Blue Skies – Part 2: Path to Glory

Launceston celebrating the 2020 TSL Premiership. Picture: Solstice Digital

On Saturday, October 17, 2020 at UTAS Stadium, the Launceston Blues won the TSL Development League, TSLW and TSL Premierships all on the same day in the one location.

In a year where the Tasmanian State League almost didn’t happen due to COVID-19, the club’s triumph is a collective story of overcoming adversity, with each side having its own tale to tell.

Launceston’s senior team had a clear goal heading into 2020, make the Grand Final and win a Premiership.

That might sound like the modus operandi for every club, but it was truly the next step for a Blues side that had been around the mark, yet remained on the outside looking in after three late finals exits in a row.

To achieve success in the TSL you need a strong core group, and thankfully Launceston had one with a proven track record.

While the club’s last Premiership was in 2011, several of its players played in South Launceston’s 2013 Premiership.

They include Dylan Riley, the eventual Hudson Medallist (leading goalkicker) in 2020, and Jay Blackberry, only the second person to play 200 games since the TSL’s establishment.

But at the very top there is the captain Jobi Harper and the playing coach Mitch Thorp.

(Launceston’s 2020 Men’s Senior Coaching and Match Day Team. Picture Launceston Football Club)

When Thorp became South Launceston’s playing coach, he took a team with an 8-46 record prior to his appointment to a Premiership in his second year at the helm.

While he is widely remembered for his brief time at Hawthorn, that vastly overlooks what has been one of the great careers in Tasmanian football, playing elite footy as a key forward while establishing himself as one of the best coaches in the state.

“I’ve got no doubt that I’ve matured in recent years, I am certainly on record that I didn’t make the most of my opportunities at Hawthorn,” Thorp told The Inner Sanctum.

“I obviously got picked at pick six in the draft and had some challenges through that period. But I’m really motivated to make my mark in footy in the coaching space.

“I’m still quite young and I’m really working hard on tailoring to where coaching is headed. I’m really invested in growing our club and the way I teach and educate.”

(Mitch Thorp during a game. Picture: Solstice Digital)

Thorp took over as Launceston’s playing coach in 2019, after arriving at the club the previous year.

This also coincided with Jobi Harper joining the Blues, a man Thorp was very familiar with after Harper was the Darrel Baldock Medallist (best on ground) in the 2013 Premiership.

“We have a very different relationship now to what we had at South Launceston back in the day. I was a bit of a young ratbag and he was the coach, I was probably a bit of a pain in the bum for him,” laughed Harper.

Since then, Harper has blossomed into a leader and has been Launceston’s captain for the last two seasons, taking over as sole captain in 2020.

He has also been at several clubs across his career, previously pulling on the boots for for South Launceston, Western Storm and Burnie, while also having a stint with Werribee in the VFL.

Unfortunately for Harper, all of his former Tasmanian clubs have a habit of leaving the TSL.

“I’ve had a bit of a rough run with the clubs, they seem to leave the state league. Every time I play with a team it disappears, so I don’t know what I was doing there,” he joked.

While he has worn many different jumpers, one thing that has remained consistent is his form on the field.

A contested midfielder in every sense of the word, Harper bulldozes through opposing players and dominates around stoppages.

Not even ankle reconstruction surgery in 2017 could slow him down, he has since enjoyed some of the best years of his career at the Blues.

(Jobi Harper handballing in a pack. Picture: Solstice Digital)

So the plan looked clear in 2020, until it wasn’t.

The COVID-19 pandemic meant the TSL season was delayed, with no guarantee on whether it was going to happen.

Thorp acknowledged that it was tough to deal with, but said the hard work the club put in during lockdown laid the foundation for its season.

“It was a challenging start to the season not knowing when we would start, there was always some optimism that a season would get off the ground though,” he said.

“I’m fortunate because I’ve got a playing group that’s really motivated and when we had to train in pairs and small groups the players just jumped at the opportunity to work together.”

It also gave him a chance to expand his coaching techniques by working within the restrictions in place.

“I was quite proactive in the online space. It probably gave me an opportunity to look at a different way to educate, we’ve got a lot of passive learners in our group and it gave me a chance to break that down a bit and have smaller meetings.”

(The impact of COVID-19. Picture: Launceston Football Club)

Launceston’s hard work paid off when the season finally started in July, beating Glenorchy by 26 points to open its account.

But the real test came when it went up against North Launceston in Round 2.

North Launceston has been the benchmark of the TSL for the last decade, it made every Grand Final from 2014 and 2019, winning five of them.

While there is no shame in losing to the league’s powerhouse, the Blues had been doing a bit more of that then they would have liked.

They hadn’t beaten the Northern Bombers since 2013 and were on an 18-game losing streak, a record made even worse by the fact that it was against their crosstown rival.

“There couldn’t be a worst team to have a losing streak with then the club on the over side of the river,” Harper said.

“The supporters from both sides get into each other. It is enjoyable, I love that side of the game, it keeps fans engaged and provides a bit of banter.”

Thorp wasn’t afraid to share how much the match-up meant to his team.

“I must admit all our preparations going into the season was on how do we knock off North Launceston.

“They were the benchmark and a side Launceston had no success against for the last seven years. We really did study and put some work into a game style that was going to hold up.”

(North Launceston celebrating its third Premiership in a row. Picture: Solstice Digital)

Launceston took a smaller forward line into that match and finally broke the hoodoo against North Launceston with a 19-point win, a symbolic moment that showed the Blues were ready to take the next step.

Harper noted that while there were a lot of experienced players who were confident that they had a good list, the win was a ground-breaking moment for the younger players.

“A lot of the young guys, they’d never beaten North in the Seniors,” he said.

“You could see the light bulb go off in their heads, they were thinking ‘hold on we can do it and we are good enough’. That win in Round 2 was what set up our season and gave our group some real confidence.”

Launceston’s good form continued for the rest of the year, with the side ultimately finishing second on the ladder.

But it didn’t come without its hurdles.

Its 5-0 start to the season ended in bizarre fashion, after it lost to Clarence in a game where only three goals were kicked for the entire match.

North Launceston got its win back when the two sides met again, but the real blow came when Launceston suffered a 63-point thumping against Lauderdale.

But despite experiencing such a heavy loss, Thorp used it as a positive heading into the end of the season and finals.

“It was sort of a little blessing in disguise. It really gave us an opportunity just to come together and look at the areas of that game that didn’t go so well for us,” he said.

“I was really big on the players knowing how we were going to win, rather than hoping or going into the game blind. We were really clear on what style of game we needed to create. I’m very fortunate to have a group who are super coachable and leave their ego at the door.”

(Mitch Thorp coaching his team. Picture: Solstice Digital)

When the finals came around Launceston went up against Lauderdale once again, but this time the roles were reversed.

The Blues came away with a strong 48-point win in front of a boisterous home crowd to book their ticket to the Grand Final.

While not as infamous as their record against North Launceston, beating Lauderdale in a final got another monkey off the club’s back.

“Lauderdale has had the wood over Launceston in recent years, knocking Launie out of the finals three times in the last three years. So that was a really important day to beat them and make our way through to the Grand Final,” Thorp said.

It was an exciting time at Windsor Park in the lead-up to Grand Final weekend, as the U18, Development League and TSLW sides were all playing in a Grand Final as well.

“We finished training on Thursday night and went in for a meal in the clubrooms. It was absolutely buzzing because we had four sides in a Grand Final,” Harper said.

“We would have been right on the maximum for the COVID allowance!”

Thorp stressed how every person and group is valued at the club, saying the Development and TSLW teams’ success earlier in the day was important for the seniors.

“Our D-League and women’s teams finding a way to win started the day really well and gave our senior players a look at what a winning Grand Final side looked like.”

(Launceston running onto the ground. Picture: Solstice Digital)

The Blues would need that knowledge, because their opponent knew how to play on the biggest stage.

North Launceston had made it through to its seventh consecutive Grand Final and had a shot at a historic fourth Premiership in a row.

The fact that it was the two crosstown rivals squaring off only heightened the stakes, with UTAS Stadium sounding like a cauldron despite the 3000 attendance limit.

“The noise that came from the crowd was as loud as any Tassie game I’ve been at or involved in. There was some real emotion attached to it with a two-team town at opposing ends of the ground,” Thorp said.

This atmosphere lent itself to one of the most ferocious State League Grand Finals in recent memory, emotions boiled over in a massive quarter-time brawl and the feeling didn’t stop there.

“It was one of the most exciting and intense games I’ve played in. The speed of the game for a Grand Final, it probably wasn’t super quick due to the rain,” Harper said.

“But the physicality and intensity was on from the first bounce, you could tell how much it meant to every single person on the ground. I think that’s where it came from, we were playing the crosstown rivals and a lot of us hadn’t been in a Grand Final for nine years.”

(The brawl at quarter-time. Picture: Solstice Digital)

The physicality reflected the nature of the game, it was a fight with neither side able to separate itself from the other.

But a true flashpoint moment arrived just before three-quarter time.

North Launceston had all the momentum after securing a two-kick lead, but Harper took a big contested mark in the right-forward pocket just before the siren.

Faced with no other option and with ice in his veins, he executed a perfect banana to bring the margin back to one-point.

Thorp described the goal as: “A leader executing under pressure when the team needed him to give us some momentum, that’s a moment I’ll never forget and one I’ve certainly reflected on since.”

(Jobi Harper after kicking his goal from the boundary. Picture: Solstice Digital)

The final quarter continued the even nature of the game, with the two teams splitting the first four goals of the term.

Some Dylan Riley magic on the boundary line set Jay Blackberry up for goal and gave Launceston the lead, but when another critical moment arrived, Harper rose to it, literally.

Nominating for a ruck contest in the goal square, he plucked the ball from the ruck and slammed it straight on his boot, effectively sealing the game.

“Jobi’s goal out of the ruck just showed the true competitor that he is. He’s not a natural ruckman, but he just wanted to will the side over the line and when he kicked that goal we were pretty confident that we could get the job done,” Thorp said.

(Jobi Harper celebrating after kicking his second goal. Picture: Solstice Digital)

The final siren sounded a few minutes later, giving Launceston its first Premiership since 2011.

Harper picked up his second Darrell Baldock Medal as the best player on the ground, but was humble on reflection.

“I was just so happy to play my part in the Premiership and lead from the front, rather than the actual medal itself.”

He was not afraid to heap praise on his coach though, after the duo combined for their second Premiership together.

“He’s got a fantastic football mind and he showed that in the finals series this year, there were a lot of structural coaching changes that probably got us over the line in those two finals. It’s a credit to Mitch, he’s got one of the best football brains I’ve ever played under.”

While Thorp expressed how much the win meant to him personally, he was happier for the club after everything it had been through that year.

“It was just so pleasing to see a group of young people and our network so happy and proud of the club. It’s definitely my biggest highlight to date, just given how difficult the year was both from a personal and community perspective. To have a global pandemic and to be able to come together, give everyone a purpose and provide an environment where everybody felt safe and were working towards something.”

(Mitch Thorp with his partner, Kyla, after the Grand Final. Picture: Solstice Digital)

More good news came after the season, when Isaac Chugg was drafted by Collingwood with pick 28 in the Rookie Draft.

Thorp said it showed that the TSL is a great breeding ground for talent and it would be aspirational for other players at the club.

He also praised Chugg, who went from playing in the Development League to being on an AFL list in the space of a year.

“He played five Development League games at the start of the year and he worked through some adversity himself just to find his way into our senior side. Once he got back in he wasn’t going to let that opportunity slip and he became a really important player behind the ball both defensively and offensively.

“For him to fight his way onto an AFL list, it’s just so pleasing, because he’s had some challenges in his life and now he gets an opportunity to do what a lot of young people only dream of. We’ll be watching and riding the bumps with him and really hoping that he can have a prosperous 2021, but more importantly, an AFL career that we can all watch and know we were sort of a part of in its infancy.”

(Picture: Collingwood Football Club)

After calling many clubs his home, Harper is proud to be a Launceston man.

“Launceston is a pretty special club with its off-field and now on-field success. Its one of the oldest clubs in Australia and to captain it to a Premiership is something I’ll cherish of for the rest of my life. I’m a Launceston man now and I won’t be going anywhere else.”

Thorp is looking forward to 2021 and feels the challenges and successes of 2020 have set the club up well.

When asked to reflect on last season, the word “character” struck out to describe it.

“The word character is a great one, I think it (the pandemic) just showed the club at its core. There were some challenges, but just the group mindset of everyone to work towards something that they weren’t certain was going to happen. To work hard even though there was a challenge there at the start really underpinned our season.

“I think it’s unlocked the way forward for the playing group, the hard work that went into last year is the formula for preparing for a successful season.”

(Mitch Thorp and Jobi Harper lifting the Premiership cup, Picture: Solstice Digital)

Launceston had a clear goal in 2020, but its path to reach it was far from expected.

When faced with the chaos of the world, the Blues only used it to train harder and grow stronger as a group.

Overcoming the obstacles and challenges of last year to win a Premiership not only made the achievement that much sweeter, but instilled a mentality that will make the club a force for years to come.

(Picture: Launceston Football Club)

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About Hamish Spence 52 Articles
Hamish writes about Aussie Rules, cricket, basketball and all things Tasmanian sport for The Inner Sanctum. His experience includes working for organisations like 10 News First, AFL Tasmania, The Mercury, the TSL, the Hobart Hurricanes and Draft Central. He recently finished a media degree at The University of Tasmania.

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