By Murray Silby
NT Thunder has the difficult task of attempting to record its third win of the NEAFL season against second-placed Southport on Saturday in Round 20.
It’s been a tough season for the whole club, reflected by its 88-point loss to Sydney University last weekend.
But it’s only two rounds since Thunder recorded a resounding seven-point victory over Redland in Alice Springs and in Round 13, it lost to Southport on the Sharks’ home ground by just 15-points.
Thunder has struggled through a year hampered by season-ending injuries to key players and the loss of champions at the end of last season, but has found hope for the future in its young brigade.
Nigel Lockyer, Kieren Parnell, Malcolm Rosas and academy player Ben Jungfer have all been invited to draft combines ahead of the AFL national draft.
While others, such as Joel Jeffrey, Brodie Carroll, Joel Budarick, brother Jess, Ben Taylor, Dylan Barry, Kevin Maroney, Ethan Liddle and Joel Stevens have all shown promise.
First year player Brandon Rusca is another to have given Thunder’s difficult season some green shoots.
Rusca is from another of the NT’s strong footballing families, the respect in which it’s held on display in the game against Sydney University, when the team wore black armbands to mark the passing of football identities Jerry Frank, Garry Mettam and Rusca’s Pop Sid Rusca.
“It was a little bit tough (playing last weekend),” Rusca said, “but I was really glad to go out there and represent him and the family.
“He just always told me to have a go really. Go out there and don’t leave anything behind. Always go in hard for the ball and try and win your own ball.
“He was a very good supporter. Helped me out a lot throughout my career so far.”
Rusca has plenty of experience to call on, given the careers of his father Robbie with Port Melbourne in the former VFA and his representative football with the NT, and uncle Shannon, who is a former Brisbane and Western Bulldogs player in the AFL, 2011 Thunder premiership player and Thunder Team of the Decade member. Shannon is also the current coach of Southern Districts in the NTFL, where Brandon plays, and coached the Crocs to the 2017/18 NTFL premiership.
Rusca says it’s been challenging learning to play at the higher NEAFL level during a challenging a season for Thunder, but he’s received good support from the club.
“It’s always good to win, but you also need a few losses, so it’s good,” he said. “The boys always get around us and even though we’re not winning at the moment, they’re always encouraging us, which has been good.
Rusca’s played a range of roles for Thunder this season, with a heavy emphasis on his defensive pressure.
“I’ve been playing everywhere, down back, up forward and on the wing, but my role is just pressure really. He (Coach Darren Reeves) doesn’t really mind about my touch, he just wants me to pressure and that’s probably my main key.”
All of that defensive pressure and then some will be required against the reigning premier at TIO Stadium in Darwin on Saturday night.
Thunder can go back to that seven-point loss to Southport at Fankauser Reserve in Round 13 and its 11-point loss in Round six, also on the Sharks home ground, to gain confidence in its abilities to cause a massive upset.
“We’ve played them (Southport) twice this season and they’ve both been at their home ground, but we haven’t lost by much.
“We were in it until the last quarter last game when we played them when it was wet.
“There’s a pretty strong spirit going around the club at the moment knowing that we can stay in it for the four quarters with a top team.
“There’s been some ups and downs, but as a collective group, the players have stuck together and we’re hopeful for these last two games and for the next season looking forward into the future.”
NEAFL Round 20: NT Thunder vs Southport – 6.30pm, Saturday 17 August – TIO Stadium, Darwin