PEEL Thunder went ever so close to providing their captain and coach a fairytale send off against Subiaco on Saturday and had they scored more goal at David Grays Arena it would have thrown the finals series into chaos.
Subiaco has been on top of the ladder for most of the WAFL season and all the Lions had to do was beat Peel in Mandurah on Saturday to guarantee themselves another minor premiership, and a week off to open the finals series next weekend.
That certainly looked likely to be happening comfortably with Subiaco leading by as much as 52 points during the third quarter. With Peel having nothing but pride to play for, it appeared a formality the Lions would get what they needed.
However, nobody told the Thunder players that and looking to end their season on the best possible not, and to farewell premiership coach Cam Shepherd and inspirational captain Ben Howlett on the best possible note, they roared home.
David Grays Arena can provide Peel with quite the home ground advantage when they get on a roll with momentum rolling, and that was evident in the run home on Saturday.
By three quarter-time, Peel had closed to within 23 points and then after three behinds in the first 10 minutes of the fourth term, the Thunder kicked goals through Ryan Bennell, Jack Sears and Brodie Kitchingman.
Suddenly it was a three-point ball game but Subiaco captain Leigh Kitchin steadied the Lions with a crucial goal. Peel wasn’t done with another to Sears at the 27-minute mark still giving them a sniff but the Lions held on to win 14.9 (93) to 13.11 (89).
Subiaco needed to hold on too. The difference between a win or loss was massive with the Lions finishing first and now having the week off. But had they lost, they would have finished second and would be hosting Claremont in a qualifying final.
Greg Clark returned from a hamstring injury and was huge for the Lions, with 27 disposals and two goals. Wil Hickmott also saw plenty of it, with 27 touches of his own, while his brother Liam worked hard all day, with 20 disposals and 12 tackles.
The Thunder’s fightback came thanks in part to Stefan Giro, who was the Thunder’s leading ball winner with 23 possessions. Meanwhile Tyrone Thorne was handy with 22 disposals, and debutant Brady Hough showed what a player he could be, with 22 touches and a goal.
The retiring Ben Howlett's body has clearly had enough but he still found a way to kick two goals from his eight touches to give the Thunder an option up forward.
Subiaco looked to set the tone early, with Ben Sokol soccering one through less than a minute in after the ball went over the top of the contest.
The Thunder would not shy away however, being competitive in the midfield and winning clearances.
The man of the moment for Peel was Ben Howlett, who had a strong presence up forward, taking marks at the top of the 50 and setting up their first goal from Jack Sears.
Subiaco looked to take control on the outside, using their tidy skills to move the ball around the ground. Multiple goals were scored off the back of Subiaco’s efforts and their dominance in the back half of the quarter meant they took a four goal lead into the first break.
Peel came out with a point to prove in the second term, and it was Howlett again in the action and he put through a goal. Soon after, Peel fans rejoiced once again, when debutant Brady Hough kicked his first major in league football, getting the margin back down to 11 points.
From there, Subiaco kicked seven in a row, with the Matera brothers combining for three themselves to propel Subiaco to a 51-point advantage at half-time.
To make matters worse for Peel, they were a man down for the remainder of the game, with backman Zach Rankin stretchered off the ground, visibly upset and clutching his leg.
The Thunder, however, would not go down without a fight, taking the fight to Subiaco in the third. Peel got the game on their terms early in the quarter, kicking the first three goals to bring them right back in it.
Joel Western played a role in the resurgence, using his skills to put the ball to advantage, while kicking one himself.
While Brandon Matera was able to steady the ship with a goal, the Thunder kept coming, kicking the next three to bring the margin back to 23 points with one quarter to play.
A surging Thunder nearly led to an almighty comeback, but it was too late, with the Lions narrowly taking the four-point victory away from home.
CLARK A WELCOME RETURN
After missing essentially two games due to a hamstring concern, midfielder Greg Clark returned and looked to be back to his ball-winning best. The 24-year-old had an equal game-high 27 disposals and kicked two majors in an impressive effort. It’s a massive return for the minor premiers, as their ability to win the ball out of the midfield had come into question with the recent outs of Clark, Harry Marsh, Leigh Kitchin and Lachlan Delahunty at different stages. However, with those men all back in the same side, the Lions will look to threaten as they chase a ninth premiership since 2004.
THUNDER TAKE IT ON IN THE LAST
With the deficit under four goals, Peel had nothing to lose in the last quarter by taking risks. They looked to open up the game wherever possible and played quickly to catch out the Subiaco defence. It’s a method that worked, as they shocked the Lions to come back within three points at one stage in the last. A remarkable effort, given they were as many as 52 points down in the third quarter. Unfortunately for the Thunder, the clock was their enemy, as time ran out while the ball was in their forward 50 with just four points separating the two sides.
HOWLETT BOWS OUT
In their last game of the 2021 WAFL season, Peel supporters sent off a champion of their football club in Ben Howlett. After making his debut in 2006, the now 32-year-old played 61 games for the Thunder including winning the fairest and best before being drafted by Essendon in 2010. Howlett played 124 AFL games for the Bombers, before returning to Peel ahead of the 2018 season. In his 102nd and last game for the club, the man from Donnybrook left it all out on the park. He had eight disposals and five marks to go along with two goals, while also setting a couple up in the process. Both teams formed a guard of honour for Howlett, as he was chaired off from David Grays Arena for the final time.
OPTUS WAFL PREMIERSHIP SEASON – ROUND 22
PEEL THUNDER 1.2 3.6 9.8 13.11 (89)
SUBIACO 5.2 12.3 13.7 14.9 (93)
PEEL THUNDER: Goals – Sears 3; Howlett, Bennell 2; Lawler, Bell, Western, O'Driscoll, Hough, Kitchingman.
Best – Thorne, Hancock, Hough, Giro, Sears, Merrett, Western, O'Driscoll.
SUBIACO: Goals – Kitchin, Clark, Sokol, Brandon Matera, Bailey Matera 2; Walters, Martin, W Hickmott, Golding.
Best – Clark, Kitchin, Delahunty, W Hickmott, L Hickmott, Marsh, Walters, Dewar.