The toughest challenge in the NEAFL awaits NT Thunder this Saturday when they travel to Sydney to take on the Swans in their Round 17 clash at the SCG.
The Swans have lost just one of their 14 games this season and are clear leaders on top of the NEAFL ladder two wins ahead of second-placed Brisbane. Thunder is in fourth spot with nine wins and five losses to their credit.
The travelling Thunder will be serious underdogs going into the game but will be determined to put in a strong showing to honour the career of stalwart Cameron Ilett, who this week announced his intention to retire from NEAFL football at the end of the season.
Described as one of the NEAFL’s finest ever players, the 32-year-old told the Thunder playing group of his decision at training on Tuesday.
“This has been a really tough decision to make, but I knew coming into this season that it was probably going to be my last. Not that it makes it any easier,” Ilett said.
“I’m still passionate about footy and love playing alongside the boys every week, but I’m looking forward to spending more time with my family.”
He’ll be retiring at the top of his game too. A five-time best and fairest winner at the club, Ilett leads the NEAFL’s MVP award, having polled the maximum 10 votes for his performance in Thunder’s 12-point win over Aspley last weekend.
Ilett gathered 27 disposals and six rebound 50s in that match and now leads the league MVP award by four votes over Southport’s Jordan Keras.
In a sign of the talent at Sydney’s disposal though, midfielder/forward Jordan Dawson is in third place.
He was also awarded 10 votes for his 31 disposals and four goals against the GWS Giants on the weekend, putting him five votes behind Keras.
The key to Thunder’s chances will be the opportunities its forwards get during the game.
Full forward Darren Ewing leads the NEAFL goal-kicking by 14 goals over Redland’s Jackson Paine and can make opposition sides pay if he gets the chance.
There’s no shortage of other scoring options in the Thunder forward line either, including Francis Kinthari or Adam Sambono, should he return to the side after representative duties.
That will depend on Thunder’s onballers, such as Ilett, Abraham Ankers and Matt Rossier being on top in the clearances.
Ruckmen Ryan Smith and Neil Vea Vea will have a big challenge in getting the ball to them if Kurt Tippett is ruled fit for Sydney.
The Swans had their problems last week with their ruck position though when Tippett was injured. It left the side without a recognised ruckman.
If it’s not Tippett though, the Swans could have Callum Sinclair lineup for them in the ruck. Like Tippett, a well known AFL player, Sinclair would provide a huge challenge for the Thunder duo.
The Swans have plenty more AFL-listed talent in their side though, including on-ball brigade Oliver Florent, Jordan Foote, Brandon Jack, James Rose and Sam Fisher, have also been in fine form.
Thunder coach Andrew Hodges recognises the huge task his side has ahead of it.
“It’s a massive challenge this week against the Sydney Swans,” he said.
“The Swans have been the benchmark this season, and unfortunately we went down to them earlier in the year, and we’re looking forward to the challenge this week of taking them on, and it’s going to be a huge ask on their home deck at the SCG.
“We’ve had a couple of good wins here at home in the last few weeks and this week will give us a good indication of where we’re at regarding our season and obviously playing the top side at its home ground will always be a challenge,” Hodges said.
Thunder’s task won’t be made any easier with some big outs, including skipper Shannon Rioli and his brother Ben, who have family commitments on the Tiwi Islands, the likely omission of key forward Hugo Drogemuller through injury and key defender Justin Beugelaar is expected to miss another week because of injury.
The Sydney versus Thunder game will be a curtain-raiser to the Sydney Swans versus St Kilda AFL match that will follow.
NEAFL Round 17: Sydney Swans vs NT Thunder – Saturday 3.45pm, SCG, Sydney