Captain Cameron Ilett stood tall when it mattered most as the NT Thunder overcome a late and challenging schedule change to post a 37-point preliminary final win over Southport on Saturday and keep alive their hopes of a second consecutive NEAFL Northern Conference premiership.
And the Thunder will have a “recruit” like no other for the grand final against the Brisbane Lions Reserves at Yeronga on Sunday – the man who was best afield in the 2011 grand final triumph.
Jake Dignan, winner of the Joe Grant Medal as the Thunder obliterated Morningside by 98 points in last year’s flag decider, missed the preliminary final at H&A Oval, Broadbeach, for personal reasons.
With his partner Carla in hospital awaiting the birth of their first child, the prolific and inspiring midfielder did not even make the trip south.
But coach Daniel Archer confirmed Dignan would be available to rejoin an NT side which, despite plenty of sore spots at the end of the grand final qualifier, flew home to Darwin on Saturday night injury free.
It was a contented flight for the Territorians, who jumped Southport early and then withstood a blistering challenge from the Sharks in the final quarter.
NT led by 12 points at quarter-time, 35 points at halftime and 23 points at three-quarter-time before Southport won three centre clearances in about as many minutes and kicked three goals to pull within 11.
It would have been five had Josh Baxter not missed a simple 25m shot straight in front, but the Thunder steadied under the assault and in the end cruised to an 18-12 (120) to 12-11 (83) win.
So comfortable were the visitors in the closing stages that Archer was afforded the luxury of resting key defenders Jason Roe and Shaun Tapp, who were “a bit sore”.
“I can’t speak highly enough of the playing group I’m lucky enough to coach – they are not just very good footballers but they are champion people,” said Archer.
And with that the first-year Thunder coach detailed the travel challenge which had confronted his side after they’d lost by 34 points to the Brisbane Lions in the qualifying final in Darwin seven days earlier.
“I’m not exactly sure why we had to play Southport on the Gold Coast after we’d finished top of the ladder and they’d finished third,” Archer said.
“There are no flights from Darwin into the Coast so it effectively adds an extra 90 minutes to our travel, and we didn’t get in until 7.30 Friday night.
“If Brisbane had lost the qualifying final then the preliminary final would have been played at Yeronga and I would have thought we could have been afforded the same courtesy.
“Instead we played a side in which the players slept in their own beds and travelled five minutes to the game.”
But that wasn’t all of the travel issues the Thunder had confronted in their bid for a grand final berth.
Archer revealed that it wasn’t until the Wednesday before the qualifying final that his club learned that the preliminary final would be played Saturday and not Sunday, as they had previously been informed.
“We’d set our training schedule and all our preparations for a Sunday game and then found out things had changed,” Archer said.
“Apparently the travel company that books all the NEAFL travel booked for a Saturday game, which we normally play in south-east Queensland, and it couldn’t be changed so the game had to be switched.
“That’s why I’m so proud of this group … they take everything in their stride and go about their business in a really professional way.
“It was a really tough game against the Lions and some of the boys’ GPS readings were off the scale. To travel down to Brisbane, catch a bus to the Gold Coast and come up again as they did in seven days against another good opponent was a magnificent effort.”
Archer said the Thunder players had been very keen for the game to get started and were desperate to make an early statement.
And they did. Kicking into a wind worth three-four goals, the NT kicked the first four majors.
The visitors had 4-1 on the board before Southport had scored, and aided by some shocking inaccuracy from the Sharks, they enjoyed the look of a 5-2 to 2-7 scoreline at the first change.
After the Thunder added 3-6 to the Sharks’ 0-2 in the second quarter – just the third time Southport were held goalless in a quarter this year – it was 8-8 to 2-9 at halftime.
“It was a good reward for the way we’d played,” said Archer. “We ran really hard. They (Southport) tried to get numbers behind the ball but our run pretty much negated that and our run and carry really opened the game up.
“But finals are not meant to be easy and we knew they’d come hard at us.”
And they did. The proud Sharks, not about to lie down, started to win the ball through the middle of the ground and suddenly they started to find the mark around goal.
Southport kicked 5-1 to NT’s 3-1 in the third quarter. And although the Thunder led 11-9 to 7-10 the Sharks were close enough if they were good enough.
The defending premiers kicked the first goal of the final term before Southport launched one last charge. Three centre clearances for three goals in three minutes.
Coach Archer insisted there was no panic in the Thunder box, such was his belief in his group, but he conceded the visitors needed someone to stand up. Captain Ilett was equal to the challenge. Magnificently so.
He won the ball in a pack, carried it 15m and landed a long goal on the run to swing the momentum back to the northerners. If was a captain’s goal if ever there was one.
Ilett’s game-changing individual effort was his second critical goal in a performance that was positively magnificent.
So much so that Archer almost pleaded with AFL recruiting scouts not to discount the 27-year-old midfield ace.
“He was just super in every facet of the game,” said Archer. “He’s as good as there has ever been in this competition and I’ve got no doubt he could play at the next level if he was given an opportunity.”
Archer conceded Ilett, the 2011 Grogan Medallist and Northern Conference Team of the Year captain, hadn’t been in top form in the early part of the season, when he was only named in the Thunder best players three times in his first 15 games.
“It was a bit of a challenge for him (Ilett) to come up after last year and he took a little while to get used to the new coach and the like,” he said.
“But he continued to get better and his last six weeks have been magnificent… vintage Cam Ilett. The way he played when it mattered was incredible.”
Archer said Ilett had taken it upon himself to lift when it was confirmed Dignan, who had played every game this season and is such an important part of the Thunder midfield, had ruled himself out.
It was always a chance after Dignan didn’t travel with the group when they left Darwin late Friday when the birth was imminent.
The club had tentatively booked him on a 6.40am flight Saturday but after the baby had still not arrived Dignan made the decision to stay with his partner.
“He (Dignan) was devastated because he knew it could have been our last game for the year and he didn’t want to let anyone down,” said Archer.
“We know how much he loves playing with the boys but it was the right decision and all the boys supported it 100 percent.
“It was exactly what they wanted and they got together and said ‘ok, let’s make sure Diggers has a baby and a grand final next week’. And they did.”
Kieren Smith had travelled with the Thunder party as what turned out to be the sole emergency for a side which included three changes to that which had lost to the Lions.
Shannon Rusca, Austin Wonaeamirri and Jack McEwin replaced Dignan, Dean Staunton and Willie Kossack.
The experienced Rusca and the ever-dangerous Wonaeamirri did their bit, with Rusca adding a steadying and organising influence across half back, and Wonaeamirri an X-factor up forward that produced three goals and will be better for the run.
The indestructible Matt Rosier and the classy Brad Vassal, with an equal season-high three goals, also helped pick up the midfield slack in Dignan’s absence to rank behind Ilett as the Thunder’s best.
Jack Lawler, so exhausted at the end of the game from his tireless running that he was vomiting as his teammates sang the club song, was another standout across half back.
“He definitely wouldn’t be out of place on an AFL list either,” Archer said of the 25-year-old 2010 Morningside premiership team member.
“His wife had a baby two weeks ago, too, and he’s in a really good place at present. He’s loves being back home, going fishing and the like, and it shows in his football.
“He attacks it so hard, he’s clean and he’s got silky skills … it was another outstanding game.”
Jason Roe at fullback had much the better of Southport 50th-gamer Cleve Hughes and provided a lot of rebound attack, while Patrick Heenan on the wing was another standout.
Shaun Tapp had done a good job on Josh Milani early before Milani took a couple of strong grabs to help spark his side’s rally, and the experienced Ash Duncan kept tabs on the powerful Baxter.
The Thunder had no less than 12 goal-kickers – their second-highest tally of the year behind the 13 players who got on the scoreboard when they kicked three more goals against Aspley in Darwin in Round 15.
Darren Ewing, predictably picked up by Southport’s Kurt Nicklaus for the third time this year, kicked only one goal, giving him two goals in three games against the iron-willed Sharks custodian.
But Archer wasn’t disappointed with the contribution of his leading goal-kicker.
“Boof (Ewing) missed two or three he could have got but he was still contributing in other ways. That’s the good thing about the group this year … they don’t rely on one or two players to kick a winning score.”
Archer, who after the loss to the Lions seven days earlier had admitted whoever played them in the grand final would face a huge challenge to beat them, was pleased just to have earned another crack at the premiership favorites.
“You’ve got to be in it to win it … we’ve given ourselves a chance,” he said.
“We’ll go home, recover and prepare as best we can, and pick the side we think gives us our best chance of winning.
“We’ll stick to what we know and what we’ve done because that’s what got us here. It’s a great challenge and a great opportunity, and the boys are really looking forward to it. It’s what you play for.”
Southport had made just one change to the side that beat Redland after the siren in the knockout semi-final, with tall forward Josh Milani returning from a one-match injury layoff to replace Simon Russell.
But coach Norm Dare had his problems in the opening minutes when defender Ben Headland, one of their most consistent performers this year, suffered a nasty shoulder problem.
He was treated for the remainder of the first quarter and returned to the field briefly in the second quarter before being ruled out of the match.
Dare revealed that in the third quarter Baxter had broken his hand and Milani had suffered a relapse of his ankle problems. With Headland they would not have played in the grand final if Southport had made it, he said.
“That’s finals footy for you … we lost one early in two of our three finals and Redland copped it against us,” said Dare.
The veteran Sharks mentor lamented his side’s poor kicking early. “And the worst thing was that most of the shots we missed were gettable,” he said.
“They (NT) were really sharp early – they didn’t miss while we blazed the ball all over the place like rag dogs. .
“I was really proud the way our boys fought their way back into the game but it took too much of them. Maybe if we kicked straighter earlier or if we didn’t use up so much energy getting back into it then it might have been different.”
Dare conceded his side’s turnovers and skill execution were “pretty disappointing”, and was uncertain whether it was a direct result of the good NT pressure or his side’s six-day turnaround from the semi-final.
Centre half back Wayde Mills was Southport’s best player with Haydn Kiel, Fraser Pope and Jason Burge, who master-minded the Sharks comeback in a midfield battle in which both groups won plenty of the ball.
Dare, conceding the Sharks didn’t have too many clear winners in the first half, also saluted the good contributions of late season inclusions Dalton Tucker, who played through the midfield, and Regan Salter, who started in the back pocket and filled a variety of roles.
He suggested David James did well on his wing, was pleased with the defensive job of Niklaus on Ewing, and said Dan Weymouth did well in the ruck against NT big man Kenrick Tyrrell. Tom Daniel had been a good contributor after starting on the wing and later playing in defence.
The indefatigable Dare, who will turn 64 on Monday (10 September), put his hand up to coach the Sharks again next year but was in no hurry to have his job finalised.
“Yeh, I’d like to do it again … it’s a good competition and it’s something to aim at. It’s hard to get into the finals, let alone to win it, but we had a pretty good year.
“I’ve told the committee I’ll do it again if they want but they can make their mind up when they are ready. They’ve not said anything to me so we’ll wait and see. There’s no great rush.”
While disappointed to miss the grand final Southport can look back favourably on the improvement shown in a campaign in which they climbed from seventh to third on the ladder, and from a 9-9 win/loss record to 15-6.
Eight Southport players – Baxter, Burge, Headland, Hughes, Kiel, Ben Merrett, Mills and Fraser Thurlow – played all 21 games.
James, Milani and Niklaus played 20 games, Daniel, Sam Whish-Wilson and captain Danny Wise 19, and Ed Mallan and Pope 18.
Baxter and Hughes topped the goal-kicking list 60 each from Milani (30) and Adam Flagg (28).