By: Daniel Kelly (@UKurrie)

‘Frustrating,’ is how coach Ben Hart described the Northern Bullants 30-point loss to Sandringham Zebras 12.8 (80) to 6.14 (50) at Trevor Barker Beach Oval.

Missing Kyle Dunkley, Tim Jones and Matthew Day, the Bullants did well to regain some control in the match to avoid a result similar to the 110-point defeat (to the GWS Giants) the previous week. However, 30 minutes of clinical finishing early on in tough conditions was enough for the Zebras to ensure the game was never truly in the balance.”

With their St Kilda affiliation, Sandringham were well represented with AFL list talent. On this day their best players were truly their best players.

Jarrod Lienert (eight marks, 31 disposals) and Tom Highmore (nine marks, 29 disposals) dominated aerially in defence, Tom Campbell (36 hit outs, eight clearances) was nearly unbeatable in the ruck and a presence going forward, and Jack Billings (30 disposals), Hunter Clark (28 disposals) and Mitch Owens (32 disposals) were everywhere as the Zebras comfortably won the possession categories.

For the Preston side, Jackson Barling (17 disposals, 11 tackles, 10 clearances) continued his strong all-around performances of late, Matthew King (25 disposals, five marks) linked defence to attack and Jean-Luc Velissaris (23 disposals, four clearances, four inside 50’s) was often seen tackling and forcing a contest in defence whilst also playing his mobile forward role.

Tom Wilson (25 disposals) was in his element, long sleeves and all, in the conditions and he now is impressively second in the VFL for kicks and fifth for disposals overall.

Barling, a cornerstone of the Ants impressive inside mid core, is second in the league in tackles, averaging almost eight per game.

Taking the opposition’s small forward, Bullant Peter Gentile (16 disposals, five marks, three tackles) was particularly eye catching all day in his best performance in his debut season with the Ants.

When the game was particularly hot, and the conditions were at their worst, Gentile was composed and clean with his disposals, and had a noticeable ability to secure possession without fumbling, create space and find a teammate with accurate passing.

Young, tall forward Jack Boyd, continues to work his way into the season with three goals, taking him to 11 goals (all in the last four games) for the season – just outside the top ten in the league. Two goals came from strong contested marks which continues to bring hope for his potential in the future.

The Zebras were smarter in swirly, wet conditions – especially early – as they used the grandstand side of the ground, which was least affected by the wind, to enter their inside 50 and set up higher quality scoring opportunities.

Those chances paid off with a four goal to one opening term to lead 4.1 (25) to 1.2 (8) after captain Tom Wilson had goaled early for the Ants.

Scoring shots were even for the day despite Sandringham leading the inside 50’s 66 to 46. But it was the Ants inability to convert which made the game more comfortable for the Zebras.

‘Ants Spirit’ is often referred to and can change in what it means over time. In this era though, on the field, this motto is most visible as consistent contested ball effort and a work ethic that keeps the team in games.

For the opening period of the first quarter, when conditions were at their most challenging, the Ants inside midfielders (Wilson, Barling, Sunny Brazier and the returning Will Mitchell) ensured the ball was willed forward at every opportunity, responding to coach Hart’s instructions.

‘It’s all about the contests in those conditions and your ability to win it,’ he said post-match. ‘And we wanted to play a forward brand of footy – so get that ball going forward.’

The Ants defence, made up of Ben De Bolfo, Mutaz El Nour, Jadyn Collins, Sean Martin, Ethan Penrith and Gentile, generally held up well in the first half of the first quarter.

However, the dam wall broke from that point on as Sandringham would kick all of their eight first half goals during the last 15 minutes of the first quarter and the first 15 minutes of the second quarter.

Those eight goals came from seven different goalkickers for the Zebras, showing the options and potential the Sandringham had to execute.

From midway through the second quarter, the Preston side were able to snap back into gear and through Boyd, and a first goal for Tom Mills (from a one handed, over the back shoulder, mark showing equal parts skill and bravery) in the third quarter, they were able to play out the game in parity.

The Mills goal was more than just a personal highlight for the Ararat prospect.

It was also the result of one of the best movements of the day from the Bullants showing the outside speed they are seeking this year.

The move came after Matthew Gundry won possession from a ruck contest deep inside defensive fifty.

What followed was a sequence of quick forward handballs involving Gundry, Mitchell, Velissaris, Baxter Knight, King and ending with Gundry again – now forward of centre – who flighted the ball into space where only Mills could mark it.

Billy Murphy and Boyd would add their goals in the fourth quarter, and the Bullants would actually outscore the Zebras five goals to four since Sandringham’s earlier burst. But for all the fight the result was never truly in doubt.

Hart continues to see enough positives in the gamestyle to not be too disheartened based on the scoreboard.

‘We’re generating enough opportunities to put up good scores but we haven’t been good enough to take them,’ he said after the game.

‘We had the same amount of scoring shots and we lose by five goals, so – with the style we are trying to play – we are generating enough opportunities to score and be a really good side.’

‘But we’re probably not polished enough, at the moment, to take those opportunities to go forward. It’s a growth area for us and one that we will continue to focus on because I think it is the right way to play with this group.’

A continued positive for the Bullants is their ability to win contested ball and clearances – something that will be bolstered by the return of Liam Mackie next week from suspension.

Barling talked of the focus for the midfield group, especially the physical ball winners, as directed by midfield line coach Jason Williams.

‘We’ve got a fair few good inside mids particularly, so cracking in, driving your legs (is the focus),’ he said.

‘On the flipside of that is getting balance and being proactive on our transition because at times this year we’ve got a little bit sucked in (inside) and, coming out of today, that is another growth area, but it was definitely better.’

The next opportunity for a win comes at Preston City Oval on Sunday 15th May at 1.05pm against former VFA rivals Port Melbourne.

The Northern Bullants will be honouring their heritage with a past players and members event pre-match. Please RSVP as soon as possible to Gordon Towan on 0411 250 983 if you are interested in attending.

Some past players will also join the current squad midweek for a discussion on the history of the club to closer bind the players and staff of today, to the history of the past.

Hart acknowledges the historical significance of the club and the role of the players and staff today in safeguarding that.

‘We are just custodians of the jumper right now – it’s been built on what those guys have done previously and, hopefully, when our time is finished here we can pass it on as well. We’re really keen to get a big crowd and a good performance.’

Barling too knows the role the players of past play to remind the current team of what has gone before.

‘I think it is an important part and there are blokes, even at training, who are there each and every session so it is really important for us to get around them and show them support because they’ve been awesome for us the whole way through,’ he said.

‘It’s a big part of the club – all the volunteers and people hanging around – it’s awesome.’

And keep an eye on the Northern Bullants website and social channels later in the week for another announcement which will bring back memories of the great Preston sides of the past!

Best: Barling, Velissaris, King, Boyd, Gentile, Wilson

Goals: Boyd 3, Wilson, Mills, Murphy