The Gold Coast Suns have ended NT Thunder’s NEAFL premiership aspirations in the first week of the finals and the career of one of their greatest players as well.
The Suns eventually wore down a plucky Thunder side in their elimination final, 19.9 (123) to 12.12 (84), by 39 points at Metricon Stadium on the Gold Coast.
The loss ends Thunder’s 2017 and given former captain and club champion Cameron Ilett’s retirement announcement earlier in the season it also closes his career.
Thunder fans will also be saddened to hear that big ruckman Ryan Smith, sans a fully functional voice box after an injury last round, announced prior to the game that it would be his last for the club he has been part of on and off since its inaugural year in 2009.
The first quarter was a term of tightly contested footy, which made it difficult for either side to get clear air when going into attack, although both had their opportunities, with the Suns taking a 12-point lead into the first change.
Gold Coast had the better of the term, but poor delivery into its forward line gave the Thunder defence opportunities to spoil or rush behinds.
Despite this, NT defenders were under plenty of pressure when they did get possession and found it difficult to clear the Suns’ forward 50 beyond rushed kicks, which often fell into the hands of Gold Coast players.
Thunder’s 1.4 scoreline at quarter time raised the unsettling possibility that its hopes might run adrift in the behinds column rather than be forged ahead in the goals row, and that fear seemed a long way to being realised after a few minutes in the second quarter as newly-crowned NEAFL Rising Star Adam Sambono and centre-half-forward Hugo Drogemuller lined up for gettable shots, but missed.
The future looked even dimmer as former Western Bulldog and current senior-listed Sun Jarrad Grant kicked two goals within a couple of minutes to push the margin out to 22 points.
Sambono found his range though to kick two of his own goals within a few minutes, including a banana kick for six points, which was brought about by some great pressure by the Thunder forwards.
Grant chimed in for his third of the quarter though to reassert some Gold Coast authority right before Thunder set off on a determined fight back.
The NT side kicked the next three goals to steal the lead by a point at the 21-minute mark.
Captain Shannon Rioli launched the comeback with a dodge and weave through a pack before snapping on his non-preferred left foot.
The NEAFL’s leading goal-kicker in 2017, Ewing, goaled after marking a great pass from Nick Yarran on the lead and then Yarran himself followed up with a goal after producing something from nothing on the edge of the goal square.
His finals-type pressure forced the ball free, which he managed to get a toe to for the goal.
That major gave the Thunder a one point lead after being 22 down earlier in the term.
The Suns weren’t finished though and goals to Jacob Dawson and Brayden Crossley, split by another to Ewing lifted the home side back to a six-point lead at half-time.
Thunder signaled their intentions early in the third term through Sambono, whose great defensive tackle 30 metres from his own goal earned him a free kick directly in front, which he duly slotted, bringing scores were level.
Grant just wouldn’t be held though and he added another three goals for the term to give him six to three-quarter-time and that after going goal-less in the first.
Developing ruckman Tony Olango showed why Hawthorn have him in their academy with two quality goals in the third quarter.
The first came after he marked and goaled from outside 50 metres and the second saw him take the ruck for a boundary thrown in before running on to take a handball from Shannon Rioli and goaling on the run from a tight angle.
Although the Suns’ advantage at three-quarter-time was only 13 points, to that stage, they’d had all the answers whenever the Thunder had challenged.
The Suns’ Matt Shaw did his best to put the game beyond doubt with a goal on the run inside two minutes of the final quarter.
Ewing popped up again though with a cheeky effort, where he pushed his opponent off the mark to run in and kick truly, making a Thunder win plausible, if not likely.
Grant would have the final say though with another two goals in the term to take his game tally to eight.
A special by Shannon Rioli from 50 metres just delayed the inevitable as Ryan Davis, Kai Sheers and Jacob Dawson each kicked goals to ensure a comfortable win for the Suns and advancement to week two of the finals.
It would be oversimplifying it to say Grant was the difference between the two sides, but he kicked eight straight goals after quarter time and Thunder was unable to cut off his supply from further up the field.
Thunder coach Andrew Hodges said Gold Coast’s ability to score off the turnover, or from stoppages, killed his side’s chances of victory.
“The way the ball was fed into him (Grant) made it really hard for our defenders to try and stop that,” Hodges said.
“We needed to do better around the ground, around stoppages and up the ground and like I said, he was on the end of a lot of those slingshot attacking moves that ended up in goals for him so we needed to put more pressure on the ball carriers delivering into him, which we didn’t do well enough today.
“I think we just had some skill errors at key times in the game.
“We fumbled a lot around stoppages and we dropped some really easy marks and I think when we went inside 50 we probably didn’t go in deep enough, we turned the footy over and they sort of slingshot us and went back the other way and scored with ease at times,” he said.
The Suns were also served well by their on ball division, some of which racked up some big numbers as far as disposals go.
Matt Shaw amassed 39 disposals, including 18 kicks and 21 handballs. He also kicked 3.1 and laid six tackles while Jesse Lonergan recorded 38 disposals (18 kicks, 20 handballs and six tackles).
Brayden Crossley may only be 18, but he battled hard in the ruck against Thunder’s Ryan Smith and Neil Vea Vea, and contributed two goals as well.
In the centre of the ground Thunder skipper Shannon Rioli tried to lift his side to victory, topping the disposal count with 27 and kicking two goals.
On-ballers Matt Rosier (23 disposals) and Abraham Ankers (25 disposals) both got plenty of the ball, but struggled to make an impact.
, n defence Sam Smith continued his fine season and Neil Vea Vea threw himself into every contest, as did Michael Coombes around the ground.
Thunder’s forwards tried hard when they had the chance, Sambono and Ewing sometimes having to resort to unusual methods to score. Both kicked three goals to underline their importance to the side this season and the way their differing styles compliment each other in the forward half.
Thunder may have to do without both next season if Ewing retires and Sambono is drafted, as some are predicting.
Unfortunately the loss didn’t give Ilett, and perhaps Ewing, the send off they’d have hoped for.
“Disappointing, the boys went into today’s game, we talked about that and we didn’t want this to be their last,” Hodges said.
“They really love playing footy with Cammy, being alongside him so yeah, disappointing we don’t get another chance next week, but that’s footy.”
Gold Coast Suns 3.4, 8.6, 13.6, 19.9 (123)
NT Thunder 1.4, 7.6, 10.11, 12.12 (84)
Gold Coast: Jarrad Grant 8, Matthew Shaw 3, Jacob Dawson 2, Brayden Crossley 2, Daniel Charlesworth, Bailey Scott, Kai Sheers, Ryan Davis.
NT Thunder: Adam Sambono 3, Darren Ewing 3, Tony Olango 2, Shannon Rioli 2, Jack Shannahan, Nick Yarran,.
Gold Coast: Matt Shaw, Ryan Davis, Jarrad Grant, Jacob Dawson, Jesse Lonergan, Brayden Crossley.
NT Thunder: Shannon Rioli, Sam Smith, Cameron Ilett, Nick Yarran, Abraham Ankers, Adam Sambono.