Photo: Owen Jones (@Digital_beard)

By: Daniel Kelly (@UKurrie)

Former affiliated VFL partner Carlton overran the Northern Bullants in the final quarter to run out 13.15(93) to 13.6(84) winners at Preston City Oval in Round 12 of the 2022 VFL Premiership season.

From the sixth minute of the first quarter, to the sixteenth minute of the final quarter, the Ants held a mostly consistent lead of between two and three goals. That margin grew to 25 points early in the last quarter before Carlton kicked five of the last six goals to win by nine points.

The Bullants injury list grew with Liam Podhajski and Kobe Brown joining Mutaz El Nour, Ethan Penrith and Baxter Knight as unavailable for selection.

The Ins were notable though, with Billy Murphy returning and a debut for Northern Knights purebred athlete Liam Kolar.

Matthew King was amongst it across the whole ground, collecting 22 disposals running from half back, and also added two goals. Tom Wilson had 29 disposals, Will Mitchell 28 (11 of them clearances), and Doug Lawrence 20.

Jack Boyd kicked four goals and now sits fifth in the race for the Jim Frosty Miller Medal as leading VFL goalkicker with 18 goals for the 2022 season. The current leading goalkicker in the league also played in this match – Ben Crocker for the Blues and he would add three to take his total to 23 for the season.

In addition to Boyd and King, Nathan Honey was bright adding two goals (and eight tackles) and Kyle Dunkley, Ben Hurley, Jean-Luc Velissaris and Tom Wilson added singles.

Sean Martin, who did an honest job on Crocker all day, also snuck forward to kick his first goal after a mark and nerveless set shot from 50 metres out in the second quarter. He was duly mobbed by his teammates before the long jog back to his defensive goal square.

For Carlton, in addition to his three goals, Crocker had 22 disposals, Joel Trudgeon 27, Will Setterfield 26, and Thomas Williamson 25.

Whilst the Bullants were much more effective inside 50 – kicking 13 goals from their 34 entries – they needed to be. The Blues would enter their attacking zone 56 times for the day meaning the pressure on the Ants defence was intense.

The Ants inside 50 count was down on their season average by almost 13 showing the strong application of the Carlton midfield to limit the ability of their opposite numbers to move the ball forward.

The Bullants also love contested possession and are usually win the clearance battle from stoppages too – but on this day they lost it 36 (close to their average of 38.6) to 47 (which was above Carlton’s normal average of 41).

“We did a lot right today – we were in the fight,” Coach Ben Hart said post-match. “We really took it up to them, and I think we did enough to put ourselves in a winning position.”

“It does sting a little when you give up a lead. We’re growing, and we’re learning from it, but there are moments where we need to get better.”

Hart believes that small incremental improvements will be the key to securing the next win, not large changes in style or strategy.

“Like most of our games this year, we’ve been in the fight with all of them, and we’ve given ourselves opportunities to win games of footy, the same as today,” he said. “It’s not that far away – potentially a little bit of belief.”

“When the pressure gets turned up, or you’re met with a bit of resistance, it’s how we then go back at the game. We weren’t as polished today doing that, and we had our opportunities in the last quarter.”

Craig McCrae, the Collingwood Head Coach, whose team’s progress is perhaps a little ahead of schedule, made a comment after his side’s victory (also against Carlton on this day) in the AFL which resonates with what Hart is explaining.

“I think earlier in the year,” McRae said about his Magpies, “we lost a couple of games in particular around not knowing really how to win, or to kill the clock or get energy in the game.”

Whilst it easier to see the results of fitness and skills training, that mental maturity often only is apparent in the moment. This loss will hopefully be a marker which the Ants can remember back to as an example of what needs to change in those critical final moments to drive a different outcome.

The next challenge is a short turnaround for a match against Brisbane in Queensland on Friday 3rd June at 3.30pm.

“We are a very young group, so it will be great to get away together, try and galvanise together, come together,” Hart said. “There is a fair bit of disappointment about our results recently, so it is a chance to get away, consolidate what we are doing, because we are doing a lot right.”

There is an opportunity for the Bullants squad to be strengthened for the Brisbane game, although a five-day turnaround does present a challenge, with Mutaz El Nour, Ethan Penrith, Baxter Knight, Liam Podhajski and Kobe Brown nearing returns to fitness.

Before then though, on Wednesday 1st June at 6.30pm, is the small matter of the AFL Mid-Season Draft which Mutaz El Nour, Liam Podhajski and Jack Boyd have nominated for.

If ever there was a scenario where the club and its supporters would be at peace with a key player no longer being available for selection it would be to see them pursuing their dream to play in the AFL, and we wish them all the best.

Regardless of selections made in the AFL on Wednesday, the Bullants are well served by the pipeline of youth which is making their mark this season.

The likes of Andrew Courtney, Peter Gentile, Kobe Brown, Jaden Collins, Ben De Bolfo, Mackenzie Dorean, Kyle Dunkley, Ethan Penrith, Ryan Gardner and Liam Kolar all debuted for the Ants this season, are (more or less) regularly in the 23 selected, and are under 23 years of age.

Today’s debutante Kolar, a former athletics national junior carnival champion in the 800m and 1500m, in familiar surrounds as a Northern Knights player, spoke positively about his acceptance in the Bullants dressing room.

“They made me feel comfortable from the get go. They were always around me,” he said.

The path to his first game had to navigate through injuries over the summer, but he was happy to formally start his Ants career.

“It’s been unreal,” he said. “I struggled a little bit over pre-season with an ankle injury, but I put together a decent pre-season in the end. I was pretty happy to get the call up in the end – I was pretty stoked.”

It’s finding that mixture of youthful energy and mental maturity in the big moments that the Ants are striving for.