By Murray Silby
It’s already been a highly successful season for NT Thunder in its inaugural VFL W season, but there’s still more work to be done.
In its first year in the VFL W, in it’s first year in existence, Thunder will play in the finals with the intention of extending the fairytale until the very end.
Drawing on players the length of the Stuart Highway from Adelaide to Alice Springs and Darwin and with quotas for AFLW players to adhere to, it’s been a remarkable logistical assignment for coach Tim Weatherald and his support team during the season.
“It’s almost like a little bit of a puzzle we need to put together,” Weatherald said.
“The way the selection process works is we can pick six Adelaide-based players, who’ve played AFLW and six Darwin-based players who’ve played AFLW. We’re only allowed to pick one player who’s under 18 or a community player and then there works out to be about 11 local non-AFLW players as well.
“So it’s almost like four little groups that we need to go through and work out where they all fit and what fits best. Yes, it’s been a real battle. I guess because we’ve got so many players who have done so well and to get into that the final 23 this week is going to be a really tough job.
“It is tough and we obviously have to look at the opposition as well, Geelong is quite a big, tall side so we’re definitely looking at them. We’re looking at who’s performed during the year and who we think will be the best team to win this week.”
Easier to manage has been Thunder’s injury list, given it’s been reasonably short for most of the season.
Only Deni Varnhagen (broken wrist) and Gemma Cusack (hamstring) are certain not to play, while Kylie Duggan is being monitored for knee soreness.
Sore players have been assisted by a significant break since Thunder’s last game of the season, a 25-point Round 15 loss to Hawthorn.
“It’s been a tricky three weeks because we had the bye in the last round and then last week it was the whole competition bye so it was a bit tricky that first week because we all wanted to play finals straight away, but at the end of last week and the start of this week it’s become really exciting and you can see we’re training with something on the end of it this week,” Weatherald said.
Thunder played an intraclub practice game in order to keep the players match fit, but the question to be answered is whether that will be enough to ensure the NT side is ready to jump the Cats from the start as it did in Round 9 at TIO Stadium.
Ferocious tackling pressure and attack on the ball from the opening bounce seemed to shock the Cats, from which they never recovered, losing by 65 points.
“That’s how we’ve played all year and I don’t think we’ll change anything now it’s finals,” Weatherald said.
“Just from every game we’ve tried to go onto the front foot from the first quarter and we’ve built our game around putting pressure on the opposition. If we can force turnovers and get the ball into our forward area as many times as we can we’re going to score goals.
“So we’ll definitely build the game again like that and really try to get it into Geelong early.”
Scoring goals is something Thunder has done very well this season.
The frequent flyers are also flying on the scoreboard and are the highest scoring side in the competition.
At the completion of the regular season after 14 rounds Thunder had scored 196 points more than ladder leader Collingwood. Geelong was third, 204 points behind the NT and Hawthorn fourth, 207 points behind the Territorians.
All four sides are finalists and play this weekend with the Magpies taking on second-placed Hawthorn in the first semi-final on Saturday.
The main avenues to goal for Thunder have been Jessica Sedunary with 15, which placed her third on the league goal-kicking table behind Carlton’s Darcy Vescio (26).
Jordan Hickey booted 14 and captain Angela Foley and Emma Swanson 10 each.
Geelong has its goal-scoring capabilities too though with Kate Darby fourth on the list with 15, Mia-Rae Clifford with 14 and Danielle Orr 13.
Of the four sides in the finals, Thunder’s defence lets more points in, 102 more than Collingwood, which had the tightest defence.
Thunder, however, has the best percentage of the four teams – 193.26 – compared to Collingwood, which is next best with 185.06, meaning it has a pretty good balance between defence and attack.
Collingwood and Hawthorn have the double chance, given they finished first and second respectively, but Thunder and Geelong must win to prolong their survival.
“It’s cut throat for us,” Weatherald said. “We’ve got three games, to win the premiership we’ve got three games in Melbourne. They’re all Sunday games too so it’s a little bit different.”
Leading from the front will be Foley, the team’s first ever best and fairest winner.
Foley’s win in the award ahead of Jasmyn Hewett and Emma Swanson continues a line of firsts for the determined on-baller.
“I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in a few firsts, with the Adelaide Crows (in 2017) and winning that inaugural premiership as well, so I said to someone on Friday night that I do pinch myself a little bit and I think I’ll sit back in a few years and be able to reflect on my time in the Northern Territory for the Thunder and obviously for the Crows and know that I’ve been a part of something that’s pretty special,” she said.
Foley says there’s a great atmosphere around the club with the squad preparing for the finals, but with an awareness that there’s still plenty of work to be done.
“It’s been a massive year for us,” she said. “The inaugural year for the women in the NT Thunder colours. We’ve had a great year, don’t get me wrong, it’s a pretty special feeling to make finals in our first year, but I suppose we’re making sure we do all the right things to prepare well for our first final.
“I was lucky enough to win the medal, which I’m pretty honored to get the first one. I kept saying in all my speeches it’s really hard to celebrate something like that when you’ve got hopefully three big weeks ahead of you and the ultimate prize is to win the premiership so hopefully in three weeks’ time I can celebrate the individual achievement, but most importantly a premiership.
“There is a bit of a buzz around the club. The girls are nervous, but excited at the same time.”
VFL W 2nd semi-final – NT Thunder v Geelong, 11.45 am Sunday 9 September, Stannards Stadium, Williamstown Road, Port Melbourne.