by Murray Silby
The long road to North East Australian Football League (NEAFL) premiership glory begins for NT Thunder at TIO Stadium in Darwin on Saturday evening against the team that eliminated it from last year’s finals race.
Brisbane-based Aspley ended the Thunder’s season in the first week of the NEAFL finals last season with the Hornets losing to eventual runner-up Sydney Swans the following week.
They’ll all be chasing the defending premiers, the Greater Western Sydney Giants reserves team.
Every club’s season starts with a level of uncertainty as recruits settle into their respective sides, but predicting Thunder’s 2017 season at this early stage must be one of the toughest tasks around the league. The Darwin-based side has welcomed a massive 22 new faces on the Club’s list, bringing the average age down from 24 to 22.
A total of 15 of the NT’s players played in the Northern Territory Football League grand final between premier St Mary’s and runner-up Wanderers.
Of those, Ben Rioli, Nick Yarran and Liam Patrick sustained injuries adding to the uncertainty of who coach Andrew Hodges will select to run out against the Hornets on Saturday night.
Yarran, who has made the cut, was named in the NEAFL’s top 20 under 25 players to watch countdown on the league’s website.
Last years’ list produced six team-of-the-year representatives and the Rising Star winner.
Nineteen-year-old Yarran is a two-time Rising Star nominee and the 2016/17 winner in the NTFL for St Mary’s and can play up forward or through the midfield.
He played for Woodville-West Torrens in the SANFL before returning home to Darwin.
Another Thunder player named on the players to watch list was 20-year-old Wanderers’ star, Davin Ferreira.
Illness will prevent Ferreira from making his NEAFL debut in Round 1, but experience playing for Norwood in the SANFL holds him in high regard.
A midfielder who can kick goals, he’s one of the newcomers likely to ensure the Thunder maintain a fast-paced style this season.
Apart from Yarran, debuts were also handed to mercurial Buffaloes forward Adam Sambono and St Mary’s premiership star Michael Coombes, who has also played with Sturt in the SANFL.
Best and fairest winner with NTFL club Palmerston, Tom Davies will pull on the Territory colours for the first time, along with Waratah’s 2015 leading goal kicker, Lachlan Collihole and Hugo Drogemuller, the 196cm player that impressed for the Wanderers this past NTFL season.
Rounding out the debuts is 21-year-old athletic utility Sam Smith, who plays for Southern Districts.
The Aspley Hornets aren’t short of young talent themselves though with winger Luca Mason, 203cm ruckman Nate Dennis, half-back Jordan Hayden and on-baller James Ives all included on the NEAFL’s list of top young players to watch.
Of the four, only Hayden and Ives have been named for this weekend’s clash but so too has Ben Warren, the ex-North Melbourne forward.
Coached by NEAFL Hall of Famer and league representative coach John Blair, the Hornets are likely to provide the Thunder with a tough first-up assignment.
“They’re a very good side, and we’ve had some great battles with them over the last couple of years,” NT Thunder Head Coach Andrew Hodges said.
“They knocked us out of the finals run last year, and they’re always a tough challenge, so we’re looking forward to taking them on this week at home in Darwin.”
Hodges said the squad’s excited ahead of the opening round and although the high turnover on the list is a challenge to deal with, it also refreshes the line-up.
“Into Round 1 of the NEAFL season, we’re pretty excited,” he said.
“Obviously we’ve made some changes in the off season in playing personnel, and we’ve got some talented young Territory guys coming into the side, and we’re looking forward to seeing how they go.”
Saturday 1 April
Curtain raiser: AFLNT State Academy Thunder U18 vs Sydney Swans Academy 3:20pm TIO Stadium, Darwin
NEAFL Round 1: NT Thunder vs Aspley 6:30pm TIO Stadium, Darwin