Photo: Owen Jones (Digital Beard)

By: Daniel Kelly (@UKurrie)

The fighting Ants spirit was on show at Whitten Oval as the Northern Bullants fought back late in windy conditions to fall short by two points 10.12.72 to 10.10.70.

Playing on a five-day break after returning from a humid Gold Coast, the Ants were without key defender Doug Lawrence and versatile ever-present Ben Silvagni.

It was a credit to their commitment and effort that the Bullants never lost touch, and actually led for significant periods, against a Footscray VFL side which contained 15 AFL listed players and were undefeated at the top of the ladder in 2021.

Mutaz El Nour (27 disposals, 10 marks) was dominant in the backline, contesting marking efforts up high, mopping up loose balls on the ground down low, and running the ball out of defence whenever space allowed it.

Tom Wilson (28 disposals, 8 clearances) took no backward steps in close quarters, and Matthew King continued his strong start to the season rebounding with 21 disposals off half back.

Jackson Barling (17 disposals, 7 tackles) continues to bring a physical presence to the midfield.

Nathan Honey (16 disposals) saw plenty of time through the middle alongside Kyle Dunkley (18 disposals), Tim Jones (16 disposals) and Wilson, as the Ants continue to cover for Will Mitchell who is likely two to three weeks away.

Two recent additions to the Preston side – Mackenzie Doreian and Ethan Penrith – were eye catching in different ways.

Doreian (18 disposals) has the game intelligence to regularly be where the ball falls, as well as the pace and agility to either pressure the opponent (five tackles on this night) or to break the lines (he led the Bullants with six inside 50’s).

Whilst not everything came off for him last week, Penrith (18 disposals) was determined to continue to use his speed to get himself out of trouble and create opportunities from the backline.

This potential was on show against the Bulldogs as he consistently found the angles to exit defence and passed the ball with precision.

Penrith is on the path to settling in well at Preston City Oval.

‘Over the pre-season everyone made it really enjoyable to come back and play VFL. It’s a great club and a local club for me growing up in Reservoir,’ he said post-match.

‘I feel like I found my mojo a little bit, I got a bit more comfortable playing VFL. Last week was my first week back in two or three years, so I struggled a bit.’

Harrison Kennedy, Billy Murphy, Tynan Smith and JL Velissaris all kicked two for the Ants, and Jackson Barling and Daniel Hughes added a goal each to bring the Preston side so close to victory.

The game ebbed and flowed based on which team was kicking to the Barkly Street end of the ground given the strong wind conditions.

The Bullants had that advantage in the first quarter and held an eight-point lead 3.4.22 to 2.2.14 after goals from Kennedy, Murphy and Velissaris.

Four behinds in five minutes towards the end of the quarter could have been costly as the lead felt less than what was required given the Bulldogs would have the next opportunity to take advantage.

Even at this early stage, the Bulldogs were mimicking their AFL club with a handball first game.

It was a regular occurrence to see the vertical handball chains crash like ocean waves over scrambling Bullants immediately after a turnover. More often than not, the Bulldogs capitalised.

During the second term Footscray had their turn with the wind and were able to dominate the play.

Thanks to El Nour, Penrith, King, debutante Jaden Collins, Matthew Gundry, Zac Hart, Ben Hurley and Ben De Bolfo, the Ants repelled most attacks.

However, the wind, and some strong play from impressive Bulldog Buku Khamis, meant that it was difficult to break across the Footscray half back line.

Kennedy would add the Ants only score – a goal – for the quarter but the Bulldogs would add three by half time. Footscray’s Lachlan McNeil would have three on his own already by this point, on his way to five for the match, and the Bulldogs led 5.6.36 to 4.4.28.

Despite the Bullants kicking the opening goal of the third quarter (a second goal for Velissaris), the Bulldogs threatened to turn the game decisively with two quick goals from McNeil meaning they led, into the wind, by 13 points midway through the third.

The Ants rallied though with goals to Billy Murphy and, later, Tynan Smith to edge closer before three more behinds moved them in front.

Barling roved beautifully, snapped and goaled to give the Ants an 8.8.56 to 7.7.49 lead at three quarter time but there was a sense that it should have been more given the Bulldogs would be coming home with a wet sail and a strong wind.

Against all odds, the Bullants kicked the first major of the final quarter through Daniel Hughes who is impressively flaunting a mane equal to one the lion tattooed on his thigh proudly wears.

At this point the Ants led by 13 and the impossible was on.

However, Footscray showed their class and Jarrod Gilbee, Joshua Chatfield and Riley Garcia goaled in a five-minute spell to put the Bulldogs in front by five points with about ten minutes to go.

Four behinds followed from the Dogs and it appeared like it was one way traffic.

But then the Bullants steadied, held firm at the back, began to shift the play back against the wind, and started creating chances.

At 26 minutes, after some good forward pressure from Hughes, quick thinking (and feet) from Velissaris sent a centring ball to Kennedy who was alone at a promising distance and angle. His kick faded left and the margin was eight points.

At 29 minutes a long ball from Doreian to the top of the goal square fell to Velissaris whose quick snap under pressure also turned sharply left.

By this stage the Bulldogs were playing for time but the Bullants weren’t done.

Wilson received a free kick in front of the benches on the wing and he sent it forward to Doreian, who belied his height to mark strongly at the front of the pack, on the 50-metre line.

Doreian sent the ball to the top of the goal square where Tynan Smith cleverly kept himself away from the chaos of the forming pack right up until the last moment when he came in from the angle to mark almost uncontested.

Smith hurried back to the top of his mark and swiftly kicked the goal as the quarter approached 31 minutes.

Unfortunately for the Bullants, there was only a few more seconds of actual play left in game and time expired before the comeback was complete.

Despite the defeat, coach Ben Hart saw plenty to like in the narrow defeat against the odds.

‘I am really proud of the guys,’ he said.

‘To come back from a pretty horrid trip from interstate and to get a few points up against a pretty good side – we’re pretty proud.’

‘I think the difference was about taking the opportunities when they come. Footscray were just that little bit better than us – we had opportunities, but we didn’t make the most of them.’

He recognises the promising signs of competitiveness at the core of the Ants.

‘Our contest continues to be strong. We are in the fight, which is really pleasing, and hopefully Bullants supporters can see that and they are pretty proud of that.’

Bullants supports will get an opportunity to see that in person on Saturday 9th April at Preston City Oval against Collingwood, where there is a chance that Lawrence and Silvagni will return to the side.

Ethan Penrith summed up the feelings of everyone at the club who are looking forward to the first home game of the season.

‘I’ve had multiple kicks at PCO so it would be good for everyone to come down and support us and hopefully we’ll get a win for you.’

Best: El Nour, Wilson, Penrith, King, Doreian

Goals: Kennedy 2, Murphy 2, Smith 2, Velissaris 2, Barling, Hughes