In what was the NT's third venture at the AFL National Inclusion Carnival, the team travelled to Sydney with 16 young men and defying the odds, won a nail-biter to become the 2019 AFL Inclusion National Champions.
The AFL National Inclusion Carnival is an annual representative carnival for athletes with an intellectual disability, with every state and territory represented. The carnival not only provides Australia’s most talented footballers with the chance to represent their State/Territory, but is also an opportunity for personal development and growth as a leader within their community.
The NT team started in only 2017 when six players went away to the Carnival and were topped up by other states but didn't win a game. Last year the NT had 14 players in all and made it to the Division 2 Grand Final where they went down to Western Australia.
The 2019 NT Thunder inclusion team was made up of five returning players, while there were 11 debutants and in all, the team hailed from seven different NTFL clubs. Seven players were also from the Tiwi Islands.
After a very successful first two days of the Lightning Rounds, where the NT won six of its seven games, only losing to Vic Metro, the team was ranked in overall second and placed in the Division 1 pool.
Game 1 in Division 1 saw them come up against Metro and do the impossible, take the win. NT 8.8.56 defeated Vic Metro 4.6.30. It was Vic Metro's first loss in six years built off the back of a great team effort across the board. The NT boys showed exceptional poise and composure all game. Captain Byron Mayo played a tagging role on Vic Metro’s strongest midfielder Kelvin O’Connor and completely shut him out of the game. Peter Apuatimi and Preyben Tipiloura's lightning speed through the middle was exceptional. Travis Baxter-Althouse up forward was great, kicking four goals.
In Game 2 in Division 1 the boys rolled on, NT 9.6.60 defeated Vic Metro 3.1.19. Coach Nick Eades said; "Round 2 was a real danger game for us as the focus was not to become complacent and switch off after such an exciting win (against Vic Metro) earlier in the day. We started slow but held our composure and finished strongly. Shoutout to the Vic Country boys for playing the game in great spirits with us."
The final game of the Division 1 rounds was Game 3 against South Australia. NT 8.5.53 defeated SA 0.5.5 to progress to the Division 1 Grand Final. When playing the NT brand of football the team was certainly flashy but sometimes got carried away by taking the extra side step and doing too much, which the coaches had observed starting to creep in against Vic Country.
The message then became about playing simple footy and sticking to structures, giving to the first option without trying to do too much. NT executed that really well and played four strong quarters of football without out switching off against SA.
The Grand Final was 40 minutes of must-see football, with the NT becoming national champions after a 6.11.47 defeat of Vic Metro 7.0.42.
The NT came out firing with its speed and endeavour and were very quick to score, but the talking point was Preyben Tipiloura in his bright lime green boots, who kicked two awesome goals in the first quarter but could've had four had the goal posts not got in the way. In the middle of the ground, Peter Apuatimi was tracking every ball, while Thunder's captain, Byron Mayo was rebounding any signs of a Metro attack. Vic Metro scored just before the quarter-time siren, but the NT led held a 2.5.17 to 1.0.6 lead. The second quarter saw much the same pace and skill from the NT, as Tipiloura continued to look dangerous, booting his third goal and applying great forward pressure. Ethan Bara was next to score for Thunder as Vic Metro kicked two of their own, another one just before the half time siren, to once again close Thunder's lead down to only two straight goals.
In the second half, Metro was first to get the clearance and push forward, keeping the ball locked in their forward half for the first couple of minutes. Romone Lewin was doing his best to create some run out of defence, but the ball came back, Apuatimi taking on three much bigger Vic players and winning the contest. However, Metro was first to goal and closed the gap to only six points to take the momentum but once Tipiloura returned to the field he made an immediate impact at the next centre throw-up, winning the ball initially before it once again found its way in the danger zone for the NT. From there Travis Baxter-Althouse cleaned up and slowed things down as the footy took a very clean route via Brandon Redpath, on to Kevin Isaac before Tipiloura marked a few steps inside the left boundary. And what did he do? He went back and kicked a left foot checkside for his fourth goal! When Metro hit back with the next goal the NT's margin was once again closed to six points, and the Vics continued to push, but the team stood tall, and Tipiloura had two more running shots on goal to close out the quarter, both, unfortunately, a little wayward. At three-quarter-time with only 10 minutes of the 2019 AFL National Inclusion Carnival to go, NT 5.8.38 led Vic Metro 5.0.30.
In the fourth quarter, it was a matter of speed versus size and with Vic Metro winning the opening clearance and kicking the first goal to make it a super exciting finish. The NT's lead was cut to only two points, and Tipiloura decided to get busy in the middle, which led to two scoring shots for the Thunder. The first attempt went through for a behind but the second was a long bomb goalward by Bara, which was picked off by Karlson Kantilla on the goal line and swiftly kicked for NT's sixth goal and a nine-point lead. With three minutes and 10 seconds remaining, Vic Metro kicked another goal to make it a three-point game. Aaron Knight-Nilsson had his hand in trying to prevent another Metro attack, and Tipiloura continued to run his guts out, to the point where it brought him to his knees. With one minute and 10 seconds remaining Apuatimi took a beautiful mark 40 metres out and used some time setting up before playing on, running around his opponents for a shot on goal that skidded through just to the left. With a little under 50 seconds left it was a five-point game and Metro had to take chances, which they did as they ran the ball the entirety of the field to their forward pocket with a player running onto it. Enter Joel Dhamarrandji who conjured an epic chase, doing enough to force the Metro player close to the right boundary approximately 45 metres out before collecting it on the bounce and clearing the danger.
In 2017 the team started with only six players, fast forward and in only its third outing at an AFL Inclusion Carnival, the NT is the national champion!