by Murray Silby
If the enthusiasm of newly-appointed NT Thunder vice-captain Abraham Ankers is anything to go by the Territory’s NEAFL side is in for an exciting season.
“The depth we have this year is amazing and the calibre of players we have is outstanding,” Ankers said in the lead-up to this weekend’s opening round.
“A lot of AFL experience, a lot of NTFL experience. We have a lot of good blokes, the character we have around the group is really good so I think we’re going to bounce off each other and the energy we have is going to be really exciting.”
The club has lost a dozen players from last year’s list, including ruckman Tony Olango to the West Coast Eagles, while key backmen Justin Beugelaar and Daniel Weetra, silky winger Nick Yarran and tough on-baller Michael Coombes have all moved interstate, while ruckman Ryan Smith has retired.
All were regulars in 2017 and leave big holes to fill, but Ankers, a product of Federal in the Central Australian Football League in Alice Springs, says their replacements bring plenty of qualities with them.
“We’ve got that much talent around the group, it’s very exciting,” he said. “To see what those players are going to do when they come together, it’s going to be really good to be part of.”
Ankers says Jack Monigatti in the ruck will be exciting to watch, while former AFL players Joe Anderson with Carlton and North Melbourne’s Matt Campbell are providing great leadership around the club.
Darwin’s Jarrod Stokes was best-on-ground in the Buffaloes’s losing NTFL grand final side and is described by Ankers as a ball magnet.
Ankers adds that the freakish Ross Tungatalem and Dion Munkara will also inject plenty of skill into the side.
“This year our playing list has a good mix of age and experience mixed with youth, speed and excitement so I think Hodgey (coach Andrew Hodges), (talent and pathways manager) Wally (Gallio) and the team at Thunder have done an amazing job putting together the list this year,” Ankers suggests.
“I think it’s one of the best lists I’ve ever seen at Thunder and it’ll be exciting to see who we put on the park week in week out.”
Consolidating the list is the re-signing of some of Thunder’s stars from last season.
They’re headed by three-time premiership player and six-time club champion Cameron Ilett, who suits up for a 10th year. He’s won the best and fairest so many times they’ve named the medal after he and his brother Jarred, a foundation player and captain and former CEO.
Thunder’s leading goal kicker for each of the club’s years of existence, Darren Ewing, is also back for a 10th season.
Other reasons for Thunder fans to get excited include the return of some of the club’s best young players, including NEAFL and NT rookie-of-the-year Adam Sambono, livewire forward Francis Kinthari, small defender Ben Rioli as well as key backman and joint runner-up in the club best and fairest Sam Smith.
Smith shared the runners-up trophy with Ankers behind winner Cameron Ilett.
As opening rounds go though, they don’t come much more difficult than playing the reigning premiers, and an AFL side at that.
The Brisbane Lions defeated the Sydney Swans in last year’s grand final and will be hoping to open this year’s account with victory over Thunder at TIO Stadium on Saturday.
They’re likely to bring a Territorian back with them, last year’s 15th pick in the AFL draft, Zac Bailey, and the young midfielder will be keen to impress in front of friends and family.
The Lions could also potentially field the AFL’s number one draft pick last year – Cameron Rayner. The highly rated onballer has played the first two rounds at AFL level and it will depend on Brisbane’s plans for him as to whether he plays in Darwin or not.
Thunder coach Andrew Hodges said his side won’t have any time to settle into the season with a first-up opponent the calibre of the Lions.
“There’s no such thing as an easy game in the NEAFL competition,” he said. “All clubs are always strong and competitive, but to get the Brisbane Lions first off the bat is a really exciting challenge for us and our young side so the boys are really looking forward to the challenge and can’t wait for Saturday night.”
Hodges admits his squad has lost some talented players, but he’s rapt with the replacements who’ve signed on.
“It was unfortunate to lose those guys, but we’re really excited to know they’re going to play at another level and we’ve been able to provide the pathway for them to get to that level, but the guys we’ve brought in are very similar players and have been very good in the NTFL this year.
“There’s a really good feeling among the group. There are a few guys with a lot of experience and there’s a lot of new guys that are good young Territory talent and they’ve come through our talent programs and now being able to represent NT Thunder at senior level is fantastic.”
Preparing for his second season in charge of the Thunder, Hodges is especially pleased to know club legend Ilett will again pull on the boots after changing his mind over retirement plans.
“It’s always exciting when you get to name Cammy in a side. He retired at the end of last year and was in the centre during preseason doing some coaching with our younger academy groups and was pretty excited about the opportunity to play in the 10th year and with the young list we’re building. Yes, really excited about having him back on board and he’s training the house down, which is great.”
Boosted by being appointed vice-captain, Ankers is eagerly awaiting the opening bounce on Saturday night and is confident about the approaching season.
“Being appointed vice-captain means a lot, it’s a massive honour,” he said. “It’s a big step forward and I hope that the boys trust me as much as I trust them and I stand behind a pretty great captain in Shannon Rioli and the great leaders at the club that have been before me, but massive shoes to fill and I’m looking forward to the challenge.
“I’m excited about the year ahead and I hope I keep improving and I hope the team keeps on improving. I think there are big things to come.”
NEAFL Round 1: NT Thunder vs Brisbane Lions – Saturday 6:30pm, TIO Stadium, Darwin