By Murray Silby
Ask Daniel “Weeties” Weetra about his outstanding form in defence for NT Thunder this NEAFL season and his response is simple, candid and more than a little amusing.
“You know when you’re in decent form, but when it’s coming down there as much as it has this year you’re bound to get your chances,” he said in his understated manner.
It hasn’t been an easy season for Thunder. Approaching Round 15 against fifth-placed GWS Giants in Darwin this Saturday night, it sits last on the ladder with just the one victory.
And if it hasn’t been easy for the Thunder squad as a whole, it’s been even tougher for its defensive half and Weetra is one of its backline generals, who’ve constantly been under fire from opposition attacks.
But as I say, ask him about his fine form under such pressures and he’ll quickly deflect the praise to the defensive team within the team.
“I think together as a back six as a whole we’ve held up really well considering the heavy flow of scoring we’ve come up against, but it’s just about playing your part,” Weetra said.
“If you do that together you’re bound to have a few moments individually and I’ve just been able to do that.”
The heavy defeats that were a regular occurrence earlier in the season have dried up in recent weeks and been replaced by losses that could be described as “brave” or “fighting” and given an indication that a second win may not be too far away.
Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that Thunder’s back six have been performing remarkably well during that time, plugging the leaking of earlier in the season and replacing it with intercepts and counterattacks.
Weetra credits the adversity Thunder has experienced for the quick development of a young defensive half built around himself and Ben Rioli.
“When you come together you gel as a group when you’re under fire and things are hard and you’ve got to keep everyone up and about,” he explains.
“When it comes down there you’re constantly encouraging blokes and Benny and I have always thrived on being under pressure because that’s what it is like when you’re in the backline. You’re under pressure to stop goals and to stop your man directly.
“With a few senior blokes going down like Joey Anderson at the start of the year it fast tracked us as a group so young blokes like Kieren Parnell and Brandon Rusca, when he’s been down there, you gel quicker because you are under that pressure.
“So in that sense, that’s brought us closer as a group and in turn there’s a bit more care for your team-mates because you’re battling with them each week and you’re trying to keep each other up and about. That galvanizes a group that’s for sure.”
Weetra says he’s been amazed by 20-year-old Parnell’s development after successive knee reconstructions that kept him out of the game for a couple of seasons.
“I think coming back from an ACL is always hard and you don’t expect anyone to hit their strips quite as quickly as he has, but he’s been super impressive,” Weetra said.
“He gets a big job every week, but his progression from the first few weeks when he was finding his feet and trying to get his confidence back in his body to where he’s at now, he’s probably one of, if not, our best player over the last month so to see him do that gives the other young guys a lot of faith. He’s the one that’s really stood out for me.”
It must help young players walk a little taller as well when they have the likes of Ben Rioli and Daniel Weetra alongside them.
At 180 centimetres tall, Weetra is of relatively small stature for a key backman, but the 28-year-old is known for an uncanny skill of outbodying larger opponents or his superior reading of the play, meaning many of Thunder’s attacks start in defence.
“You get used to coming up against those big bodies and timing’s a big thing for me,” he said. “I can’t get caught wrestling with these bigger boys so if I can try and get a jump at it and bring it to ground I know I’m half a chance when it gets to ground level.
“At the end of the day I’m a really competitive person. I hate getting beaten, so that spurs me on and I’d like to think that gets me over the line in most contests.”
The Weetra family is another of those Darwin families with a long history of footy success in the NT and Daniel is aware that his place in the Thunder squad continues that unfinished story.
“It (playing for Thunder) means a lot for me because all my uncles and my Dad (Darrin) have played a lot of footy up here for St Mary’s and a few NT teams back then,” he said.
“So to carry on the name in a sense, or that tradition, the family name, and just to keep them involved in that footy community, to keep those relationships going with the likes of Benny Rioli, all of our fathers and uncles have played together so that tradition means a lot to me. That’s how I could sum it up I suppose.
“They all played in their fair share of premierships so they all got five or six at St Mary’s. My uncle Tommy won the Nichols Medal when he was at St Mary’s. They’re no more special than a lot of the other big families up here, but they still had a presence and it’s something I’m proud of and something to try and carry forward.”
Weetra will carry that tradition forward on Saturday night when Thunder hosts GWS at TIO Stadium and he’s confident it’ll be a happy anecdote in the story.
In the past two rounds Thunder has pushed both second-placed Southport and third-placed Sydney deep into the final quarter of their respective matches, losing by 15 and 19 points respectively and Weetra feels better is still to come.
“The last month or so has been really positive for us,” he said. “It’s hard because you’re not winning, but if you can take away little wins where you’re implementing little things that the coach is putting to you and seeing them come to the fore in games you’re improving.
“We were unlucky not to come away with the win on the weekend. Like I said, it’s steady progress, but it’s still progress nonetheless, we’ve got confidence going into the next game that our effort’s up to scratch, that our ability to follow the coach’s instructions is up to scratch, it’s now little moments.
“There were little moments where, whether it be a little skill error by whoever, it just let us down so if we can continue to be consistent in those areas, like effort and persisting through the game and then control moments when we can and be a little bit more polished and a little bit better, we’re confident we can come away with a result,” Weetra declared.
With only 11-listed AFL players, GWS was soundly beaten to the tune of 49 points by top-placed Brisbane, which fielded 20 AFL-listed players, and Thunder’s planning a similar ambush in Round 15.
“Despite how it might look, and we’ve had a really tough season, the group is in a really good space mentally going forward,” Weetra said.
“We understand the process now and we’ve got a young group and we’re really starting to gel at the moment so there’s a really positive feeling around the club and everyone’s up and about for this week.”
NEAFL Round 15: NT Thunder vs GWS Giants – 6.30pm ACST Saturday 13 July, TIO Stadium