Riding high on a wave of momentum after three successive wins, NT Thunder comes up against one of the most challenging breaks of the NEAFL in Round 10 at TIO Stadium in Darwin on Saturday night.
In surfing terms, Sydney University is big wave riding. We’re talking Shipstern Bluff, Tasmania, more than Nightcliff foreshore, Northern Territory – excluding cyclonic conditions of course.
The Students have lost only one game from the first nine rounds of the season and that was to ladder leader the Sydney Swans. Thunder is fourth, two wins behind the two Sydney clubs. Each of the pacesetters has seven wins and one loss so far, but the Swans sit on top of the ladder due to a superior percentage.
“Obviously Sydney Uni is a very good side and they’re playing some really good footy,”
Thunder coach Andrew Hodges said in the lead-up to the match, “So it’s going to be a big challenge and obviously we’re going to have to work really hard to shut them down and not let them play their style of footy so we’ll try and reduce their uncontested possessions and defend a little bit harder.”
While the Sydney Swans’ success has been built on the talent of their AFL-listed players, Sydney University has gathered together a potent mix of former AFL-listed players, state league recruits from interstate and talent from lower leagues.
Xavier Richards played in the Swans losing AFL grand final side just last season but is now one of Uni’s key forwards.
Will Sierakowski was formerly on the lists of Hawthorn and North Melbourne and Tom Young played for both Collingwood and the Western Bulldogs. They’re now prolific on-ballers for the Students.
The club’s leading players in the NEAFL MVP award, captain Lewis Stevenson and Zac O’Brien, were recruited from Port Adelaide and West Adelaide respectively.
Other influential players for the students, such as on-baller Callum McFadden (South Coast), wingman Tom Ayton (Eastlake) and key defender Darcy Baron-Hay (North Shore) have been recruited from lower leagues.
Hodges admits Sydney University will be bringing a mix of players to Darwin that will be challenging to counter.
“Some of the key players for Uni, obviously they’re a great side, they’ve got some really good players and experienced players right across the board,” he said.
“Guys like Xavier Richards are playing really good footy for them at the moment. Lewis Stevenson’s a good player and Zac O’Brien’s been pretty good for them as well so it’s not a case of closing down one or two players, there’s a number of players we’ll need to close down.”
Adding to the challenge for Thunder will be the loss of veterans Cameron Ilett and Richard Tambling through work commitments and captain Shannon Rioli having another week of suspension to serve.
“We’ll be without some players due to work commitments,” Hodges admitted, “but on a positive note we get some good players back as well.
“Neil Vea Vea was a late change last week, he’s up for selection. Matt Rosier has overcome a fracture in his hand and should be ready to go and Jared Erlandson’s available as well so we’ve got some really good players going out, but we’ve got some good players coming in.”
The loss of Ilett could be vital for Thunder. The versatile utility started the season playing mostly in defence, but in recent weeks has spent more time on the ball and it’s probably no coincidence that the move has coincided with his club’s winning streak.
To underline his value to the Thunder side, Ilett has polled 19 of a possible 20 MVP votes in the past two games and is now equal second on the leaderboard, trailing Southport’s frontrunner Jordan Keras, who has 39 votes.
Vea Vea’s is a big addition for Thunder. He’ll support Ryan Smith in the ruck and in recent weeks had also been providing a strong physical presence in defence.
He withdrew with a knee complaint in the warm-up before last weekend’s match against the Giants.
Erlandson and Rosier can add strength around the stoppages.
Thunder will also welcome back livewire forward Adam Sambono, who sits second on the NEAFL goal-kicking table behind team-mate Darren Ewing, and fourth in the MVP award.
He missed the win over the Giants due to representative commitments with the Allies.
Hodges said Saturday night’s game against Sydney University will provide a progress report for his side as it nears the half-way point of the season.
“It’s been great to have won three games in a row,” Hodges said. “Obviously the group is really positive at the moment. They’re feeling pretty positive about the brand of footy we’re playing and obviously they want to continue that this week.
“They know it’s a big challenge and they’re looking forward to the challenge and seeing where we are at this stage of the year,” he said.
Saturday 3 June
Curtain raiser AFLNT State Academy Women: NT State Academy Red vs NT State Academy Blue – 4 pm TIO Stadium, Darwin
NEAFL Round 10: NT Thunder vs Sydney University – Saturday 6.30 pm TIO Stadium, Darwin