by Murray Silby
NT Thunder has battled hard in an attempt to turn its stuttering form around but still gone down by 37 points to archrival Aspley in NEAFL’s Round 10, 10.7 (67) to 15.14 (104).
In a match that offered some promising signs for Thunder, which has now lost its last three games, the Hornets were able to answer on their home ground at Graham Road each time they were challenged by the visitors.
Those challenges came during the second, third and fourth quarters, but only after Thunder had already fallen behind its host.
Thunder could have got off to a blinding start through vice-captain Abe Ankers, who had two good opportunities to kick goals in the opening three minutes of the match, but both went astray.
They were probably Thunder’s best chances in a term they ended up going goal-less.
Its host, however, kicked four majors and skipped to a 24-point lead at quarter-time.
The Hornets’ engine room was doing most of the damage with Andrew Swallow and Matt Payne racking up the possessions. The latter with 12 possessions and a goal to quarter-time while Swallow also kicked a major in the term.
Thunder got its game going in the second quarter and, of course, it was Darren Ewing who was putting the score on the board.
Ewing got his first for the match and his 751st of his Thunder career just 30 seconds into the term, Ben Warren answered for the Hornets four minutes later, but Ewing kicked his second after 11 minutes.
When Hugo Drogemuller kicked his first in the 13th minute, Thunder was 14 points down and had shifted the momentum in its direction.
Aspley’s former Melbourne ruckman Jake Spencer was proving a tall order for Thunder’s Ryan Smith and Jack Monigatti though, and when Jono Freeman scored from a move that started with a tap from Spencer, it launched a run of three Hornets majors to end the quarter.
The home side’s response to Thunder’s challenge ensured the deficit was 34 points at half-time.
Not to be deterred, Thunder again set about hauling in the difference and again it was Ewing who kicked off the scoring.
His third was followed by two captain’s goals to Shannon Rioli, the second of them a team lifting special that included two bounces down the wing and a long shot on the run as he crossed the 50-metre arc.
Suddenly Thunder had scored three successive goals to pull Aspley’s lead back to 18 points.
Similarly to the second term though, Aspley proved its quality by hitting back with Jackson Allen’s second and Freeman’s third and fourth.
Jarrod Stokes added one for Thunder, meaning the deficit the visitors would have to overhaul in the final quarter would be 29 points.
Again, like the second and third quarters, Ewing stepped up to kick the first major of the term. In fact, he kicked the first two goals of the final quarter to give him five for the match and to narrow the Hornets’ lead to 19 points.
The second came after a perfect Cameron Ilett pass under extreme pressure.
Aspley’s own champion on-baller in Payne responded with a quality pass to Harrison Pearce, who capitalised, before Drogemuller’s second took the margin back to 19 points.
That would be the extent of Thunder’s challenge though. It had reached the limit of its powers in this match at least.
Aspley, on the other hand, found even more gears to leave Thunder in its dust.
Goals to Warren, his third, Zac Buechner and Connor Stackelberg seemed a fitting way to close the story of a game that had many plot twists, but in hindsight, came to the most likely conclusion.
Despite the loss, Thunder coach Andrew Hodges was pleased with the improved energy of his players and their efforts to reel in Aspley.
“It’s obviously disappointing not to get the four points,” he said, “but I felt for parts of today we improved in areas that we needed to.
“That was a strong focus for us this week. We just wanted an improved attitude and to stay engaged in the game for longer periods than we had.
“We still had some of those lapses today, and those lapses came off the back of some of our mistakes. We just didn’t transition quick enough from offence to defence to shut that down.”
Hodges lamented Thunder’s slow start in the first term.
“Early in the first quarter we had the first two shots on goal, and if we’d kicked those two goals the players get a bit of excitement, a bit of confidence, but we allowed Aspley to kick four easy goals in that first quarter and we were behind it most of the day,” he said.
Thunder went into the match with a beefed-up midfield in an attempt to improve its clearances from the stoppages, and Hodges said the plan brought some success.
“In the midfield, we had a really good midfield group, a lot of AFL experience, so we needed to make sure we put some big bodied players in there,” Hodges said.
“Cammy (Ilett), Joey (Anderson), Richie (Tambling), Paddy (Boles) and Tylah Saunders spent more time on-ball this week, just to give us that presence around the contest and I think for the most of the game, clearances were fairly even across the board, which was pleasing.”
Hodges said there were more positive signs in the way his forward line functioned during the game, giving Ewing improved delivery.
“I felt we made some inroads today,” Hodges said. “We needed to get the ball in quicker to him and really make him a focal point, and we did that, and our delivery to him was a lot better.
“We were probably our own worst enemy over the last three or four weeks in terms of messing around with the footy a little bit just forward of centre and across half-forward. Today was a real focus to get the ball in quick to put Boof (Ewing) one-on-one and give him an opportunity to kick a score, and he did that.”
Hodges fielded another debutant in the match, Cam Glover from Alice Springs, the 15th to debut for Thunder this season, and despite the large-scale turnover this year, he says there are signs the side is heading in the right direction.
“They’re (Aspley) a good side,” Hodges said. “They had a slow start to the season, but they’ve really bounced back, and they’re a really good side.
“They’re good around the contest and they look dangerous when the ball goes forward so they’re a very good side.
“I think the inside 50s were even for the game. We just didn’t take those opportunities enough when it went inside 50.
“We’re generating opportunities for ourselves; we’ve just got to be better at finishing it.”
Thunder will be on the road again next week, this time to the nation’s capital to take on the Canberra Demons.
ASPLEY: 4.2, 8.8, 11.11, 15.14 (104)
NT THUNDER: 0.2, 3.4, 7.6, 10.7 (67)
GOALS: Aspley – Jono Freeman 4, Ben Warren 3, Jackson Allen, Harrison Pearce 2, Zac Buechner, Matt Payne, Connor Stackelberg, Andrew Swallow.
NT Thunder – Darren Ewing 5, Hugo Drogemuller, Shannon Rioli 2, Jarrod Stokes.
BEST: Aspley – Matt Payne, Ben Warren, Andrew Swallow, William Gowers, Jono Freeman, Harrison Pearce.
NT Thunder – Shannon Rioli, Cameron Ilett, Darren Ewing, Richard Tambling, Joe Anderson, Sam Smith.