Tiger cubs roar to life

Grafton's under-17s team won the 2021 minor premiership and was the first team to qualify for the 2021 AFL North Coast grand final. Photo: Green Shoots Marketing

AFTER losing two of their first three games in 2021, Grafton’s under-17s team hit a purple patch of form that saw the Tigers undefeated for the rest of the season.

Their strong seven goals to two second half in the 2nd Semi Final saw the Tigers become the first team to qualify for AFL North Coast grand final day but alas their chance to play for a premiership cup was stopped by the statewide COVID lockdown.

The side was co-coached was Lee Anderson and Nigel O’Neill and Anderson said the slow start was understandable.

“We were a few players down at the start of the season. We lost Nic Wheaton for about three weeks and Ned O’Neill was out for one or two weeks and a couple of others as well,” Anderson said.

But when the team returned to full strength there was no stopping it.

One aspect of the season that helped the young Tigers develop quicker than usual was the amount of football through the season that the players played against adults.

“I think we had eight to 10 players every week play in the morning and before backing up again in the afternoon playing in the seniors. The rest played in the reserves,” Anderson said.

“Plus they all turned up to training every Tuesday and Thursday night. They’re an awesome bunch of boys.”

The group of Alby Popko, Dale Lovell, Harry Anderson, Jackson Kelly, Tom Mullins, Wheaton, O’Neill, Michael Luxton and Jye Boehme all featured regularly in the senior team in 2021.

When they played in the under-17s, there were some strong performances.

Luxton won the League & Fairest award while Wheaton finished in fifth position. Boehme easily won the goal kicking trophy. In fact in an eight game stretch, he kicked an almighty 76 goals including bags of 22 against Glen Innes and 14 and 9 against the Coffs Breakers.

But Anderson was quick to point out the group of players he and O’Neill have coached since they were in under-11s and 12s would be more concerned with team results than individual accolades.

“Everything they do they do together. Even outside of football they’re all together, they’re a really tight knit group. Even at my house, when they come around there’s usually more than just a few of them,” he said.

“And that really helps on the field because they’re always working together. There are no outsiders in the group.”

League Best & Fairest winner Michael Luxton from Grafton gets a kick away despite the pressure of Sawtell/Toormina’s Jaymus Troutman. Photo: Green Shoots Marketing

As good as playing against grown men was for their development, the co-coaches did have a small worry about its effect as the finals approached.

“The only thing Nigel and I were concerned about was probably three weeks before the finals started we thought they might get worn out with all of the football they were playing,” Anderson explained.

“To their credit they were able to keep playing good football. Especially in the first final against Sawtell who are a very good team, very well coached.

“It was disappointing for them not to get that opportunity to play one more game but unfortunately that was something beyond our control.”

Grafton players celebrate one of their five last quarter goals in the under-17s match at the C.ex Coffs International Stadium. Photo: Green Shoots Marketing