The Victoria Thunderbolts have continued their incredible start to the Hastings Deering Colts season, overcoming a slow start to produce a flawless second half display to defeat the Norths Devils 34-18 and remain undefeated after five rounds.
It was a much-anticipated clash between the competition’s two leading contenders and it appeared as though the home side were up to the occasion at Bishop Park as they ran in tries to Elliot Vincent and Tom Best, taking the score to 12-0 after 20 minutes.
Fullback Sale Finau went some way to steady the ship for the Victorians when he crossed in the 22nd minute, but Norths winger Michael McGrath restored the 12-point advantage soon after to ensure the home side went to the sheds with an 18-6 lead.
Despite being blown away by a classy Devils outfit in the opening stanza, coach Ben Jack was pleased with how his side came in at halftime and he challenged his players to respond to their substandard first half time performance.
“I think we started a bit slow and we haven’t been in that position so far this year, so as a coach I was looking for body language at halftime to see how they would respond and they definitely showed that they were up for the challenge,” Jack said.
The Thunderbolts appeared to take up the challenge from their coach straight from the first whistle of the second half and they immediately made their presence felt crossing through winger Iliesa Ratuva two minutes into the second half.
It appeared to be a completely different outfit who were filled with purpose and intent in their play and this translated to the scoreboard with tries to Finau and Trent Toelau putting the visitors ahead 22-18.
With Cooper Johns (son of Newcastle's Matthew Johns) leading the side around, the Devils seemed to have no answers as the Thunderbolts continued their second half dominance with tries to Matt Stimson and another to Fua Schwalger in the shadow of fulltime sealing the win.
The growth of rugby league in Melbourne has been aided by the increased interest and profile raised by the success enjoyed by the Storm over the past decade; but even with this publicity, the game still faces the challenges associated with competing with the ingrained culture of AFL.
The statistic making the Thunderbolts early season dominance more impressive is the number of Victorian juniors who are in the side and Jack paid tribute to the tireless work that NRL Victoria staff did to ensure the game continues to grow in such a competitive market.
“Eighty percent of our players are local Victorian juniors and it all stems from the program that NRL Victoria has put in place with a lot of these players having played together through the representative systems they have established, so it’s been an extremely good pathway for them,” he said.
Another barrier the team face most weeks is the amount of travel they have to do in order to compete in elite competitions like the Hastings Deering Colts.
Yet despite being based more than 1700km away, the Thunderbolts refuse to consider their geographic location as a challenge, with their coach instead seeing the opportunities and benefits a competition like the Hastings Deering Colts presents to emerging talent.
“It’s so good for these players to be recognised and getting that recognition and having their name out there is really big so I think it’s a really good way for our guys to showcase themselves to not only the rest of Victoria, but to Queensland and the wider rugby league community,” Jack said.
The Thunderbolts will look to continue their unbeaten run when they hit the road to take on Redcliffe at Dolphin Stadium on Saturday at 2.30pm.
The round kicks off this weekend with the Ipswich Jets hosting Mackay at North Ipswich Reserve on Saturday, while the final game of the round will be on Sunday between Souths Logan and the CQ Capras. This week, the Norths Devils have the bye.