by Murray Silby
Hopes of a fairytale premiership for NT Thunder in its inaugural season in the VFL W have been dashed by a fighting nine-point loss to Geelong in the second semi-final, 6.6 (42) to 7.9 (51).
Playing on the historic North Port Oval in Port Melbourne on Sunday, the Cats’ composure in key moments during the second half, and particularly during the final quarter, proved decisive.
Apart from the first few minutes of the first term when the Cats kicked the first score of the match, a behind, Thunder led for the rest of the match until Geelong snatched the lead with only seven minutes of the game remaining.
Thunder dominated position and territory for most of the first term, but it wasn’t able to make the possession count as much as supporters would have liked, going to the first break with a nine-point lead, 1.5 to 0.2.
Marijana Rajcic was the sole goal-kicker for Thunder, but several other reasonable chances hadn’t registered in the goals column.
Intense offensive pressure in Thunder’s forward half was forcing turnovers though, and the match looked set for Thunder’s runners to burst away from Geelong’s taller personnel at any stage.
That seemed even more likely when after six minutes of the second quarter Rajcic kicked her second for the match to push the Territorians’ lead out to 15 points.
Thunder suffered a serious blow at the eight-minute mark though when runner Sally Riley was helped off with a knee injury that prevented her from any other involvement in the match.
Apart from the loss of such a quality on-baller, the reduction in rotations for Thunder hurt and Geelong soon hit back with two successive goals, both coming after a scramble in front of goal. Richelle Cranston kicked the first of them and young gun Olivia Purcell the second and for all Thunder’s dominance of the scoreboard – eight shots to four – its lead was just nine points.
That seemed to spur Thunder on though and Jenna McCormick capitalised on a free kick for a high tackle before Jasmyn Hewett poked her own major from on the goal line after an assist from the ever involved Rajcic.
By half-time, the Geelong threat had been tempered for the moment at least and Thunder’s lead actually extended from the nine points at quarter time to 15 at the long break.
It didn’t take long for the pressure to come again from the Cats though.
After a period of stalemate where stoppages ruled, Hannah Burchell took advantage of a Thunder defensive error to run into an open goal while Danielle Orr followed little more than a minute later, kicking truly after outmuscling Sharona Bishop to mark directly in front.
Machaelia Roberts followed up an offensive tackle in the forward 50 on the 14-minute mark to gather a loose ball and goal to give Thunder some much-needed air, but a minute later Burchell chimed in with her second for the term to draw the margin back to a single point at three-quarter-time.
With the stage set for a thrilling final term, it was Thunder which struck first through Rajcic with a goal on the run, her third for the game, after four minutes, giving the NT the momentum and a key seven-point lead.
Proving they wouldn’t be shaken, however, it took only three minutes for the Cats to claw their deficit back to the one point.
In a reflection of her growing influence over the game, Cranston bombed one from long range and a few seconds later a Geelong behind brought scores level.
With eight minutes of the 20 minute final term gone, the teams were back where they started, but when Mia-Rae Clifford goaled after 13 minutes the Cats took the lead for the first time since the second minute of the first quarter, and Thunder’s hopes were under serious threat.
Perhaps most importantly, Geelong was winning the key contests, both in the air and on the ground, and with the final momentum swing to its advantage, that six-point lead wouldn’t be closed down, but instead, with a series of behinds, grow to a nine-point victory.
Thunder coach Tim Weatherald was left to rue the missed opportunities in the first term.
“It’s a momentum thing. It’s about taking chances, and in that first quarter we probably could have been five or six goals to one at quarter-time, and the game’s almost over in a low-scoring game like that, so it’s about taking those opportunities,” he said.
“I think we played really well in that first half. We played to our structure, we did what we talked about during the week, but I think under that extra pressure of a final everyone wanted to win the game, and they strayed a little away from how we wanted to play Geelong, they just kept coming at us and they were probably a little bit keener than us and their skills probably beat us one-on-one, but finals is about pressure, and I don’t think our pressure was as good as theirs.”
Weatherald said Geelong’s respected key position players had come to the fore in the second half of the match.
“Cranston was very good in that last quarter,” he said. “We talked about her before the game, and I thought we did a good job on her early, but when the game was there to be won they had a couple of girls who stood up and we just didn’t have someone who could be that spark to kick that goal or take that big mark.”
Captain Angela Foley agreed that the Cats’ talls had snatched the game away from the NT.
“They rely on their talls to get it down the line and take some big grabs and push the ball forward so that’s what they did and they made the most of their opportunities when they did get forward,” she said.
“There were a few times when we probably could have capitalised on a few goals early in the game and got on top of them on the scoreboard, but we just didn’t so it’s just what happens.
“We had the momentum early, and unfortunately we feel like in that second half Geelong just wanted it more, and they brought that tackle pressure, and we just couldn’t keep up.
“Good on them. They played out of their skins in that second half, and that won them the game.”
Defender Lisa Roberts said the immediate disappointment of having Thunder’s premiership hopes dashed must be tempered by the achievements of a side that was put together a few weeks before the start of the VFL W season.
“We came together as a team on the field before we left (after the Geelong loss) and we’re proud,” Roberts said.
“In our inaugural season, to come out and reach the finals in the first instance, we all are probably of the same opinion that we could have done a little more, but finals footy is all about what happens on the day, and obviously Geelong had a very strong second half on the day, and that’s what mattered most today.
“This is one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had playing women’s footy, and it’s just exciting for all the women who play in the NTFL league to have this to look up to, to help motivate them. It’s just a wonderful opportunity that hopefully, the NT Thunder women will continue to have as part of the VFL W league.”
NT Thunder: 1.5, 4.6, 5.6, 6.6 (42)
Geelong Cats: 0.2, 2.3, 5.5, 7.9 (51)
GOALS: NT Thunder – Marijana Rajcic 3, Jasmyn Hewett, Jenna McCormick, Machaelia Roberts.
Geelong – Hannah Burchell, Richelle Cranston 2, Mia-Rae Clifford, Danielle Orr, Olivia Purcell.
BEST: NT Thunder – Jenna McCormick, Marijana Rajcic, Jasmyn Hewett, Samantha Barnett, Jordann Hickey, Sarah Allen.