By Murray Silby
It’s been a long, arduous season for NT Thunder that’s brought just the two wins, but a victory in this weekend’s Round 21, the last of the regular NEAFL season, and Thunder can lift itself off the bottom of the ladder.
The fact is, it’s been a difficult year for second-placed Redland too, which also has just two wins for the year, one of them against Thunder, while both of the victories for the men from the NT have been over the Bombers.
Redland’s struggles have left the door open for Thunder to escape from the wooden spoon position and with the Bombers playing Canberra this weekend, the door’s expected to remain ajar.
All Thunder has to do is defeat top four aspirant Aspley, which unfortunately won’t be an easy thing to do.
In the two games the two sides have played so far this season, the Hornets have won both, by 77 points in Round 7 and by 53 points in Round 12.
The Hornets have motivation too. A win could push them from their current fifth place into the top four, a loss could drop them to sixth.
Aspley is guaranteed of playing finals footy and will be keen to enter the finals in good form. Lately though, with one win out of the last four weeks, Aspley’s form hasn’t been that good.
It’s had some injury concerns too with co-captain James Ives (hand), Doug Lawrence (shoulder) and Liam Dawson (hamstring) all suffering injuries during last round’s match.
So perhaps Thunder’s hopes for a final round win, and a last gasp climb off the bottom of the ladder, are not impossible.
Thunder co-captain Abraham Ankers thinks it’s entirely possible.
“I’m very optimistic,” he said. “We’ve shown every week what we can do and we’re able to put scores on the board, we just need to defend a little better.
“If all goes well this weekend we can definitely get a win. It’s by no means out of the realms of possibility and we’re not going there to lose. We’re not going there because it’s our last game of the season and we need to fill a side and go to Brisbane. Mentally we’re still going there to win a game of football.
“We’ve got an opportunity this week to win a game at state league level and that’s great and we’re going to try and do that. That’s the focus now, to win this week and although we know we’re not playing the week after, we want to throw the kitchen sink at Aspley and try and get the win.
“We’re not going to go down and bow out and say our season’s done. We’re going to try and get a win and do everything we can.”
Ankers has led admirably from the front without his co-captain Shannon Rioli by his side in the Thunder engine room.
Rioli, along with several other players, has had a season-interrupted season, which has led to more rookies getting a game at NEAFL level than might have been planned.
“You’re talking about a real top shelf player when you’re talking about Shannon Rioli and great leadership and great professionalism so not having him in your side one week really, really hurts and obviously he’s had a pretty tough year with injury this year and we haven’t had him much at all so that hurts us a lot,” Ankers explained.
“Just not having his character, not having his leadership out on the ground is a big loss to our side.”
Rioli’s brother Ben has played out the season though and the attacking defender has taken his game to another level.
“Benny’s outstanding. He’s a really great mate. He’s a great person, but even a better footy player and that’s saying something because he’s really good,” Ankers said.
“His season’s been so brilliant. He lifts the boys up every week with his efforts. He’s had a pretty tough job all year in our back six, but he’s been such a strong pillar back there, running the footy out, doing his job every week. He’s so dependable.
“He’s probably my pick for our B and F (best and fairest award). He’s just an outstanding player and a workhorse. He’s unreal, he’s great for the side and great for the club.”
Thunder also lost key defender Sam Smith, who finished third in last year’s club best and fairest, to a knee injury before the season started.
“There was a lot of hope at the start of the season and a lot of ambition and unfortunately we haven’t been able to reach the potential we thought we could have, but injuries have been a big thing,” Ankers said.
“We haven’t had Sam Smith all year and he’s an outstanding player. I think he’s one of the best defenders of the competition. Clint Gallio was flying for us and a massive part of our side also went down.
“You could also talk about the loss of Cammy (Ilett) and Boof (Darren Ewing) last year. Boof kicked 60 goals every year and Cammy’s one of the greatest players to play in the NEAFL so big holes to fill.
“We probably thought we had the calibre of player to fill them but probably not. It is disappointing.”
Ankers also lamented the withdrawal of some players from the Thunder program.
“We’ve had a few guys drop off our list, which in my eyes has probably been the most disappointing thing, for one reason or another,” he suggested.
“We’ve had a lot of guys who have just pulled out and that’s been hard to watch and hard to take. We don’t have the same list that we did at the start of the year. That’s probably the toughest one for me, is just losing blokes through injury and then a fair few have dropped off the list also.”
The emergence of young talent in the Thunder side has been a positive for the club and will have fans keen to see how they’ll develop over time.
“So the silver lining to the cloud is that we’ve been able to blood a lot of youth and that will take us a long way in the years to come,” Ankers said.
Leading the Thunder youth has been Kieren Parnell, after recovering from two serious knee injuries.
“He’s been invited to a state combine, which is so deserved,” Ankers said. “He plays like a mature footballer. Through his injuries he’s missed out on a few years of development, but geeze he made up for it this year.
“He’s playing against tall forwards, he’s playing up on the wing. He’ll do everything he can to not lose a contest. It’s lifting to watch.
“Hopefully he gets a crack and hopefully a few of our other boys get a crack at AFL next year, or close to it, because they deserve it.”
Another bright prospect for Thunder is 17-year-old Joel Jeffrey, who slotted home four goals against second-placed Southport last weekend.
Ankers said he’s also enjoyed seeing more players from the regions taking up confident positions in the Thunder team, especially at his training base in Alice Springs.
“I’ve loved playing alongside of Dyl (Dylan Barry), Nigel (Lockyer) and Ethan (Liddle), from Alice Springs, and Tyson Woods.
“He played one game, and there’s also Dom Forbes. He hasn’t played a game this year, but played a few last year and he doesn’t miss a beat at training.”
In the past two seasons Ankers has finished runner-up and first in the club’s best and fairest award, the Ilett Medal, and may be in line for a second successive honour, although he’s expected to have to wrestle Ben Rioli for it.
“I really tried to work on my strength in the off-season and build up my body a little bigger and have a bit more weight on me,” Ankers remembered. “I had a pretty big preseason and tried to train pretty hard in the preseason so I like to think that’s contributed to it.
“Although, personally, I don’t think I’ve had the greatest season. My kicking’s down and I see a lot of flaws in my game, which I’m constantly trying to work on and I’m constantly trying to get better. I see so much more room for improvement. I could definitely be a lot more consistent.
“I just tried to work on every aspect of my game and there’s still so much to work on.
“I love footy, I love training. I love constantly trying to improve week in week out, day in day out, any training session I try to get a little bit more out of it. I’m constantly trying to improve the little things and hopefully that all adds up.”
There’s just the one game left in this NEAFL season for any improvement to come, but the Thunder squad is confident it can be done and a win recorded.
“It has been a long season and there’s no doubt that we’d rather be somewhere else on the ladder than where we are right now, or anywhere else to be honest,” Ankers admitted.
“We’d love it if we weren’t playing our last game of footy this week, but you get what you deserve and that’s where we are, but it’s also had glimpses of a lot of little wins I’d call them and we’ve been able to blood a lot of our young, talented guys throughout our system and it’s been awesome watching them develop and watching them really take the game on and get better as players and become pretty handy senior footballers.”
NEAFL Round 21: Aspley vs NT Thunder – Voxson Oval, Carseldine, 1.30 pm Saturday August 24