By Kyle Champion
It was a fight from the beginning of the game as NT Thunder fell short in the last quarter. The final score saw Melbourne Uni 6.10 (46) defeat a brave Thunder 4.5 (29).
From the opening bounce, Melbourne Uni was winning plenty of ball early. The Mugars were peppering the goal face but coming up short with minor scores.
A great contested mark by Katie Streader set up the slingshot but failed to reach Thunder’s attacking half.
After four straight behinds by the Mugars, Sophie Abbatangelo kicked the first goal of the day.
Melbourne Uni was pressing again but Lisa Roberts was proving pivotal in defence as a chase down tackle managed to stop the Mugars in their tracks.
Steve-Lee Thompson, Janet Baird and Sally Riley were also starting to get plenty of the ball as Thunder began to raise their intensity.
Thompson managed to find Danielle Ponter up forward who managed to get boot to ball under enormous pressure but ultimately fell short.
A 50-metre penalty had Sally Riley line up for goal, but the kick was wayward as Melbourne Uni finished the term with a nine-point lead.
In the second term, Thunder was on the attack. Baird and Thompson were bombarding the Mugars defence but struggled to score due to Jess Duffin’s influence.
But Melbourne Uni was struggling to move the ball forward as Deni Varnhagen was proving excellent at rebounding from Thunder’s defensive 50.
Charlie Deegan was also making her presence felt. She was taking up the ruck duties and despite the height advantage of Melbourne Uni, Deegan was outreaching her opponent and feeding Thunder’s midfield well.
A great intercept mark by Riley managed to find Thompson but she failed to convert. Ponter was next to have a crack at goal but her kick was also a missed opportunity.
Melbourne Uni hit back after a 50-meter penalty gifted Courtney Daniec her first major for the day.
Thunder needed a score and Ponter delivered. After a great chase down tackle in the goal square, Ponter made no mistake in delivering the first goal for Thunder.
A great clearance from Janet Baird would soon follow as it bounced in Michelle Ellis lap who unleashed a bomb that bounced through the big sticks just before halftime.
Thunder had the lead by one point as NT were giving the fight of their lives.
In the second half, Melbourne Uni tensed their muscles. Katie Angelis walked into an open goal which soon was followed by a set shot by Abbatangelo who kicked her second.
Luckily Thompson unleashed the afterburners from the next bounce and barrelled the ball inside 50.
The ball managed to sit for Lateesha Jeffrey who strolled into an open goal and pegged back the margin for her first major of the season.
Unfortunately, Melbourne Uni hit back after a free kick for too high awarded Emma Kearney a shot at goal from 40 metres out.
Kearney roosted the ball high enough to pass Thunder’s defence but NT was not going away.
Baird, Jeffrey, Thompson all brought the pressure as the game turned into a scrap. The quarter ended with Melbourne Uni ahead by 14 points.
In the final act, NT were on the attack. The ball was living inside Thunder’s forward line and soon Ponter delivered again with a beautiful snap around the corner.
Thunder had a sniff but the Mugars responded through Cleo Saxon-Jones who got her first major out the back of the NT defence.
Time was the enemy and the game was slipping away. Sophie Armistead, Baird and Jeffrey all threw themselves into the contest.
Desperate acts saw stoppage after stoppage as both teams were fighting for every inch of turf.
But with all the AFLW talent the Mugars had, Melbourne Uni soaked up the time and claimed victory. The end result saw the Mugars escape by 17 points to end a well-fought game.
Coach Heidi Thompson was happy with her team’s effort but felt Melbourne Uni took control in the third term.
“This last game was all about building our momentum and executing our game plan,” Thompson said.
“We did that in the first quarter but in the third, we probably dropped our effort a little bit and they were able to dictate the terms. Overall I was really happy, the intent was there. We had huge wins and gains in our forward line today which has been struggling throughout the season. We were able to get some run on and our forward line showed some real active movement.”
Injury and unavailability was a heavy task to endure for Thunder throughout the season, but Thompson looks at this situation as a positive result for NT.
“Due to unavailability and injury, we haven’t had a lot of AFLW players available,” Thompson said. “I believe it’s a good thing because it gives our girls some exposure who didn’t have that opportunity before. It gives our NT products a chance to get out there and stand up. I thought today we saw that in a number of players. Latesha Jeffrey being pushed up forward and giving her a role to play. She did that well and then kicked that goal which was really pleasing and makes me proud to be involved in this program.”
Six out of eight NT Central Allies players made their debut this year for Thunder. Thompson was hoping to give the young talent enough exposure to a higher level of football.
“It was one of my aims for the year,” Thompson said. “I wanted to see if they could handle the heat and the pressure at that level. I thought all of them that played certainly did that today. Tayla Hart-Aluni was much better today and she’s finding her feet. Shantel Miskin-Ripia was put in the midfield as a bigger body and she’ll be a fantastic player for years to come. Bella Clarke would have got a run today but unfortunately, she injured herself.”
The season may be over but even though there hasn’t been an official announcement, it looks like Thunder will return to the VFLW in 2020.
“Once it’s all confirmed I’m sure it’ll come out in the media,” Thompson said. “But at this stage, we’ve been told that we will continue our program in the VFLW and that’s the way forward to get our girls drafted through exposure to the next level.”
Jeffrey was also proud of her team as there appeared to be no passengers in this last game of 2019.
“I think everybody played their role today,” she said. “We really pushed it to them and I think we really made them earn their spot for finals, that’s for sure.”
This was Jeffrey’s first year as captain of NT Thunder and although it was difficult at times, she was well supported by her team.
“It was really really challenging,” she said. “The girls as a team made it easier on me and our leadership group was amazing. Our support staff was amazing as well and it was a huge honour to be captain this year.”
On a high note for the season, Tayla Thorn was just recently signed with the AFLW Gold Coast Suns. Jeffrey has played alongside Thorn for two years and couldn’t be happier for her.
“Tayla is like a little sister to me,” Jeffrey said. “Getting her back on the right path has been amazing and that’s exactly what this team is about. It’s about exposing our girls to that elite level and more AFLW teams so we can get our girls drafted.”
For Jeffrey, it’s back to NTFL women’s league. Her local club Southern Districts is itching for another crack at next seasons flag.
“We’ve got some unfinished business,” Jeffrey said. “At local footy, we can take what we’ve learned from this season and take it to our clubs. I’m going to miss the girls but I’m obviously going to see them because I’m playing up against them now. I’m not looking forward to chasing Streader.”
Although it has been a challenging year, the future for the NT Thunder at VFLW looks bright. This pathway has been crucial to the development of NT women and hopefully Thunder stays in the VFLW for years to come.
NT Thunder: 0.1 I 2.5 I 3.5 I 4.5 (29)
Melbourne Uni: 1.4 I 2.4 I 5.6 I 6.10 (46)
NT Thunder: Danielle Ponter 2, Michelle Ellis, Lateesha Jeffrey
Melbourne Uni: Sophie Abbatangelo 2, Courtney Daniec, Katie Angelis, Emma Kearney, Cleo Saxon-Jones
NT Thunder: Deni Varnhagen, Janet Baird, Sally Riley, Charlie Deegan, Danielle Ponter, Lisa Roberts
Melbourne Uni: Jenna Brutton, Jess Duffin, Emma Kearny, Sophie Abbatangelo, Ashleigh Riddell, Brittany Gibson