by Murray Silby
NT Thunder has continued its recent resurgent form, getting to within two points of third-placed Sydney in the final quarter of their Round 14 NEAFL match before succumbing by 19 points, 10.6 (66) to 12.13 (85).
Playing at home on TIO Stadium in Darwin, the Thunder followed up its fighting 15-point loss to second-placed reigning premier Southport last week with another consistent effort against last year’s runner-up, the Swans, on Saturday night.
Searching for its second win of the season, Thunder’s start wasn’t ideal with the Swans kicking the first goals of the game, including one from mercurial AFL-listed forward Daniel Menzel and another from Swans academy member Johnny Pawle.
A Josiah Farrer snap after 17 minutes was Thunder’s only major for the quarter, but Jackson Barling and Joel Armartey added another two for the Swans to give the visitors a 20-point lead at quarter-time.
Already Sydney’s AFL-listed players were making their presence felt, including AFL premiership player Kieren Jack, who gathered eight disposals in the term and had a hand in a couple of goals.
When Sam Wicks broke a series of attempted tackles in the Sydney goal inside two minutes of the second quarter getting underway, Thunder had fallen 27 points behind the Swans.
Some improved defensive pressure led to Abraham Ankers kicking his first after four-and-a-half minutes, but the general of Thunder’s defence, Daniel Weetra, then went down with what appeared to be a hip injury making fans of the home side more than a little concerned.
Pawle booted his second of the game at the 17-minute mark, and the margin was out to 28 points.
Weetra’s return to the field seemed to spark a mini-comeback with Thunder kicking the next two goals, including a second of the term for Ankers and one from Adam Tipungwuti against his old side.
The 16-point margin at half-time reflected Thunder’s greater ability to withstand an opposition team’s pressure and then to exert its own in the later stages of the quarter.
Jack added to his 20 disposals of the first half within a couple of minutes of the second getting underway. He would have preferred to have made more of his opportunity from a set shot than the behind he did score, but another AFL star in Menzel displayed his goal-kicking brilliance with a shot from the boundary.
Jack’s opponent, Nate Paredes, put his own brilliance on display a few minutes later by bouncing his clever snap for goal through the big sticks, only for Cooper Kilpatrick to pull it back through a 50-metre penalty and a straight kick.
Dylan Barry then converted a free kick for being taken too high to bring the margin back to 19 points at three-quarter-time.
The comeback was truly on early in the last, and it took just three minutes for the Swans’ feathers to be ruffled.
A brilliant dodge and weave and goal by Nigel Lockyer, after perfectly reading the ball off the pack in the Thunder goal square, was followed up by his second from a contested mark and set shot moments later, putting Thunder within seven points of the Swans.
Barling steadied for Sydney with a mark and goal from directly in front, but Thunder kept coming.
Brandon Rusca made the most from a free kick for being tackled too high, and Barry followed up with a fine effort from 50 metres out after taking an intercept mark.
Now within two points of suffering a huge upset, Sydney’s talented midfield rose to the challenge, recording the next three clearances and subsequently the next three goals.
Kyle Martin, Zac Foote and Pawle lining up to restore order and the victory.
Thunder coach Darren Reeves was proud of his side’s effort to stay in touch with Sydney, despite not having the best start, but said individual moments are sometimes letting it down at crucial times.
“We love the effort we’re giving, and what we’re seeing from a really young group, but speaking to the group afterwards, it’s just moments,” Reeves said.
“What are we doing to be better in those moments? That’s the next step for us. What are we doing training nights, away from training nights, what are we doing to make sure we don’t let ourselves down in those type of moments?”
Although some of the Swans midfield – Ryan Clarke (28 disposals), Jack (25) and Ryley Stoddart (24) – amassed some pretty big numbers and were able to produce those vital clearances in the final term, Reeves was pleased with the efforts of the likes of Ankers (31 disposals) and Paredes (21).
“Apart from the first quarter, I thought we did an excellent job around stoppages,” he said. “We knew if they got outside us, they had some really good leg speed and some talented players that they were going to be hard to stop so we were really mindful of trying to get that right.
“Again, it comes back to those moments (centre clearances in the find quarter). We’ve got to win that next moment, and as a young, developing group, there’s probably three or four (moments) in the last quarter that let us down.
“Now the challenge is to go and improve that during the week.”
Thunder’s back half was again magnificent, with Weetra (24 disposals) and Ben Rioli (23) leading the way.
“Even after he got injured Weetra was superb wasn’t he? (Abraham) Ankers was superb. I thought (Nate) Paredes played his best game. He was a catalyst to a lot of our forward moves and gave us opportunities,” Reeves said.
The coach also praised the youngsters in his squad. A long list of injuries to regular starters has opened opportunities to several younger players and Reeves said they’re grabbing them with both hands.
“I thought Joel Budarick, in his first game, we sent him to Daniel Menzel and Menzel has five possessions for the night and kicks two, but only one of those was on Joel. Joel was off the ground when he kicked the other one. It was outstanding from a kid in his first game at NEAFL level,” Reeves said.
“I thought Joel Stevens, again, goes to Ryley Stoddart, who was a really dominant player for them in the first quarter-and-a-half, goes to him and does a really good job on him and then has a couple of opportunities to score himself. Another day, a bit more composed, and he kicks those.
“Brandon Rusca had a couple of good moments. Some young kids just doing everything right, which is really positive.”
Reeves said Thunder’s improving ability to match it for more extended periods against some of the NEAFL’s most talented teams is bringing better results, even if it is still searching for that elusive second victory.
“They (the Swans) are quality,” he said. “They still had 14 AFL-listed players playing tonight, and we know they’ve got a strong academy and can bring in players who are ready and strong bodied.
“We were outsized again, but we were able to compete really hard.
“We were disappointed with our first quarter, but I thought our next three quarters were excellent.
“Earlier in the year, if we had a quarter lapse, we tended to be like that for the rest of the game, but the positive is the young group is able to find something and improve for the next three quarters, so that’s really positive.
“We didn’t let it get out of hand, which was a positive. We still scrapped it out, but we’ve got to make the most of our opportunities too, we just didn’t do that.”
NT THUNDER 1.2, 4.3, 6.4, 10.6 (66)
SYDNEY 4.4, 6.7, 8.11, 12.13 (85)
GOALS: NT Thunder – Abraham Ankers 2, Dylan Barry 2, Nigel Lockyer 2, Josiah Farrer, Nate Paredes, Brandon Rusca, Adam Tipungwuti.
Sydney Swans – Johnny Pawle 3, Jackson Barling 2, Daniel Menzel 2, Joel Armartey, Zac Foote, Cooper Kilpatrick, Kyle Martin, Sam Wicks.
BEST: NT Thunder – Nate Paredes, Abraham Ankers, Daniel Weetra, Joel Budarick, Ben Rioli, Cohen Thiele.
Sydney Swans – Ryan Clarke, Kieren Jack, Ryley Stoddart, John Pawle, Cooper Kilpatrick, Toby Pink.