With so many games decided by less than a goal throughout the 2015/16 NTFL season, most involving Wanderers, it was fitting that the biggest day of the season follow the same script. At TIO Stadium in Darwin last night, the St Mary’s Saints held on in a staggeringly breathless final quarter to win the premiership by two points in one of the tightest finales in recent years.
The opening quarter was a matter of which team would calm their Grand Final nerves the quickest. After a willing start by both teams, where a soccer score was threatening, Saints managed the only goal of the quarter courtesy of a free kick and 50 metre penalty and held the lead at the first break by seven points. Quarter time: St Mary’s 1 2 8 v Wanderers 0 1 1
The second quarter belonged to the Eagles, and after a tight defensive first stanza, Wanderers found some extra space to run and set up play. Their four goals for the quarter had their fans ecstatic and momentum going their way. Wanderers reversed the quarter time advantage, going in to the main break with a six point lead. Half Time: Wanderers 4 1 25 v St Mary’s 2 7 19
As the saying goes, the more things change the more they stay the same. Such is the case with the NTFL season. Despite Southern Districts dominating the home and away season, their Preliminary Final loss to St Mary’s will see the Saints and Wanderers play off in their third consecutive Grand Final.
Over the three seasons other teams have peaked, only to drop off at the business end of the season. The 2015/16 season saw a rejuvenated Darwin Buffaloes, a rampant young Nightcliff Tigers and the Crocs throw their hats into the ring to change the status quo and kick off their own dynasty. But at the end the perennial Saints and the fast finishing Eagles kept the balance the same.
In 2014 St Mary’s won by 21 points. In 2015 it was Wanderers turning the tables to down the Saints by 34 points. This latest rivalry will be decided as a “best of three” on Saturday night at TIO Stadium as the best performed teams of the past three years meet again.
With the NAB Challenge coming to a close this weekend, most teams chose to use the hit-outs as a chance to play closer to full strength teams. As a result less international players were on show across the weekend’s matches.
Richmond’s Sudanese rookie Mabior Chol gathered another five possessions with his 87% game time in the team’s torrid encounter with Port Adelaide. Chol enjoyed his NAB Challenge, exciting Tiger fans and showing enough skill to suggest a useful AFL career is ahead of him. He still has much to learn but the signs are promising and his efforts to date will see him debut sooner rather than later.
Zach Tuohy (pictured) was his usual assured self in the Carlton defence against the Sydney Swans. His 24 possessions at an 83% disposal efficiency, including 6 rebounds from the defensive 50, showed he will again be a key part of the Blues’ defence this season.
Power Park in Gordonvale, Far North Queensland, always reverberates to the sounds of kids squealing, shouting and laughing whenever training or matches are taking place. Being one of the most picturesque football grounds in Australia with Walsh’s Pyramid towering behind the southern goal posts, watching over the town like some benevolent parent, it’s as if the kids are trying to impress and the majestic “mountain” smiles down on their happiness.
That’s on a normal day.
But when, as happened last Sunday, you add in a legend of AFL football, Adam Goodes, those squeals of delight find a higher octave – a louder and more raucous level of happiness, fun and joy.
With just five matches played over the course of the third weekend of NAB Challenge games there was less international talent on show. Maybe the tempo went up a notch, or opposition teams had put their homework into the internationals, but overall it was a quieter output across the board.
The washout of the Mackay match between the Lions and the Saints robbed fans of seeing the likes of Pearce Hanley (Brisbane) and Jason Holmes (St Kilda). A massive 200mm of rain, courtesy of ex-Tropical Cyclone Winston, fell leading up to the game forcing the AFL to abandon the match.
Perhaps the North Melbourne coaches had already put homework into Collingwood’s Mason Cox. After an impressive debut, Cox was quieter this weekend, though hardly inactive. He still managed to hurl his massive frame about Collingwood’s forward zone to collect five possessions, a couple of marks, four hitouts and five tackles to give the Kangaroos’ defenders enough anxious moments.
In a fairy tale of sorts, with eerie similarities to last season’s finals race, Wanderers have continued their charge through the second half of the NTFL season with a strong win over minor premiers Southern Districts Crocs to be the first team into this season’s grand final.
Built on the back of a remarkable run of games since the mid-season break, Wanderers now get to rest their weary bodies as the Crocs take on St Mary’s in next weekend’s Preliminary Final. When play resumed in January after the festive season break, Wanderers were a distinct chance of missing finals, whilst Southern Districts and St Mary’s appeared destined to fight out the grand final. Now one of them will miss out – a surprise in itself.
Wanderers were not shy about their intentions and hit the Crocs hard in the first quarter to take a handy two goal lead. From there they extended the lead at every break, though perhaps their final quarter was the best. Whilst kicking just three themselves, Wanderers held Crocs goalless for the quarter, totally snuffing out and hope of a Croc revival.
The North Queensland city of Mackay is ready for their inaugural AFL NAB Challenge match with a sell-out crowd predicted to watch the Brisbane Lions take on St Kilda. The game will be played at the Harrup Park Country Club. General Manager of Harrup Park, Michael Jones, is quoted on the AFL Mackay website as saying “this is the first AFL NAB Challenge match for the region and there is real buzz and excitement around it.”
Mackay scored the game after northern neighbour, Townsville, had hosted NAB Challenge games featuring the Brisbane Lions, Gold Coast Suns, North Melbourne and Geelong in recent years. Combined with the regular AFL premiership matches in Cairns of recent seasons, Townsville had been a source of big league AFL matches for North Queenslanders. This year Mackay takes over the role and has the entire city excited.
(Picture: St Kilda's David Armitage, formerly from Mackay - St Kilda FC)
Some of the international rookies or players of international origin on AFL team lists took to the field again over the weekend as the NAB Challenge matches continued. Once again there was a mixture of early excitement, breakout games and missed opportunities.
Perhaps the biggest mover was Collingwood’s Mason Cox who played his best game for the Magpies in their clash with Geelong. In what might yet be a breakout performance for the American recruit, Cox amassed seven quality possessions which yielded two goals as well as four marks, most of which were solid contested grabs. The performance has many people suggesting that Cox could well line up in Round One for the ‘Pies.
The Carlton/Essendon game saw a show of Irish talent across both teams. Zach Tuohy was amongst Carlton’s best, picking up a cool 18 possessions off half back and driving his team inside the forward 50 on many occasions. His Irish teammate, Ciaran Byrne, was also heavily involved across his limited game time with a handy nine possessions, but possibly more valuable was his constant defensive pressure whenever near the ball.
Anyone believing that the Nightcliff Tigers’ great form leading up to the finals would come unstuck as they simply made up the numbers was shocked on Saturday when they downed the Darwin Buffaloes in the NTFL Elimination Final.
The Tigers won four of their last five home and away games to finish with a wet sail. But many felt that the Darwin Buffaloes’ time had come after some years in a football wilderness and their progression deeper into the finals would come at the expense of Nightcliff.
Cairns, in Far North Queensland, has long been a source of AFL footballers that made the journey south to play the game at the highest level. But with today’s signing by the Essendon Football Club of Cairns product, Sam Michael, the connection has reached a new level.
Rarely have two Cairns based players donned the same colours. The Gold Coast Suns have seen Lewis Moss, Rex Liddy and Jarrod Harbrow wear their colours in 2011 when Harbrow joined the club, but soon after both Liddy and Moss were delisted, so the Cairns link faltered.
Other players from Cairns have graced AFL club lists in recent times with players such as Charlie Dixon (Port Adelaide) still playing, Peter Yagmoor (Collingwood) having reached the highest level before being delisted and there are plenty more waiting in the wings for their big chance.