by Murray Silby
By most measures, NT Thunder’s 2018 NEAFL season was a tough one.
A finalist the year before, 2018 saw Thunder competitive for large portions of games, but struggling to contain teams as they got a run on in quarters and repeatedly conceded several goals in succession.
2018 was a season when the trend of the “big bodied”, tall midfielder, that has developed in the AFL, reached the NEAFL and Thunder seemingly came up light as well as short.
As a result, while Southport was powering towards its first ever NEAFL premiership win in the grand final against Sydney, Thunder’s hierarchy was already reviewing why the club had slumped to second last on the ladder with five wins and 13 losses.
Among the changes since has been a move of coach Andrew Hodges into a management role overseeing both the Thunder men’s and women’s teams and Darren Reeves, an assistant coach at Central Districts in the South Australian National Football League (SANFL), appointed to replace him.
Reeves said he’s familiar with the NEAFL and Thunder, having watched the league in his previous role with Central Districts.
“I’ve been involved in the SANFL for the last couple of years, and we’ve looked at the NEAFL competition in terms of recruiting,” he said.
“I’d watched a heap of NT Thunder games over the last couple of years. I always had a sort of following for the Thunder, and I wanted to coach at this level, and the opportunity came up.
“The brand of footy that’s played up here in the NTFL and the NT is exciting. It’s a fast brand. They want to play with flair, they want to move the ball forward and look to score, and that probably resonates with me in terms of how I like to see the game played.”
Reeves said the club’s coaching and recruitment staff identified early a need to get some bigger bodies into the squad for 2019.
“Clint Gallio was one early who came on board,” Reeves explained. “We then targeted a couple of others. Jacob Templeton was one from South Australia, who just fitted that bill perfectly, particularly when Sam Smith got injured.
“Jacob Templeton’s 193 centimetres, has played 60-70 SANFL games as a key position type, but over the last few years he’s transitioned into midfield roles and won a Magarey Reserves Medal playing as a midfielder.
“Then Nathaniel Paredes, although he’s coming back from a broken leg, we know what he can do, we’ve all seen that in the NTFL and Dylan Barry, who’s done a full pre-season at Norwood in the SANFL and played some SANFL trials, has relocated back to the Northern Territory.
“We’re really excited by what we’ve been able to add. We think we’ve got some really nice talent in terms of mids (midfielders) in our program, who are going to benefit from those guys being part of it.”
Shannon Rioli will captain Thunder again in 2019 but will be joined by last year’s vice-captain, Abraham Ankers, as a co-captain.
Rioli said the players are excited by the squad the club has been able to put together.
“I think they went out with a goal in mind to recruit in specific areas, which they identified as areas we needed strengthening in,” he said.
“We’re excited about who’s been brought in, and there’s going to be some really tough competition for spots now and that’s going to keep a lot of guys honest and working hard.”
Thunder has also received a boost in the ruck division with former Fremantle player Jack Hannath joining the cause.
At 201 centimetres tall and 102 kilograms in weight, the former AFL and SANFL ruckman will join forces with Jack Monigatti, who largely battled a series of giant ruckmen alone last season.
Hannath has moved to the Territory to further his career with the Northern Territory Institute of Sport helping to improve participation in all sports and the development of elite athletes, but he says he’ll be taking his footy as seriously as ever.
“A goal of mine is to keep playing at the highest level possible,” he said. “I enjoy the professionalism; I enjoy the high standards, I appreciate the challenges that go with state footy, particularly when you work. I’m quite determined to keep playing at that level and to be successful at that level.
“There are four AFL teams playing in the NEAFL as well. These guys are obviously on an AFL list, and you get guys coming back who’ve got quite a lot of AFL experience, who are maybe coming back to form or from injury, so it’s a good measuring stick for you.
“I think having that level of competition; it’s just one of the factors that made me want to come up and challenge myself in a new league.”
Hannath worked with Reeves when they were both with Central Districts and says the chance to play under him with Thunder was an incentive to make the move.
“He was someone I connected with (at Centrals) really well,” Hannath said. “In terms of coaching, and as a person, he’s one of the more genuine and caring people that I’ve come across. He’s connected to his players.”
Running backman and Southern Districts premiership star Michael Bowden is returning to the club after missing the last two seasons.
Bowden last played with Thunder in 2016 and said the squad is starting to come together.
“To get all these players coming together it’s pretty hard to do, and it’s pretty amazing that we manage to do it,” Bowden said.
“I think Hodgey said 18 new people are playing this year, but we’re all jelling together pretty well.”
Bowden is the grandson of Richmond premiership player Michael, the son of former Richmond player Sean and the nephew of Joel and Patrick, who also played for Richmond.
Bowden said he welcomes the support from the family when he plays.
“My family’s always part of me and they always want the best for me,” he said. “My Dad’s always very positive and Granddad loves to watch the games and he’s always giving me feedback, so it’s good hearing about how you played from the grandstands from my family. It’s always positive.
“My Dad said I’d probably dust him back in the day, but he’s a bit modest.”
Thunder will also have to find new avenues to goal with club legend Darren Ewing and the mercurial Adam Sambono both missing from the side this season.
Ewing kicked more than 700 goals in his 10-year Thunder career and leaves a gaping hole that captain Shannon Rioli said one single player is unlikely to fill.
Rioli said Kieran Delahunty, the NTFL’s leading goal-kicker Trent Melville, Will Farrer, Jacob Templeton, Ross Tungatalum, Dean Staunton and Adam Tipungwuti are all likely to move through the forward line in what is expected to be less predictable than in previous seasons.
“We have options to replace Boof (Ewing), who gave us so much for so long,” Rioli said. “But it won’t happen overnight.”
Another club legend, former captain Cameron Ilett has also retired, taking along with him, not only his skill but also his experience and versatility.
Reeves though, said he’s happy with how the squad is coming together now that the NTFL season is over.
“Through January and February I was really struggling with how it was growing and developing, just in terms of how much access I had to them (the players) while they were playing NTFL, but I was much happier once we sat down and worked out our thought process and how we were going to attack it moving forward,” Reeves said.
Reeves and his players have had limited preparation as a squad, due to the NTFL only wrapping up with its grand final on the 16th of March, and the reality of players being based as far away as Alice Springs.
But Reeves said that’s also a strength for the club.
“That’s the great thing about our program,” Reeves said. “It gives opportunities to everyone around the Territory to play at this level without having to move away from home.”
Thunder will be given plenty of opportunity to test its unity and new-found strength against Brisbane at TIO Stadium in Darwin on Saturday night.
NEAFL Round 1, NT Thunder vs Brisbane Lions, Saturday 6 April - 6.30 pm at TIO Stadium, Darwin.