by Murray Silby
Two NEAFL sides with unblemished records line-up against each other at TIO Stadium in Darwin on Saturday night with the scenario providing a tantalizing spectacle for footy fans.
NT Thunder has two wins from its first two rounds – a one-point thriller over reigning premier Brisbane in Round 1 and a controlled 28-point victory over arch-rival Aspley in Round 2.
Journeying into the Top End heat this week though will be another formidable foe, Sydney University, with its list laden with AFL experience and undefeated record thanks to victories over Canberra (by eight points) and Redland (36).
Although coach of the Students, Tom Morrison, described their first round performance as “horrific”.
The Students were the pacesetters in the first half of last season, winning their first six matches by an average of 61 points and ended the season in third place with 14 wins and four losses, their best season on record.
For the third year in a row, however, Sydney University failed to take advantage of that strong form and lost in the preliminary final.
Hungry for their first NEAFL premiership, the Students are back with plenty of high achievers.
Territorian Shaun Edwards, who after being drafted from the Thunder Under 18s by Greater Western Sydney, has also played with Essendon and the Sydney Swans, returns to Darwin with Sydney University.
The Students have also recruited former Sydney Swan and Essendon Bomber Craig Bird and former Swan Brandon Jack, so their on-ball depth runs deep.
Thunder itself could be boosted by another two home-grown players with AFL experience with former Carlton utility Joe Anderson and former Richmond and Adelaide on-baller Richard Tambling both facing fitness tests.
It will be without young key defender Kaine Riley though, who strained a hamstring against the Hornets.
He’ll leave a hole, given his good form in the opening two rounds, but there’s a confidence around the depth of the Thunder list this year that has the squad playing as a solid unit so far.
One of those rising to the challenge of matching it with the high-quality talent around the competition is ruckman Jack Monigatti.
The club lists him at 195 centimetres, whereas his opponent for the Hornets last weekend was 203 centimetre former Melbourne ruckman Jake Spencer.
Despite the height disadvantage and losing the hit outs stat 32 to 45, Monigatti, with help from forward Hugo Drogemuller and defender Sam Smith, were able to negate Spencer’s impact on the match.
“I do have a look every game at blokes I’m up against, there are some 200-plus centimetre fellas, a good nine or 10 centimetres taller than me,” Monigatti said.
“It doesn’t worry me, but it means I know it’s going to be a tough game coming up against blokes like that.
“(The game against Spencer) was better than the week before. I got a fair few hit outs against him.”
The 21-year-old credits Thunder ruck coach, former Hawthorn premiership ruckman, Brent Renouf with an improvement in technique from Round 1.
“He came down to training before the game and he gave me some pointers on ways you can get around those big blokes a bit better and just get yourself in the best position and I tried it all out and it paid off for me. It was really helpful.
“Being a bit smaller I can be a bit more agile and work around the ruckmen. You’ve got to keep them guessing where you are.
“What he’s taught me in the last week I wish I knew four years ago.”
From Echuca in Victoria, Monigatti says it’s been a series of happy accidents that’s seen him find his way into Thunder colours.
“I didn’t know much about Territory footy because I’m from Victoria, but I went out to a new club in Tongala at the start of the 2017 season and there was a new coach from Darwin (Wayne Worden ), who got me up playing with the Tiwi Bombers in the NTFL in the 2016/17 season and I went up again this season for the NTFL and Hodgey (Thunder coach Andrew Hodges) got on to me then and asked me if I wanted to play for Thunder and I said, ‘Yeah, that’s a good idea’.”
Hodges had high praise for Monigatti after the Aspley game, and his support staff in Drogemuller and Smith, for the way they were able to bring Thunder’s on-ballers into the match by giving Spencer a contest.
“They were really good,” Hodges said. “It felt like the boys were always in the contest and if they weren’t winning it they were making an impact at ground level, which gave us an opportunity to get first use of the ball and all day Jack just bashed in and did what he had to do to provide a contest.
“I thought he was outstanding and among our best players.”
Monigatti’s challenge only gets bigger this week, a few more centimetres bigger, in the form of 206 centimetre Sam Tagliabue, a former Essendon ruckman in the VFL.
From defence, with NEAFL MVP leader Cameron Ilett, to attack with Adam Sambono, who kicked four goals in Round 2, and in between with the likes of Abraham Ankers, Thunder’s strength in the opening rounds has been having contributors all over the field.
“The positive thing for me is I think we had contributors right across the team so it’s really positive when everyone’s playing their role and contributing to a positive result at the end of the day,” Hodges said.
Sitting in fourth place on the NEAFL ladder and one of four teams still undefeated, Hodges said the Thunder players have been buoyed by a victory in the side’s first interstate match for the season last weekend and are eager to take on the third-placed Students.
“We’re really looking forward to getting back to TIO Stadium now in front of our fans and playing another really good side that has had the wood over us for the past 12 months and trying to get a win,” he said.
NEAFL Round 3: NT Thunder vs Sydney University – Saturday 6.30pm, TIO Stadium, Darwin