Lions book NEAFL grand final berth


A player who was twice left out of the Brisbane Lions Reserves side during the home-and-away season has led the AFL club into the 2012 NEAFL Northern Conference grand final.

First-year rookie Sam Michael was best afield at centre half forward as the Lions beat the NT Thunder 17-10 (112) to 11-12 (78) in the major semi-final in hot conditions at Palmerston Oval, Darwin, on Saturday night.

The 19-year-old 200cm Cairns giant had 11 marks and 19 possessions, and kicked two long bomb goals as the Lions wrote an astonishing penultimate chapter to what could be an even more astonishing grand final win.

Wooden-spooners last year, the will enjoy a welcome weekend off next week before the grand final, which has been confirmed for AFLQ headquarters at Yeronga on Sunday 16 September.

They will play the winners of next Saturday’s preliminary final at H&A Oval, Broadbeach, between the Thunder and Southport, who beat Redland by three points with a Haydn Kiel goal after the siren in the knockout semi-final at Fankhauser Reserve on Sunday.

It will be the Lions’ first State League grand final since 2001. And with coach Nathan Clarke set to field an even stronger side in the premiership decider it will take an almighty effort from the Thunder or Southport to deny them victory.

But as Clarke waited to board a 1.15am flight back to Brisbane on Sunday morning he wasn’t looking that far ahead. He was taking a moment to enjoy what he rated a “sensational” victory.

“We weren’t meant to win that,” he said bluntly of a side which had been rated rank outsiders in the Territory in the lead-up to the match.

“I honestly thought we needed (injured utility) Sam Sheldon to come up or one or two other listed players to be available to beat them.”

Indeed, there was every reason for the NT to be confident. They were on a 10-game winning streak, had won 24 games in a row in Darwin over the past three years, and were at full-strength coming off a bye in week one of the finals.

But the Lions, with 15 listed players following the inclusion of Jared Polec, were positively outstanding after taking quiet exception to some comments from ex-Lions 50-gamer turned Thunder star Jason Roe in the local media midweek.

Roe, not prone to big statements and perhaps trying to rally the Thunder supporters, was quoted as saying the Lions should be intimidated by the home side’s wonderful Darwin record, and that the Thunder would send the Lions back home with their tail between their legs.

Whatever, it was the Thunder who were sent packing after their fourth and biggest loss of the year by a side which had galvanised beautifully on the two-day trip.

“I know I’ve said this a bit lately, but I couldn’t be more proud of them,” said Clarke.

“As a group they were just magnificent. They worked their backsides off and they just refused to let it go.”

Clarke, relishing the input of 2011 NT Thunder premiership coach turned Lions development coach Murray Davis, admitted he had gone in with a game plan that was a little bit against conventional wisdom.

It was all based around making the free-spirited Thunder play a little more one-on-one football.

As he’d done after quarter-time against Southport in his side’s come-from-behind qualifying final win seven days earlier, Clarke insisted his players make the star-studded NT Thunder backline cornerstones fully accountable.

“We wanted to make sure that Roe and (Shaun) Tapp had to defend so they weren’t in a position to drop off their man, take uncontested marks, and get it going the other way.

“And I’ve got to say our back six was amazing.”

In fact it was a back seven. Justin Clarke and Niall McKeever were the key position rocks on which their defensive wall was built, with Stephen Wrigley, Sam Docherty, Patrick Wearden and Morningside top-up pair Josh Smith and Jesse Wallin completing the group.

The composed Wallin was playing his first game with the Lions after coach Clarke had made changes to the side that had trailed at every change before beating Southport in the qualifying final.

After senior coach Michael Voss opted to give a retiring Amon Buchanan a farewell game in the seniors after his best-afield effort against Southport, it was Polec, Jack Crisp and Wallin who replaced Buchanan and top-up pair Daniel Frame and Josh Wagner.

It was a most effective approach, and no doubt the hard work the NT players had to do defensively helped to sap their energy levels as the game went on.

“Hopefully we’ve not shown our hand too much, but it’s not going to stop the way we want to play in two weeks’ time,” said an elated Clarke.

The Lions trailed by a point at quarter-time 3-3 to 3-3, but took control of the match when they kicked 7-2 to 4-0 in the second term. It was 10-4 to 7-3 at halftime and already the writing was on the wall that the Thunder’s phenomenal home record was under threat.

The Lions stretched the lead from 21 points to 30 points by three-quarter time after they added 3-4 to 1-5 in the third term, and after the NT cut the deficit to 21 points at one stage in the final term the visitors kicked the last two goals to win comfortably.

In a side which included 10 players with AFL experience and was full of heroes there was none bigger than Michael, who had been claimed by the Lions as a 2011 zone priority rookie draft pick after two seasons with Brisbane-based NEAFL club Redland.

It hasn’t always been an easy year for the popular young AIS/AFL Academy graduate, who has a tendency to put a little too much pressure on himself at times.

So much so, in fact, that in Rounds 2 and 10, when the Lions had more than the maximum 18 listed players available to play at NEAFL level, he was sent back to Redland to play.

He also played with the Bombers in Round 13 when the Lions had a bye.

But after an outstanding close to the season, which included a match-defining effort against Southport in the qualifying final, it is unthinkable that he won’t be in the Lions camp again next year.

“I thought to myself at one stage ‘where did this come from?’ as he (Michael) took the game by the scruff of the neck,” said Clarke.

“Some of his connecting work through the midfield was outstanding, and whenever we needed a big presence or someone to pluck a crucial mark it was Sammy. And it wasn’t as if he was playing on mugs … he was on the very best the Thunder had to throw at him.”

Indeed, Michael, who rated the Lions’ win one of the best he’d ever been involved in, played on Roe, Tapp, Kevin Vernacombe and even Julian Lockwood at times, and did it magnificently.

“It’s to his enormous credit because he’s had to fight for everything,” said coach Clarke. “And now he’s done it on the big stage.

“I’m rapt for him because he’s a guy who continues to work and work on his game. He wants to belong and he wants to be part of the AFL system.

“He’s got his short-comings like everyone but he’s a fierce competitor and he was a really valuable contributor.”

Callum Bartlett, used more as a half forward than in his customary midfield role, was lively throughout and mixed fierce tackling pressure and clever ball use with three important goals.

Patrick Karnezis topped the Lions possession count with 29 through the midfield and kicked two goals, while Wrigley, freed up to run off a little more by the addition of Docherty to the backline, had 27 possessions and was a real driving force.

Justin Clarke, another rookie list player hoping who looks still to be at the Gabba next year, also staged a compelling audition with a magnificent effort at fullback.

He played on Darren Ewing and kept the Thunder spearhead and 2011 Ray Hughson Medallist to two kicks and one goal late in the game.

“Phenomenal … unbelievable,” said coach Clarke, who was also especially pleased with the contribution of McKeever at centre half back.

At the other end of the ground Aaron Cornelius had 19 possessions, 10 marks and five goals at full forward – not the four that were originally listed on the NEAFL website immediately after the match.

Cornelius’ ninth bag of four or more goals in his 12th NEAFL game of the season took his season tally to 53 goals.

Crisp, with 24 possessions through the midfield, played a lot of important time in the second half and was a driving figure alongside the more experienced Cheynee Stiller and Polec, who was returning from injury and was put on ice early in the final quarter.

There was only one piece of bad news to come out of the Lions camp – confirmation from Clarke that small forward Todd Banfield will miss the grand final due to knee problems.

“He always takes a good match-up and he did enough tonight up but he’s been running on empty for a little while with knee problems and he’s done. He won’t play in the grand final,” the coach said of the red-headed small forward.

The loss of Banfield will be more than covered at least numerically by the inclusion of a still to be confirmed bunch of players from the Round 23 AFL side that played the Western Bulldogs at the Gabba on Sunday.

With Clarke having confirmed he will welcome back players who have played a big part of the season at NEAFL level, this could include Buchanan, Jordan Lisle, James Hawksley, Elliot Yeo, Claye Beams and Josh Green.

The only stipulation governing Lions selection for the grand final is that they cannot field more than 18 listed players in their 23-man grand final side, and cannot have more than 14 on the ground at any one time.

Just as the Lions have timed their run to perfection, the Thunder couldn’t have chosen a worse time to register their lowest score in 31 AFLQ/NEAFL games in Darwin.

In 30 previous games at TIO Stadium, Gardens Oval and Palmerston they had averaged 125 points per game, and had failed to reach triple 90 only twice – when they scored 83 points against Morningside in their last home game of 2009, and when they posted 81 points against Gold Coast Suns reserves early in 2011.

But coach Daniel Archer admitted the Thunder were simply beaten by a better side.

“I cannot question the way our boys went about it … our effort and intensity was fantastic but they (the Lions) were just too good. They were outstanding.

“Perhaps with the footy in our hands we could have been a bit better but when you work so hard defensively sometimes you don’t have enough left in the tank offensively

“It was a magnificent game of footy and if anyone questions the direction the NEAFL is heading they’ve got rocks in their head.

“They (the Lions) had 15 listed players and eight quality top-ups and, and with 18 listed players in a fortnight it’s going to be a huge challenge for anyone to beat them.

“But that’s what we worked so hard for all year … to earn the double chance.

“We’ll go away, look at ways we can be better, try to work really hard, and try to earn another crack at it.”

Archer nominated back pocket Ben Rioli as clearly the Thunder’s best player “by a long way” and suggested he must have done his AFL draft selection prospects no harm whatsoever.

“If he didn’t do enough to at least get himself onto an AFL rookie list I’ll be very surprised. He played against mainly AFL-listed opposition and was unbelievable,” Archer said of Rioli.

Tyrrell was a powerhouse in the ruck, Chris Dunne worked hard for his four goals up forward, and Jake Dignan, Cameron Ilett, Matt Rosier and Jed Anderson did some good things through the midfield.

Archer was also pleased with the effort of Verncombe on Cornelius after he’d kicked four goals in the first half.

Coach Archer had made three changes to his side from the last home-and-away game to welcome back Tyrrell, small forward Dean Staunton and half back Damien Williams.

Making way were Keiren Smith, who had played 12 games in a row leading into the finals, plus Jack McEwin and Jayden Prior, who had played 12 and 10 games respectively throughout the home-and-away campaign.

But Archer said this trio, together with Shannon Rusca, Austin Wonaeamirri and Jarrod Stokes, among others, would come into selection contention for this week’s preliminary final.

“As I’ve said all year it takes a lot more than 23 players to win a grand final and there will be opportunities for guys to force their way into the side.

“They only need to look at Matt Rosier last year to see what can happen. He missed selection for the major semi-final last year but came back to play in both (Northern Conference and Cross-Conference) grand finals.”

The Thunder coach said his side had pulled up injury free despite Roe appearing to be having a few problems with an ankle problem at times.

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