges said the influx of new players had benefited the veterans in the side.
“It’s good, the youth and enthusiasm that they’ve brought into the team has helped Cameron Ilett and Darren Ewing and these sorts of guys, they get quite excited seeing the young guys put in a good effort and get the rewards on the field,” he said.
So, it may only be round three, but Hodges is happy to have a bye so any tired minds and bodies in his match-hardened squad can rest and so he can reinforce the tactical foundation he’s already built into his far-flung group.
“We keep things as normal as we possibly can with the first opportunity,” he said.
“I think 16 of our squad played in the NTFL grand final, so they had a weekend off after that game. Any opportunity we get to give them a break, like this weekend, we’ll train our normal week, provide them with the Easter weekend off and come back in on Tuesday to get ready for Redland.
“The mental recovery is just as important as the physical so to give them that weekend off and get them to relax is a good thing as well, but in that there’s some little things that they’ve got to tick off in their own time. They might go for a run or something like that.”
Coming up ….
Round 3 – Bye
Round 4 – Redland v NT Thunder, Saturday April 22