By Murray Silby
A desperately brave NT Thunder has gone down to premiership fancy Canberra in Round 16 of the NEAFL by 21 points, 12.15 (87) to 16.12 (108).
Ninth-placed Thunder welcomed the third-placed Demons to TIO Stadium with a victory vital to keep its remote finals hopes alive and Canberra hoping to build on its plans for a top-two place come the end of the season.
Down to just one available player on the bench after first gamer Matt Green was concussed in the second quarter, Coen Hutt in the third, Tyla Saunders injured his quad and Liam Patrick broke a finger, Thunder bravely, but ultimately unsuccessfully, pressed for victory deep into the final term.
Canberra wasn’t without its own injury concerns with goal-sneak Ben Fulford leaving the field, not to return, after a clash with Cameron Ilett late in the third term, in which the Thunder veteran was reported. Fullford had kicked five goals to that point.
In what felt a lot like a shootout, both teams peppered the goals during the first term.
Thunder had the best of it with eight scoring shots and a couple of others going astray that might have been.
The Demons kicked the first goal through Harrison Carr, but then Thunder provided the next two, with Kaine Riley and Darren Ewing popping up with a snap and kick out of the air respectively.
Canberra then enjoyed a run of three goals with Ben Fulford’s two majors split by Luke McKay’s contribution, which followed his intercept mark deep in attack.
Liam Patrick then kicked a goal that followed a great tap in the centre of the ground by Jack Monigatti, which was gobbled up by Richard Tambling, who duly delivered to the Lajamanu Lightning Bolt.
Sam Martyn kicked the Demons’ fifth of the quarter, but Darren Ewing finished off some great offensive pressure by his Thunder team-mates in the forward 50 by kicking truly and drawing his side to within four points of the favourites at quarter-time.
The pace dropped off in the third term, but not the level of commitment from each of the teams.
As a consequence, the play wasn’t as free-flowing and the goals dried up, Thunder managing just the one, a beauty from a tight angle by Patrick Boles and Canberra the two goals – from Carr and Fulford.
That pair were proving troublesome for Thunder with Carr kicking two first half goals and small forward Fulford three.
Canberra’s lead of 11 points at half-time was swiftly cut and then turned into a 17-point deficit by the 24th minute of the third term as Ewing went on his biggest goal-spree of the season.
Inside seven minutes of the quarter getting underway he’d booted three for the term and five the match.
The trouble was, Canberra had its own gun shooting them from all parts.
Fulford kicked his fourth at the 15-minute mark of the third term and his fifth after 25 minutes. That narrowed Thunder’s lead to 10 points. Thomas Faul closed it to a goal after 28 minutes and then when Jacob Turner scored just before the three-quarter-time siren after a massive 35 minutes and nine goals, the margin was just one point to Thunder’s favour.
The stage was set for a thrilling final term, with the home side tasting an unlikely victory and the Demons hoping to fly back to the cold of the capital with the warm feeling of victory in their carry on.
Anyone looking for a sign that Thunder would run away with a famous win got it little more than a minute into the quarter.
Nicholas Yarran, who’d been quiet for much of the game, made the most of the umpire paying advantage for a free on team-mate Kaine Riley to kick a goal on the run and extend Thunder’s lead to seven points.
Canberra captain Aaron Bruce’s miss from a set shot was followed by Jacob Turner’s spray wide and Alex Smout’s effort going out on the full.
It took ruckman Nathan Richards to dummy around a Thunder defender deep in the Demons’ forward line and kick truly to give the visitors a one-point lead.
It started a tense period of the game when Canberra would kick ahead and Thunder would pull itself back level, but Bruce corrected his wrong of a few minutes earlier, scoring on the run after 14 minutes, before Abraham Ankers finished off a brilliant team goal for the hosts from the centre bounce to level scores.
The Demons weren’t shaken though and Sam Martyn kicked truly on the 20-minute mark to give Canberra a six-point lead.
Goals to Jack Powell from a Ben Rioli mistake kicking in after a behind and Harrison Carr finished off Thunder’s brave challenge to one of the league’s premiership fancies.
Coach Andrew Hodges said he was disappointed the win didn’t go Thunder’s way, if only to reward his players for the effort they put into the game.
“Really proud of the boys. We knew what we were up against in that last quarter,” he said. “We were down to one on the bench and the boys really fought it out and it’s disappointing not to come away with the win because we thought that our effort and the way we went about it for most parts of the night we really deserved to win that one.
“Full credit to Canberra. They’re playing some really good team footy at the moment and that win takes them to top of the ladder so we were beaten by a better side, but yeah, super proud of the boys, but we just couldn’t get the win and get reward for all the hard work they’ve been putting in, not just tonight but through the last few weeks.”
Hodges said Thunder’s effort better reflected the application the club aims for.
“We want to finish the season strongly,” he said. “We’re a pretty proud group of guys and they just want to finish really strongly and win back a bit of respect we probably lost in the first half of the year.
“That was a big part of tonight, earning back some respect and I think we went a long way to achieving that.”
With finals now the most unlikely of dreams, Hodges said he’ll be giving some of the squad’s young players more opportunities in the club’s remaining four games.
“We’ve got the right personnel who’ve got the right effort and attitude in games to play their role and even the young kids that we’ve brought in have been doing a great job,” he said.
“Really pleasing to see Matt Green in his first game. In the first half he was really good and obviously unlucky to cop a concussion and not be available after half-time and then early in that third quarter we lost Coen Hutt, also to a concussion, and add to that Isaac Wyatt, the effort he gave throughout the night we’re really pleased with.
“We’ll continue to play the young guys. Those three guys Hutt, Green and Wyatt, they did a good job for us tonight when they were on the ground and Beau Schwarze has done well for us in the past few weeks and young Dominic Forbes in Alice Springs, just off the back of his under 16s performance, we’ll look to give him an opportunity as well to see what we’ve got around the club.
“So there’s plenty of good young talent there and we’ll continue to give them opportunities over the next few games.”
NT THUNDER: 4.4, 5.7, 10.14, 12.15 (87)
CANBERRA: 5.2, 7.6, 11.7, 16.12 (108)
GOALS: NT Thunder – Darren Ewing 6, Kaine Riley 2, Abraham Ankers, Patrick Boles, Liam Patrick, Nicholas Yarran. Canberra – Ben Fulford 5, Harrison Carr 4, Sam Martyn 2, Aaron Bruce, Thomas Faul, Luke McKay, Nathan Richards, Jacob Turner.
BEST: NT Thunder – Jarrod Stokes, Joe Anderson, Sam Smith, Shannon Rioli, Darren Ewing, Abraham Ankers.
Canberra – Mitch Maguire, Kade Klemke, Harrison Carr, Sam Martyn, Aaron Bruce, Ben Fulford.