by Murray Silby
Still hurting after its big loss to Canberra last weekend, a bruised and battered NT Thunder gets its shot at redemption in Alice Springs on Saturday night.
Thunder will host Redland for its Round 17 NEAFL game in the Red Centre and will be desperate for a win to partially erase the memories of its inhospitable visit to the nation’s capital in Round 16.
Severely undermanned through injury and player unavailability, Thunder suffered a 145-point loss to a Canberra Demons side desperate to secure a finals berth.
One of the senior Thunder players missing from that side was co-captain Shannon Rioli.
Injured in Round 4 against Redland with a dislocated finger and torn ligaments and tendons, Rioli said the Thunder players have taken the loss to Canberra hard.
“Obviously they’re pretty disappointed,” he said. “The boys have been pretty flat, but one of the things over the last few years is that training’s always been a really positive space for us so at training the boys are in good spirits.”
Although Redland is sitting second last on the NEAFL ladder, one place and one win above Thunder, the Bombers are unlikely to be easy beats.
The two games the clubs have already played this season have been split with each taking a win apiece. Interestingly, with each team losing at home. (Thunder in Darwin)
Redland isn’t afraid of playing in Alice Springs either, winning the corresponding game there last season by 29 points and in 2016 by 27-points.
The Bombers offer another danger in the NEAFL’s leading goal-kicker Matt Hammelmann, who has taken a liking to playing against Thunder, and will have to be watched closely by Thunder’s defence.
The tall full-forward, who leads the goal-kicking table with 51 goals so far this season, has booted 13 majors in his two appearances against Thunder this year.
It’s not so long ago that Thunder had its own gun forward in Darren “Boof” Ewing, who until last weekend was the NEAFL games record holder, and remains the league’s goals record holder.
Ewing’s retirement is just another of the big holes Thunder has had to fill on its list this season, along with former captain and club champion Cameron Ilett.
“Two of the most experienced players, not just at our club, but in the entire competition,” Rioli said. “I think Cammy and Boof were probably in the top five or top 10 of games played in the NEAFL from when it started so you’re looking at legends of the competition and Territory footy.
“You’re looking at a guy who kicked 60, 70, 80, 90 goals a season for you regularly and then Cameron Ilett, who is Cameron Ilett!
“We knew it was going to be hard to replace him and Boof as well and that’s proved true. Then you lose someone like Sam Smith in the preseason with an ACL during the NTFL season, which hurts us.
“He was probably going to be that guy to step up and help fill that Cammy Ilett role through the midfield and then you lose Joey Anderson and Clint Gallio for the season. I’m done for the season as well. A number of other guys have injuries.”
Rioli said the outs have left Thunder threadbare in experience.
“I think Ben (Rioli) and I are the only ones with over 100 games of experience with Thunder,” he said. “You have Jack Hannath and Jacob Templeton, who have SANFL experience and then Joey Anderson (AFL), but then besides that I think there are only three players above 50 games for Thunder and then the rest of the guys are in their first, second or third season of NEAFL footy so you can see how that might lead to us being a bit inconsistent with our effort.”
Rioli said he’s doing his best to support the remainder of the squad from a role off the field but admits it’s frustrating not being able to contribute on the field.
“It is. Especially watching my brother Ben, who I’ve played all my Thunder footy with,” he said. “I think he’s played one season without me and I’ve played one season of Thunder footy without him.
“We’ve played most of our Thunder careers and junior careers at Saints (St Mary’s in the NTFL) playing together and our senior careers at Saints and to see him battling it out on the weekend and then somebody like Abe Ankers, our co-captain and understanding the weight and frustration that must be on his shoulders now, it just adds to the frustration of the injury, and then the results that we’ve been getting add to that.
“I’m just doing all I can to support the boys and spending one-on-one with the younger players, the older players and just help them prepare for games,” he added.
Rioli said there is an excitement around the promising youngsters, like Brodie Carroll and Kieren Parnell, who’ve been given their chance in the absence of more senior players on the list.
“That’s probably what it’s going to be about for the rest of the season,” Rioli suggested. “Getting games and getting development out of these younger players looking to next year.
“We’ve pushed Southport both times we’ve played them. The first three quarters against Sydney Uni. Last month when we played them down there for the second time we pushed them for three quarters and then in the last quarter we just faded and they ran away with the game so just those inconsistencies.
“You look at our list and there’s so much inexperience so we’re just continuing to build those players, but the feeling’s good. We all come in, we’ve got a smile on our face.
“The coaches do their best to ensure we’re in good spirits. The mood’s fine. It’d be a lot better if we were winning more games, but we understand our situation,” he said.
Rioli said the whole club has made a point of uniting in light of the challenges it faces.
“We just had a chat with club management and they’ve backed us and explained to us that they’re behind us and are supporting us in what we’re trying to do and hopefully there can be some little wins that we can get out of the rest of the season,” he said.
Obviously, the club is hoping to record wins in games, starting with this week against Redland, but Thunder is also looking at smaller milestones like the development of its younger players in the remainder of the season.
“Just looking at a couple of players and their development and in their performance on the weekend, you look at someone like Brodie Carroll in his first year, he had the most disposals for us and last week he kicked three goals so you see guys developing,” Rioli said.
“Hopefully we get some senior guys back this week and we can put in a good performance at our home down in Alice Springs against Redland, and hopefully we can get a win there.
“Then we can level ourselves on points with them because we don’t want that wooden spoon and if we can avoid that it’ll be one of those little wins we’re looking at.”
NEAFL Round 17: NT Thunder vs Redland – TIO Traeger Park, 6pm ACST Saturday 27 July