By Murray Silby
NT Thunder has put in one of its best performances in a couple of seasons after pushing the NEAFL’s reigning premier, Southport, all the way in their Round 6 match on Saturday, only to narrowly lose by 11 points, 16.11 (107) to 14.12 (96).
Playing on the undefeated Sharks’ home ground, Fankhauser Reserve, the match threatened to go the same way as a number of blow outs for Thunder in the past two seasons, with Thunder trailing its host by 29 points at half-time, but a six goals to three third term brought the visitors right back into the match.
Forward Trent Melville got the comeback underway within a couple of minutes of the third term starting, marking and kicking truly after a Clint Gallio intercept mark in defence had repelled another Sharks attack.
Melville would pop up with another from 50 metres out, two further goals from Shannon Rioli and singles from Adam Tipungwuti and Ben Taylor saw Thunder’s deficit shrivel to just three points after 29 minutes, but livewire Sharks forward Mitch Johnson kicked two of his own and Josh Hall another to give Southport some breathing space.
Hall’s followed a 50-metre penalty in Thunder’s defensive half, which released the pressure on the premiers, who went to the three-quarter-time huddle 11 points up.
The game looked all but out of Thunder’s reach when Southport kicked the first two goals of the final quarter, both to Hall, his fourth and fifth of the game, but Melville and Dean Staunton added goals in the second half of the quarter to put a huge upset on the table.
Gettable misses to Melville and Shannon Rioli, which might have gone through on another day, proved costly in the end.
Thunder’s strong performance was built on the foundations of relentless defence by its back six under pressure from Southport’s fancied on ball division.
For his relatively short stature, Ben Rioli was enormous. Perhaps best known as an outside player, Rioli was everywhere, both inside and outside, throwing himself into packs to extract the ball, or on the end of a string of handballs to finish.
His game was even more commendable given he was playing on the ball and “resting” in defence.
Also in defence, Joe Anderson and Darren Weetra were keys and Kieren Parnell played possibly his best match since returning from serious knee injuries.
It was a much improved team effort on the week before, in which Thunder was thrashed to the tune of 70 points by Gold Coast.
Thunder coach Darren Reeves described that performance as “horrible” and criticised his players for “not playing their roles … getting “smashed around the contest”, getting “sucked to the footy in numbers” and getting “exposed on the outside”.
It was a different story this week.
“We had to focus on a couple of things we needed to do and we mostly got that right today,” Reeves said. “While there’s heaps of stuff we need to improve on, the starting point is effort and if we can get that right I know we’re on the right track.
“We didn’t get it 100 percent right at times. We definitely got it much better in the second half and were able to hold space and be a lot more efficient with our hands and getting away from contests and once we did that our foot skills are as good as anyone’s so that’s the challenge, but we probably didn’t get it right in the first half, particularly in the second quarter.”
Reeves said he was particularly pleased with the players’ efforts given the number of injuries the side suffered during the match.
“Jess Budarick broke ribs early in the game, Dylan McLachlan did a calf early in the third quarter and Sam Dyke was on one leg after a big knock,” Reeves explained.
“Some guys were going on, who probably shouldn’t have been going on, just to give some guys, who were cooked, a rest.”
Reeves also said up to a dozen players, who couldn’t be considered on Saturday because of injury, might also be in the mix of Thunder’s best 22 when fit.
“We’ve spoken about the injuries we’ve got at the moment, but we put a side together and we planned together and came here to get our intent right and we put in a great effort for four quarters and I’m just really proud of the guys,” he said.
“Factor in that we were basically down to two rotations, or even one rotation with some injuries and blokes off the ground, so it was a hell of an effort to keep giving themselves an opportunity and we had some opportunities in the last quarter to win the game so that’s really pleasing.”
SOUTHPORT 5.3, 11.6, 14.9, 16.11 (107)
NT THUNDER 3.2, 6.7, 12.10, 14.12 (96)
GOALS: Southport – Josh Hall 5, Mitch Johnson 4, Trent Stubbs 2, Timakoi Bowie, Lee Dale, Michael Manteit, Josh Williams, Mackenzie Willis.
NT Thunder – Trent Melville, Shannon Rioli 3, Abraham Ankers, Dylan Barry, Adam Tipungwuti 2, Dean Staunton, Ben Taylor.
BEST: Southport – Josh Hall, Matt Shaw, Mitch Johnson, Seb Tape, Michael Manteit, Andrew Boston.
NT Thunder – Ben Rioli, Joe Anderson, Daniel Weetra, Abraham Ankers, Kieren Parnell, Clinton Gallio.