By Peter Blucher
BRISBANE LIONS v NT THUNDER – YERONGA
The Brisbane Lions Reserves completed a 373-day retribution campaign that turned misery and embarrassment into pride and elation when they posted a 10-goal win over the NT Thunder in the NEAFL Northern Conference grand final at Yeronga on Sunday.
On 16 August 2011 the Lions’ 2011 season had finished with a 150-point loss to the Sydney Swans Reserves that sentenced the AFL club to the first NEAFL wooden-spoon with a dismal 4-1-13 win/draw/loss record.
They’d kicked only four goals in a lamentable showing which left things at the second tier level of the AFL club as low as they could get.
But on 16 September 2012 it could not have been any different. They finished with 13 more wins after they beat the Thunder 21-8 (134) to 10-14 (74) in the grand final to complete a 17-4 campaign.
The Lions will now travel to Canberra to play ACT club Queanbeyan for the overall NEAFL premiership after Queanbeyan surprised the Sydney Swans Reserves by 30 points in the Eastern Conference grand final in the national capital on Sunday.
The Lions have advised NEAFL officials they will send a side that will contain “11 or 12” listed players, but the result will be secondary. This was the game they wanted. And the produced a stellar performance to ensure they got it.
In warm and occasionally windy conditions in front of a crowd estimated by AFLQ officials to be “almost 3000”, Lions midfielder Claye Beams was best afield to win the Joe Grant Medal from Thunder fullback Jason Roe and retiring Lions veteran Amon Buchanan.
Jordan Lisle (five goals) and Beams (four goals) almost matched the Thunder tally themselves as the Lions, with 18 listed players, had 10 different goal-kickers and six multiple goal-kickers.
Not insignificantly, 13 of their 21 goals were kicked by players who had played in the AFL side in the last game of the season.
The Thunder had a season-low four different goal-kickers as they suffered their first loss of 2012 outside the Territory and their third-biggest loss overall since joining the competition.
The Lions’ rags-to-riches pennant was their second at State League level and their first since a 2001 win with a side coached by Craig Brittain and captained by Ben Robbins.
It was a fitting if overdue success for coach Nathan Clarke, who was on the Lions senior playing list in 2001, when they also won the first of three consecutive AFL premierships, but spent September of that unforgettable year on the injured list.
Clarke saluted a “magnificent” effort from his side in which they kicked eight unanswered goals in the second quarter after trailing by 18 points at quarter-time to assume a dominance they never really looked like losing.
Had the Thunder not kicked 1-5 in the third quarter it might have been a closer contest, but there was no denying that the best side of the year lifted the cup.
In his victory speech Clarke told his players “I love you all” and paid special tribute to 29-year-old Buchanan, who is set to begin life after football in Sydney.
He described the 116-game Sydney Swans premiership ace and 18-game Lion as “a wonderful, wonderful person and a pretty good footballer as well”.
Clarke also thanked Lions football boss Dean Warren and senior coach Michael Voss.
“They showed a bit of faith in me last year and I duly saluted with a wooden-spoon so I really appreciate everything they’ve done for me,” he said.
“I’m not the coach of this club – Michael Voss is the coach – and he’s the one who sets the direction.
“But no doubt we’re on the right track, and hopefully this (the Reserves’ win) can be a catalyst for more success at senior level.”
Clarke also thanked Reserves assistant-coaches Clint Watts, Matt Smith and Paul Grentell, and even threw in injured senior players Bryce Retzlaff, who was the Reserves captain until a mid-season knee reconstruction, and Brent Staker, who was on running duty in the grand final.
But in perhaps his most poignant moment, Clarke paid special tribute to NT Thunder coach Daniel Archer and his side.
“It’s almost heart-breaking to watch the disappointment … it’s such a shame that such a good group had to lose,” the ever-humble Lions coach said.
“I assure you that you are one of the most admired football clubs in Australia.”
The Thunder, having left Nathan Brown out of their grand final side to accommodate the return of midfield ace Jake Dignan, looked that and more as they jumped out of the blocks in brilliant early fashion.
It took nine minutes for either side to score, but by quarter-time the Thunder led 5-2 to 2-2 after going into the game as rank outsiders.
NT spearhead Darren Ewing made the most of some excellent midfield service to kick three goals in the first term as his side led at the first break for the 11th time in a row despite the efforts of Lions backline standout Sam Docherty.
At the 10-minute mark of the second term the Thunder still led by 10 points, but all of a sudden things changed as the Lions kicked four goals in four minutes.
Beams slotted a beautiful long running shot from near the boundary line to spark the onslaught before James Hawksley capitalised on a Patrick Karnezis centre clearance and Jack Fox accepted a clever handpass from fellow top-up player Isaac Conway for another.
Beams again got his hands on the ball in the midfield and, with the Lions looking to put maximum pressure deep on the Thunder defence, he went long and Jordan Lisle did the rest.
Captain Cheynee Stiller, Aaron Cornelius and Lisle again made it eight goals in a row to the Brisbane side, who led 10-7 to 5-6.
The signs were bad for the NT, but they weren’t about to toss in the towel.
The visitors kicked three quick replies inside three minutes via Austin Wonaeamirri (2) and Willie Farrer, and at halftime the Lions led 10-7 to 8-6.
The deficit was only 13 points but if they were going to repeat their grand final win of 2011 the Thunder were going to have to do everything right. And they didn’t.
In the next 15 minutes they posted five consecutive behinds and one out-of-bounds while Hawksley and Lisle rubbed salt into the NT wounds when they kicked truly for the Lions.
At the 20-minute mark it was 19 scoring shots apiece, but Brisbane led 12-7 to 8-11.
A 20-point Brisbane lead became 45 points when Lisle, Josh Dyson, Beams and Cornelius got themselves on the scoresheet before Ewing’s fourth goal right on three-quarter time gave the visitors at least some consolation.
But the brilliant Beams put the issue beyond doubt when he opened the final stanza with a 48m set shot from the boundary on the right side of the ground.
Ewing got his fifth, Callum Bartlett replied with two in a minute for the Lions and then Beams, almost as if he had a point to prove, split the middle with a similarly perfect set shot from the identical position on the left side of the ground.
In summary, coach Clarke said his midfield had won the game after his backline had “stuck fat” when the game was in the NT’s favor early.
“The back line kept us in the game and then the midfield seized control,” he said.
“We were giving up too many one-on-one contests inside the NT forward 50 in the first quarter because they were winning the ball cleanly from the centre, and our half forwards and wingers were crucial in combatting that.
“I wasn’t comfortable until the last few minutes … I’ve got too much respect for the Thunder and I know how quickly they can score if you give them a sniff.
“In the end it was a sensational performance right across the board.
“I’m so pleased for the players because they’ve worked so hard and have been a really united group despite the fact that we’ve had guys alternating at times between the AFL side and the NEAFL side.”
Beams, who had missed the last three games of the Reserves’ campaign following his recall to the top side, was nothing short of superb. He had 33 disposals, 11 clearances, six tackles, seven inside 50’s and kicked four immaculate goals.
“Unbelievable,” was Clarke’s description of a player destined to be very good at AFL level for an extended period.
Buchanan topped the statistics sheet with 38 disposals in his last game, while one-time forward Karnezis had 34 disposals, suggesting his future may be in the midfield.
The Beams-Buchanan-Karnezis midfield combination amassed 105 disposals and clearly got the better of their highly-rated Thunder opposites.
Docherty was a standout for the Lions in the back half with Niall McKeever, while Stiller and Hawksley also won plenty of the ball, Lisle was ever-dangerous up forward and top-up player Scott Clarke was a tower of strength as the second ruckman and an extra marking target.
Jack Crisp, too, did some good defensive work at times on Thunder midfield guns Cam Ilett and Jake Dignan.
Fullback Roe was as brilliant for the NT as Beams was for the Lions. Indeed, but for him the 10-goal margin may have been 20 goals.
The former Lions custodian, in his second season with his ‘home’ side, won the ball in the contest countless times and forever turned defence in attack with his aggressive running and penetrating kicking.
Damien Williams, presented with a tough and potentially exploitable match-up on Lions leading goal-kicker Cornelius, not only held the 22-game AFL veteran but got the better of him.
“For a young bloke hoping to get drafted he couldn’t have done any more,” said Archer of 18-year-old Williams.
Kenrick Tyrrell worked tirelessly in the ruck, and Ewing, with 5-2 and two out-of-bounds, kicked almost half his side’s score despite wanting for opportunities in the second half as Brisbane took control through the midfield.
Patrick Heenan provided some real dash on the wing, Shaun Tapp worked hard in defence and Brad Vassal, Ilett and Matt Rosier had their moments on the ball despite the dominance of their Lions counterparts.
Coach Archer was full of praise for the character of his side and was “super proud” of their effort but he lamented their poor conversion.
“We got off to a really good start but we missed some shots at the wrong time,” he said.
“We pretty much matched them for inside 50s and had a similar number of scoring shots, but unfortunately we didn’t take our chances.
“If we’d kicked a few that we missed in the third quarter and even in the last quarter we may have only been two or three goals down with 10 minutes to play and then it’s a different ball game.
“But that’s footy … they were too good for us. They’ve had a terrific year and deserved to win today. We’ll be back next year to have another crack at them.”