Glenn Strachan pumps the Bullants into attack. Photo: Nathan McNeil (Nathan William Media).

Article: By Daniel Kelly.

Phar Lap, Australia’s most iconic racehorse, inspired the nation during the Great Depression when the future seemed unclear, if not bleak. Famously, his heart, now on display at the Australian Institute of Anatomy in Canberra, was around one and a half times larger than the average racehorse.

Whether medically true or not, mythology has it that Phar Lap’s staying power and ability to finish strongly in races was due to the size of his heart, which gave life to the compliment of having ‘a heart as big as Phar Lap’ which is still used to this day.

Tom Wilson, the evergreen Bullants captain, is showing his own staying power as he topped the possession total for the sixth time in the seven full games he’s played this season as he led his side to a 8.7 (55) to 5.12 (42) victory over Richmond at Preston City Oval.

Earlier in the season, after the initial relief of the Bullants as a football club surviving passed, the likelihood of being able to transition to thriving on the field in the short-term looked unclear.

What gave the fans and the club hope throughout, was the thoroughbred performances from Wilson each week, regardless of the results.

Thankfully for Wilson, no medical procedure is required to measure the size of his heart as every weekend, home or away, the diagnosis is quite clear that he is as committed as a captain can be.

Wilson’s talent has never been in doubt, but his willingness to put his body into situations which are not recommended, often emerging with the ball, continues to set the bar of what is required at this level to his teammates.

Captain Tom Wilson has led the Bullants brilliantly in 2021. Photo: Nathan McNeill (Nathan William Media).

In this round 12 encounter, a week after the landmark victory over Carlton, Wilson led the Bullants back to respectability on the field with a follow up win over last season’s VFL premiers.

Wilson showed his staying power again with 31 possessions and eight clearances evenly spread across the match.

The captain was not alone in the midfield with Will Mitchell (12 clearances, 26 disposals), Sunny Brazier (five clearances, 14 disposals), Paul Ahern (four clearances, 19 disposals) and Tim Jones (four clearances, 16 disposals) dominating the stoppages.

They were fed impressively by the equally whole hearted Daniel Hughes in the ruck, who kept pace in the clearance stakes (with seven) himself. Jack Boyd, relieving Hughes in ruck when required, collected six clearances as well.

In all, the Bullants would have seven of the top eight clearance winners from stoppages, and this advantage was magnified around the ground when the ball was live as well. Matthew King was a great example of the Bullants’ success in moving the ball from open play congestion to downfield possession consistently.

In addition to clearances (and free kicks, mostly through greater desire and application of fundamentals) the only other major category which the Bullants won comfortably was goal kicking efficiency.

In difficult conditions where the wind blew strongly to the city end of the oval, the Bullants kicked 8.7 (and a few out of bounds) to Richmond’s 5.12.

Jean-Luc Velissaris had a curious day out. Of the Preston side’s seven behinds, JL contributed five, including four in seven minutes, in addition to a goal. All is forgiven in a win however, and you could make an argument that the most difficult part of a forward’s role is getting in goal scoring positions with the ball so, to that end, Velissaris can be comfortable that the goals will come.

Despite the statistical indicators, the Bullants looked in control after they established a wind assisted 15 point lead at quarter time, thanks to early goals from Ahern (two) and Velissaris.

Their majors were split by a brilliant running goal from Richmond’s Maurice Rioli who tapped the ball to a teammate on his defensive wing, quickly received the return handball on the edge of the square at centre wing and found himself the only player in his attacking half of the oval.

Ben Silvagni gave chase but Rioli found enough firmness in the spongy Preston City Oval surface to take four bounces and sprint his way to a close range goal.

Richmond’s imposing run and carry style was irresistible when in full flow, and there were moments when the Bullants were helpless as the Tigers cascaded from one end to the other.

However, the Bullants did enough at contested ball situations by targeting the ball carrier, as normal, but also wearing possible nearby recipients closely to break the chain before it had a chance to start.

When possession escaped their control, the backline of Mutaz El Nour, Doug Lawrence and Ben Silvagni bent but did not break. They continue to bring a combination of athleticism, no nonsense defending and tactical acumen which earns the confidence of those upfield.

El Nour particularly showed his variety, contesting and intercepting in the air, as expected, but he also secured three holding the ball decisions, showing his abilities at ground level as well.

Ahern, Boyd and Tynan Smith kicked two each for the home side, with singles from Billy Murphy and JL Velissaris.

Whilst not as prolific as he was against the Blues, Tynan Smith’s two goals came at critical moments.

Smith goaled in the second quarter when the Tigers had the wind and multiple shots on goal in a row. And, early in the final quarter, when a four goal lead wasn’t certifiable given the wind the Tigers had at their back again, Smith ensured Richmond should take no further interest in the win.

Smith’s second goal was an answer to coach Josh Fraser’s urging at three quarter time to be aware of the Richmond surge and seize the moment to take another step as a football club.

To guard against a run on their goals, the Bullants used one of their rotating wingmen to take a more defense first focus in the final quarter and drop back deep. This was exemplified by Liam Mackie as he made a series of smothers in or at the defensive 50 metre line, as well as a number of other negating plays, to break up any flow the Tigers hoped to build.

The Bullants continued to bend but not break in the last, taking rushed behinds when required to reset and clear their defensive zones.

Ultimately they ran out reasonably comfortable 13 point winners.

This team are maturing each week and, in beating last year’s VFL Premiers, notched up a very professional win. Given that it followed a highly emotional first win of the season last week, it shows that the Bullants are combining head, heart and gut.

With a heart the size of Phar Lap’s, Tom Wilson has carried his team on his back towards respectability on the field. The cavalry is rallying around him now and, with another opportunity to test their progress against Coburg on the horizon, the future is more clear and bright.

Northern Bullants 8.7 (55) def Richmond 5.12 (42)

Goals: Ahern 2, Boyd 2, Smith 2, Murphy, Velissaris

Best: Wilson, Mitchell, Hughes, Ahern, Boyd

At Preston City Oval.