Paul Ahern gets his kick clear. Photo: Nathan McNeill (Nathan William Media).

Written by: Daniel Kelly (@ukurrie)

The Northern Bullants led for the majority of their Round 16 encounter at Preston City Oval against the Werribee Tigers but eventually fell to a 10.11 (71) to 14.17 (101) defeat.

Paul Ahern, playing forward for the whole match, kicked four goals for the Preston side as he returned to the team after a calf injury held him out against the Coburg Lions.

Ahern was a picture of efficiency as his four goals, three in the first quarter and the fourth midway through the second quarter, came from his first four kicks.

Jean-Luc Velissaris would kick two goals, with singles to Liam Mackie, Billy Murphy, Ben Silvagni and Glenn Strachan. Will Mitchell powered the midfield, along with Tom Wilson and Glenn Strachan. And the backline rebounded well through Doug Lawrence, Mutaz El Nour, Matthew King and Matty Gundry.

The Bullants raced to a wind assisted 5.7 (37) to 1.0 (6) lead at quarter time which was in stark contrast to the round six encounter in May when the Tigers had leapt out to ten goal lead at the same stage.

Clearly the Bullants have improved since and it was evident that they had planned to negate Werribee’s ability to create run off half back.

The Preston side was forcing Werribee to the wings and creating contests at ground level which the Bullants were regulary winning, whereas earlier in the season the Tigers were able to move the ball at express pace through the centre corridor.

Will Mitchell (nine), Doug Lawrence (nine), Jean-Luc Velissaris (eight), Daniel Hughes (seven) all led the way in regards to possessions which helped Ahern (three), Velissaris himself (one) and Glenn Strachan (one) register majors early.

Both Ahern and Strachan in particular showed familiarity with their surroundings through taking full advantage of the wind to kick long goals.

In a quarter which the Bullants would total 25 inside 50s to four, Ben Silvagni, Doug Lawrence and Daniel Hughes were the cornerstones of a wall which was set just outside the Ants attacking 50 which kept the Tigers bottled in.

At quarter time, coach Josh Fraser reassured the Bullants that it was their effort and method which was to thank for the early lead, not the wind. He pointed out the higher contested possession numbers and tackle count as leading indicators.

There was no doubt though that the wind was a factor, and the Bullants did well to maintain a foothold in the game through possession, despite heading into the breeze and led 8.8 (56) to 5.7 (37) at half time, thanks mostly to Will Mitchell’s tireless work.

The Preston side kicked two of the first three goals of the quarter, with Liam Mackie scoring just before Ahern’s fourth.

Billy Murphy added a third from a free kick after the siren after a long delay as Bullants ruckman Daniel Hughes needed help to leave the ground safely.

Hughes had been fighting for the ball at his feet 35 metres from the Bullants goal when he was collected high with a bump that instantly sent him to ground and he took some time to recover.

A small fracas ensued as the Bullants held the Werribee player in question to account and then Murphy coolly navigated the breeze and slotted the set shot for a goal and the Preston side left the field with a bounce in their step.

By this stage Mitchell had accumulated 17 possessions, Sunny Brazier 15 and Tom Wilson was emerging into the game with 12, six of them resulting in clearances.

Doug Lawrence continued to rebound well, along with has high flying partner Mutaz El Nour who took an interest in any high balls. Matthew King and Matty Gundry were also influential with run and precision off half back.

Concerningly though, it was the usual suspects from the round six 160-point demolition by Werribee which were influential for the Tigers.

Thomas Gribble and Matthew Hanson were accumulating, and big men Matthew Lobbe and Wylie Buzza were dominating the ruck and crashing contests.

To this point, Hughes had battled manfully against such quality ruck opposition to limit Lobbe’s dominance as much as possible, but with it clear he would not return for the second half, the Bullants would have their depth tested.

Jack Boyd stepped into Hughes’s shoes and put in a display in the second half which was high in effort and determination but was always going to fall short against Lobbe’s craft, who leads the league with 33 average hit outs and would finish with an eye watering 49 taps on this day.

Boyd lost no admirers though, and he suffered physically from the bruising match up. Ben Silvagni also took some centre bounces, and Tynan Smith helped with forward line throw ins.

Whilst Hughes had not gone close to winning the hitouts before he exited, his absence in the second half showed the around the ground value he brings to the Bullants, which often is not reflected through statistics.

Hughes’s thirst for contact around the ground – crashing packs, punching the ball to ground, blocking for runners, half tackles, smothers – combines as pressure against the opposition and forces them to avoid the space he is patrolling when transitioning.

Without his presence, and into what was left of the wind, Werribee were building, but wasting, for now, chances.

The Bullants still held a 16-point lead, 9.10 (64) to 6.12 (48), at three quarter time but it felt much more tenuous than it appeared.

Werribee only added one goal, which was matched by the Bullants through the busy JL Velissaris, but they missed many – registering five behinds and a few more out of bounds on the full.

The inside 50 count had mostly levelled and the clearances were now in Werribee’s favour.

The wall which the Bullants had built to bottle play inside their own inside 50 through Lawrence, Hughes, Silvagni and others was being breached regularly.

At three quarter time coach Fraser made it clear that the Bullants were not turning to overly defensive tactics to cling on for victory.

“I want to make it clear that we are taking this game on,” he said in the huddle, as he assured the team that if they found their intensity through blocks, smothers and tackles the result will look after itself.

By this stage though, the Tigers had unlocked a gamestyle which was overrunning the Bullants as they found their Round six swagger to pile on eight goals, five behinds, to a solitary goal from the Preston side in the final quarter.

That goal was a poignant one from Ben Silvagni as he kissed his black armband, which the Ants were wearing in memory of Silvagni’s grandfather and Carlton great Serge Silvagni, and pointed to the sky just as brother Jack had done in the AFL a few weeks prior.

Werribee would run out 30-point victors and looked good doing it.

This was not a scenario where certain players shirked their responsibilities or had poor matches. The absence of Hughes clearly impacted the game, but the Bullants who won the last three games were still recognisable here.

The midfield was productive – Mitchell would end with 31 disposals (and eight tackles), Wilson finished strongly with 23, Strachan and Tim Jones had 22 and 19 respectively – but they couldn’t stay in control.

El Nour, Silvagni and Lawrence defended and rebounded well and it was not their men who were often found unmarked inside defensive 50. King, Gundry and Kye Quirk rebounded and linked defence to attack well.

For the forwards, Boyd put his body on the line to take on the ruck duties which had to take something from the forward line, but Tynan Smith was as physical and clever as always, and Velissaris had one of his best games of the season.

It’s clear that Werribee matches up well against the Bullants and, when the dust settles, some credit might be given to reducing a 160 point deficit in May to 30 points in July.

Although it was a little too early for perspective for no nonsense defender Doug Lawrence.

“A loss is a loss,” he said post-match.

“I think the most disappointing part is that we didn’t play as a team and play how we wanted to play. We did for a half and that’s just not good enough in this competition.”

“Second half they came out and had more energy and they just jumped us. We were a bit flat footed and reactive for the first half of the third quarter and then we started coming back and evened it out by the end of the third.”

“In the fourth they just had all the momentum and we couldn’t pull them back and we fell apart a little structurally.”

Fraser and the coaching staff were focussing on the big picture back in the rooms afterwards.

“The main message was that it is all about mindset and we’re not that far off,” Lawrence said.

“If we fix up a couple of things – a little bit fumbly around the ball, our desire to hunt and play as a team – they’re minor adjustments and if we play a full game then we’ll be pretty tough to beat as we’ve shown.”

A Queensland native, Lawrence has personal reasons for being disappointed with two curtailed trips to Southport due to COVID-19 reasons, but he also sees the bonding benefits of such a trip for the young team.

“Coming from the NEAFL (North East Australian Football League) it is the closest you get to the AFL in terms of travelling for games, so I think in that way you play at a high level and you get to travel. It would be good for a few of the boys to see that side,” he said.

As keen as he is for some Queensland sun during a Melbourne winter, Lawrence wouldn’t forsake that for getting the Ants faithful back to Preston City Oval.

“Hopefully we’ll get the crowds back soon, the support has been unreal and hopefully get another win in front of a home crowd.”

The next few weeks’ fixtures are yet to be determined and, as history has shown, will even then be a day by day proposition in the time of COVID-19.

This Round 16 encounter provided both a reality check and a measure of progress, both of which will stand the Bullants in good stead for who and where they play in the final weeks of the season.

Goals: Ahern 4, Velissaris 2, Mackie, Murphy, Silvagni, Strachan

Best: Mitchell, Velissaris, Lawrence, El Nour, King, Ahern

At Preston City Oval.