Photo: Nathan McNeill (NWM Sports)

By: Daniel Kelly (@UKurrie)

The Northern Bullants fell to an impressive Gold Coast Suns outfit at Metricon Stadium in the opening round of the 2022 VFL season 20.11.131 to 11.10.76.

Captain Tom Wilson picked up where he left off in 2021, leading all on ground with 35 disposals, six of them clearances, along with a towering goal from distance, and near the boundary line, early in the match.

Matthew King and Matthew Gundry rebounded off half back with 25 disposals, 10 marks, and 16 disposals, five marks respectively.

Jackson Barling grew into the game with 21 disposals and five clearances as he rotated with Kyle Dunkley, Tim Jones and Sunny Brazier to partner the ever-present Wilson under the centre bounces.

Ben Silvagni started in his usual backline position, then took ruck duties before finally settling in the forward line, kicking three goals. His tally could have been even better given his two behinds came from very gettable positions.

This was an even more impressive performance given he was also contending with a knee soreness for most of the match.

Headline debutante Dunkley returned a strong 20 possessions, Jones 19 (and one goal, capping an impressive performance after a difficult injury impacted pre-season), and Mutaz El Nour was busy in the second half with 17 disposals.

That King and El Nour were in the top six possession winners for the Ants, along with Matthew Gundry in seventh position, gives you a good indication of the pressure the Preston side found itself under for extended periods.

Turnovers from well-intended, but not quite perfectly executed, fast ball movement all too often led to rebounds from pacey, highly skilled Suns runners which, in turn, put pressure on an Ants defense attempting to fall back into their structure.

Liam Podhajski battled manfully in the ruck and contributed two goals when he went forward, along with six clearances which equalled his captain’s efforts.

However, the Bullants had no answer for a dominant ruck performance from Suns big man Ned Moyle and the Gold Coast side ultimately won the hit outs 47-23 as Podhajski, Daniel Hughes, Silvagni and Jack Boyd all struggled to secure first use of the ball.

Admirably though, the Bullants actually won the clearance count (38-36) which is a credit to Wilson, Barling, Jones and their engine room colleagues.

Versatile big men Daniel Hughes (playing mostly forward) Jack Boyd and Podhajski made their presence felt at fall of the ball, contributing around a third of the clearances for the side.

Along with Silvagni and Podhajski, Jean-Luc Velissaris kicked multiple goals (two), including the game’s first within 90 seconds of the opening bounce.

Jones, Harrison Kennedy (after great forward pressure from Jack Boyd), Tynan Smith and Wilson contributed to the scoreboard as well.

The Ants lost livewire Billy Murphy with a minor neck injury early in the match, and caution ruled the day as he played no further part.

Alongside Dunkley, the Preston side blooded four more debutantes; Ben De Bolfo, Ethan Penrith, Mackenzie Doreian and Peter Gentile.

Big bodied defender De Bolfo performed admirably against AFL listed talent in defense; Penrith always sought opportunities to use his pace; Gentile showed his versatility by being thrown forward late in the match, and Doreian was amongst the Bullants best early on – always available and covering significant territory.

Dunkley, as expected, moved like the AFL list talent he is and brings a level of class to the gritty midfield the Ants already have.

The Ants were unlucky to be behind at quarter time, having led for 25 of the 30 minutes and dominating large portions of the play. Their pressure in the forward line was especially apparent.

The Suns though were never out of reach and were incisive with their movement and punished the Bullants mercilessly to edge the first quarter.

This set the tone for the remainder of the match where the Suns talent, including 5th overall draft pick Mac Andrew, were surgical with the ball and disciplined without it.

The accurate Suns extended their lead to 27 by half-time; maintained that same margin at three quarter time and over ran the Bullants to win by 55 points.

Josh Corbett kicked five goals for the Suns; Chris Burgess, Morgan Ferres and the impressive Malcolm Rosas kicked three.

Oleg Markov constantly took on Ants forwards and was not afraid to take off, often towards his own goal, using his pace to create space.

Bullants coach Ben Hart saw plenty of positives despite the defeat.

‘I’m really proud of the guys,’ Hart said. ‘We started really well and showed we were up for the fight but the overall message that I spoke to the players about was that we actually shot ourselves in the foot.’

‘We had some turnovers which were some opportunities for us to go and score but we turned the ball over and they were smooth in transition and were able to score against us.’

‘It was almost a case of being our worst enemy at times.’

Even though the Ants aggression with the ball did not build a foundation for a win today, Hart is not about to discourage his team from taking calculated risks.

‘What can happen is that, if you do turn the ball over, miss a kick or a handball, you can often go back into your shell and not go for the next one,’ Hart said.

‘But we need to keep encouraging our guys that mistakes will happen. Clearly, we had too many today but they’re a part of footy.’

Hart felt that the captain led from the front today.

‘Tommy Wilson, the skipper, was very strong again today,’ Hart said. ‘He always puts his head over the ball and makes things happen.’

Hart went on to commend Silvagni, Jones, Velissaris and Gundry for their performances, along with complimenting each of the debutantes on the differing attributes they brought to team today.

‘We had a lot of really good things, they just weren’t over the full four quarters,’ Hart said.

Whilst this Queensland excursion ends in defeat, Hart is thankful for the efforts to even make it happen.

‘I just want to thank the whole footy club,’ he said. ‘Getting up at 5am to travel and play in pretty humid conditions.’

‘I think all the club, including our volunteers and our staff do an incredible job to get us up here and give us an opportunity to play. So, I really feel that, if we can continue to work together like that, the results will come.’

The next opportunity for a win is only five days away – 5.30 pm Thursday evening at Footscray’s Whitten Oval. All matches are able to be streamed via the AFL website for those who cannot make it.

The Ants will continue to be without Will Mitchell for another three to four weeks with a wrist injury but will be hopeful today’s minor injuries to Silvagni (knee), Doug Lawrence (hip pointer) and Murphy (neck) are niggles rather than significant.