The Bullants backed up the recent words from their coaching staff – proving that their first win in 2022 was imminent – in a mature 19-point victory over Sydney at Blacktown International Sportspark, 15.14 (104) to 13.7 (85).
The Preston side had 10 goal kickers as they recorded their highest score since the 140-year-old Bullants name and logo returned to the field in 2021.
Jack Boyd, through impressive strong marking, and Jean-Luc Velissaris kicked three goals and hard running Nathan Honey two. Jackson Barling, Matthew Day (on debut), Mackenzie Doreian, Ben Hurley, Tim Jones and Tynan Smith also contributed to the scoreboard as well.
Three debutantes were on show for the Ants – Andrew Courtney was an excellent tandem with Liam Podhajski in the ruck; Matthew Day kicked a goal from a tight angle; and Sean Martin was solid when called upon, helping cover the absence of Doug Lawrence and Ben Silvagni in defence.
The first gamers were covering Matthew King, Daniel Hughes and Silvagni, showing off the strength in depth the Ants acquired over summer.
The Bullants dominated stoppages with Podhajski and Courtney taking full advantage of an undersized Sydney ruck division. Together, they would contribute to a 44 to 21 hit out differential in the Ants favour.
Thanks to controlling the ruck, the Bullants were able to clear the ball from the contest – always a strength – 51 times, compared to the Swans 23.
Tom Wilson led from the front with 31 disposals, six of them clearances.
— Northern Bullants FC (@NBullantsFC) April 18, 2022
Jones’s goal was one of his 24 disposals, along with eight clearances and six disposals. Jones was second only to Kyle Dunkley and Barling for clearances.
Dunkley, the headline recruit for 2022, providing – as advertised – outside mid support with ten clearances to go with his 19 disposals, five tackles and five inside 50s.
Barling had his strongest game of the season so far, also contributing ten clearances as part of his 18 disposals, along with a game high ten tackles.
Baxter Knight continues to be productive and impactful on the wing, and accumulated 20 disposals.
This well rounded win is more than just four points for the Bullants.
It is validation of their growth in 2022 – most visibly their ability to wrest back control when the opposition is controlling momentum.
All three matches in 2022 have seen strong starts from the Bullants, only for their opponents to score quickly and consecutively – usually in the second quarter – to overturn hard earned Ants leads.
Gold Coast scored four unanswered goals in ten minutes against the Ants in Round 1, Footscray three in four minutes in Round 2, and the Magpies four in ten minutes in Round 3.
This threatened to happen again against the Swans when the Ants left quarter time 18 points ahead, but five goals from Sydney inside nine second quarter minutes had turned that lead into a 14-point deficit.
But the Bullants held firm as Jones goaled at 12 minutes and the flow of play returned to parity.
Honey’s two goals late in the second quarter, followed by Doreian’s major, meant that the Swans only led by a point at half time when the scenario, considering the way 2022 has played out so far, could have been much worse.
Not only was it a critical moment in the match, it is a milestone in the season that can be used as an example of where the Ants didn’t let the game get away from them.
Front of mind for now though is the immediate four points the win brought and Captain Tom Wilson believes the key was halting momentum in that second quarter.
‘During the week we have really focussed on that,’ he said.
‘When we have been met with resistance, (we focus on) our ability to stay in the task, and our ability to keep going with what we believe in.’
Wilson felt that, once the Bullants wrestled back the flow of the game in the second quarter, the Preston side were able to use their usual style to reset and retake the lead.
‘In the contest is where we won it, and then across the ground our ability to shut down their uncontested marks after quarter time, which stemmed their ball flow.’
Another unfortunate trend during the Ants defeats in 2022 is not making the most of their possessions and entries inside 50. Wilson felt that was different against Sydney.
‘We just tightened up our foot skills around the ground, which led to more composure going into forward 50 and we were able to take a few more opportunities today, which was nice,’ he said.
Forwards coach Perry Meka agreed that a strength of the Bullants was the contribution on the scoreboard against the Swans.
‘Our mids pushed forward and kicked a few goals; our forwards worked really hard to keep the ball in there; and, in the third quarter, we had 14 entries for 14 shots on goal, which was fantastic,’ he said.
That third quarter was when the Ants took the game away from the Swans as they added four goals, eight behinds to one point from Sydney.
The Preston side would lead 13.12 (90) to 9.6 (60) at three quarter time.
JL Velissaris capitalised on the Ants pressure further up the ground as he kicked all three of his goals – all right foot snaps – across 13 minutes in that critical third quarter.
His first was from a set shot and his second and third were the result of great positioning and awareness.
JL’s second goal was a direct result of Billy Murphy’s ability to stand up in the tackle and find Velissaris a step clear from his opponent with a handball.
Credit to Murphy for his lower body strength, but also Velissaris resisted the temptation to get drawn in to the quickly forming pack as he trusted that Murphy would be able to release his arms for the handball.
It was that presence of mind which ensure he had enough space to turn and snap.
His third was the best of all and came quickly from the centre bounce following his second goal.
Velissaris showed great anticipation and seemingly knew where the ball would fall from a pack contest after Wilson had thrust the Ants inside 50 again.
With all others flat footed awaiting the result of the marking contest, JL was accelerating to an opening at the foot of the pack.
The ball was spoiled in JL’s direction, but whilst his anticipation was great, he still had work to do.
With great agility and reflexes, Velissaris – still running at pace – scooped up the ball on the half volley around his shoelaces, broke free of the pack and dribbled the ball home from a swiftly closing angle.
JL’s third may be a purist’s goal of the day, but the eye catching moment of the match would certainly belong to Ethan Penrith earlier in the match.
From a ball up deep in defensive fifty midway through the first quarter, speedster Penrith received a handball (already running, of course) in the back pocket.
Penrith gained territory with his pace and then handballed to Velissaris, who was available on defensive 50, who shifted the ball by hand wider to Jones.
Jones sent a ranging handball towards the centre circle probably for Penrith, who was still running forward, but Murphy intercepted, just to be sure possession was maintained.
Murphy did the honourable thing and laid off the handball to Penrith who was now disappearing from sight towards the attacking side of the centre square.
Penrith received the ball cleanly, checked his options (there was only one outcome fitting for such a foray) ran to 50 and calmly slotted the ball through for a goal, fulfilling the promise the recruiters saw in him over the summer.
Whilst there were plenty of eye-catching attacking moments, the reality is that the inside 50 count was 51 to 50 in Sydney’s favour at the end of the game.
It was to the credit of the Ants backs and half backs that the scoreline was not as close as the inside 50 tally, especially as the Swans did apply pressure with a four goal to two (Boyd and Smith for the Ants) final quarter.
Zac Hart, Jaden Collins and Ben Hurley all stood up when counted. Debutante Sean Martin did not look out of place at this leval, and Ben De Bolfo showed his versatility in picking up 15 disposals in addition to his core defensive duties.
Matthew Gundry and Mutaz El Nour were their predictable industrious selves, springing defence into attack regularly.
An all-round team effort ensured that the Ants would run out 19 point winners.
With the bye next week, the win provides a timely boost of confidence in the gamestyle at Preston City Oval, something consistently vocalised throughout 2022 despite the results not being on the board – until now.
The Bullants will face the so far undefeated GWS Giants at Preston City Oval on Sunday 1st May.
Best: Wilson, Jones, Barling, Velissaris, Boyd, Podhajski
Goals: Boyd 3, Velissaris 3, Honey 2, Barling, Day, Doreian, Hurley, Jones, Penrith, Smith