by Murray Silby
NT Thunder faces its first away game for the NEAFL season on Saturday, but will travel to Aspley in Brisbane with the wind of a one-point victory over Brisbane in Round 1 beneath their wings.
The win over last year’s NEAFL premier in Darwin at TIO Stadium with seven debutants kick-started the Territorians’ season perfectly.
Coach Andrew Hodges said it’s given everyone around the club a lift, but it’s vital the same level of commitment be brought to this week’s match at Aspley’s home ground Graham Road.
“It was a positive to get a win in the first game, but we need to back it up now in Round 2 against a quality outfit at their home so the boys are really looking forward to the challenge this week,” Hodges said.
“It’s been really good this week, obviously. We had a really good recovery on Saturday and last night and had a team review last night and went through some things we need to work on for this week and the boys have been up and about and had a really solid session Tuesday night and we’re really looking forward to our first away game for this year.”
Hodges said the only injury doubt to emerge from Round 1 was young backman Rodney Baird, but all the others in last weekend’s line-up are available, which is already a pleasant contrast from last season when most weeks seemed to include multiple forced changes.
If Thunder can have greater consistency in its selection this season that could play a big part in its success through the year.
Of those selected in Round 1, veteran Cameron Ilett vindicated his decision to overturn retirement plans and play on by leaping out to the equal lead in the NEAFL MVP award.
He polled nine votes for his 29 disposal game, mostly across half-back, which featured nine rebound 50s. He shares the lead with Gold Coast’s Jesse Lonergan, who also polled nine votes for his performance in the Suns’ win over Aspley in the opening round.
Aspley’s sixth place finish and week one elimination from the finals last season was the Hornets’ worst ending to a NEAL season since 2012, having placed fourth or higher for the three years until 2017, including their premiership year of 2014.
That has spurred a major recruiting campaign in the off-season with former North Melbourne captain Andrew Swallow, former Melbourne ruckman Jake Spencer and Brisbane Lions forward Jonathon Freeman joining the club. Swallow is expected to give two-time NEAFL MVP Matt Payne great assistance in the middle with James Ives and Reece Toye to be handy sidekicks.
The two teams played each other three times last season for a two-one record to Thunder’s advantage.
“We know they’ve turned their list over a bit,” Hodges said.
“They’ve brought in some really quality players and it’s always a big challenge when you play Aspley so we’re expecting this weekend to be no different, especially playing away down there, so they’re a good side and no doubt they’ll be the same this week.”
Thunder’s brought in its own batch of talent however, and none disappointed in the win over Brisbane. Players of the calibre of former North Melbourne forward Matt Campbell, Darwin Buffaloes star Jarrod Stokes and Tiwi Islands pair Ross Tungatalum and Dion Munkara all fired when it counted against the AFL club.
Another was rookie Kaine Riley in defence. At 190 centimetres, Riley gave away plenty of height to Brisbane’s AFL-listed, 200 centimetre-plus tall timber. He said he had to use his leap and body to even out the contests. “It was just stay tight on the big blokes and just spoil the ball every time they go for their marks,” he said. “Sticking on the tall forwards, yes, it’s pretty hectic.
“I tried to use a bit of body before the ball comes in and just jump and fist it. I can jump a bit.“ Riley says he’s loving the atmosphere around the club and the experienced players have helped make him feel very welcome. “A few of the boys get around. (Cameron) Ilett, Hugo (Drogemuller), the Rioli brothers, all of them. All the boys yes,” he said.
“It’s awesome playing with heaps of good talent. It’s really awesome. I love it. You just know what they’re capable of. It’s awesome, a good feeling.”
A trade assistant on the Inpex site, Riley said he’s hoping to use the Thunder program to help elevate the standard of his football. “Once I get my body up and running I’m hoping I can play some good footy and see what happens (play at a higher level),” he suggests.
“I just want to get better and better.”
And put simply, that’s the goal of the whole Thunder squad against great rival Aspley this weekend too.
NEAFL Round 2: Aspley Hornets v NT Thunder – Saturday 1:30pm, Graham Road, Carseldine