The stories that shaped Launceston’s TSL Premiership

Launceston celebrating its 2021 TSL Premiership. Picture: Solstice Digital

Launceston found the formula for success in 2020, but that didn’t make winning a consecutive TSL Premiership last season any easier.

The Blues were the most dominant team throughout 2021 and on paper cruised to another flag.

But the club’s 18-3 record hides the story of a campaign that featured plenty of adversity and hardship.

Some of this was clear to see from the surface level, like with how the team had to recover after losing the semi-final to its crosstown rival North Launceston.

This meant it needed to take the long way round, eventually defeating North Launceston by 34 points in the Grand Final a couple of weeks later.

Two-time Launceston premiership-playing coach Mitch Thorp has opened up in extraordinary detail on the roadblocks, stories and heartbreak the team experienced on its way to back-to-back flags.

After previously detailing the club’s 2020 Premiership to The Inner Sanctum in “Blue Skies – Part 2: Path to Glory”, Thorp has again given an in-depth look into the Blues’ success.

The unavailability of key players

Launceston’s Premiership defence was dealt a blow before it even began, after starting the season without its star on-ball duo, skipper Jobi Harper and contested midfielder Fletcher Seymour.

The club was always aware that Seymour would miss time due to an injury, but Harper being restricted to only nine games was for an entirely different reason.

He was undertaking a course to become a firefighter, meaning he couldn’t risk getting injured while playing.

It speaks to Harper’s character and commitment to the team that he was initially hopeful of playing, before it became clear that the risk would be too great.

It’s those qualities that saw Thorp make Harper captain in the first place, which was one of his first decisions when he took over as coach in the 2018 off-season.

“We are aligned in our values of what a great football club and team should like. It should be underpinned by authenticity and hard work, and there’s no one who works harder than Jobi Harper,” Thorp said.

Thorp paints the picture of Harper as being the ideal teammate, describing him as the ultimate professional in one breath, before calling him a pest who hides player’s clothes and shoes in the next.

“He’s got a really nice balance of working hard on the track, but also being annoying and humorous in the changerooms.

“Over the last three seasons we do our time trial and Jobi hasn’t been beaten. He’s a 190cm, 100kg midfielder, but he just won’t let anyone beat him. Whether it be a 2km time trial or pre-training ‘spot the difference’ exercise, he’s ultra-competitive.”

The Blues were undoubtedly hurt by Harper’s absence on the field – it’s hard to replace one of the superstars of the competition who led them to a Premiership in 2020 with a best-on-ground performance.

But Thorp said as a club it was important to support Harper in such an important step in his life.

“I think to be honest, the support we gave him to go out and get his training done will hold us in really good stead long-term.

“He’s a wonderful person and our captain, to give him that support to live his life and get the qualifications that he needed was really important.”

(Jobi Harper being tackled during the Grand Final. Picture: Solstice Digital)

Dylan Riley’s ACL injury

While Launceston knew it would be depleted to start the season due to Harper and Seymour’s absences, it couldn’t have imagined losing arguably its best and most impactful player during the year.

But that scenario unfortunately became a reality while playing North Launceston for the third time, when superstar forward Dylan Riley went down with an ACL injury in the first quarter.

With 59 goals for the year, Riley was the heartbeat of the Blues’ forward line and seemingly well on his way to the magical 100-goal milestone.

Such was his dominance that he still won the Hudson medal, the TSL’s leading goalkicker award, despite going down in Round 15.

The next closest players also finished 26 goals behind him.

Thorp said it was a “heartbreaking” and “surreal feeling” to lose the most destructive player in the competition.

“It was something that took us all a couple of weeks to get our heads around. How were we going to tackle the rest of the season without the leading goalkicker,” Thorp said.

But in the game that it happened, Launceston actually won and used the result as a “confidence booster” going forward.

“When it happened, we were 10 points down against North Launceston and they had beaten us the game before at home.

“To see the competitiveness and maturity the senior players had after that injury, after quarter-time I think we went on to win by 10 goals in that game.

“It just showed everyone that whilst Dylan is a superstar, our brand, method and fitness levels meant we were still going to be okay. We could still find a way to get it done without him.”

Thorp also praised Riley’s maturity and professionalism in how he’s handled the injury, and said he’s on track to appear “fairly early on” next season.

“To Dyl’s credit he’s really found some purpose and drive playing at Launie. He’s found a home that he really loves, so he’s been super diligent with his rehab.”

(Dylan Riley playing against Clarence. Picture: Solstice Digital)

Josiah Burling

Often a football club’s biggest impact is made off the field, rather than on it.

This is reflected in the strength of Launceston’s welfare and support programs, areas of the club Thorp takes particular pride in.

“This is probably the most important part that the TSL clubs play within the community, providing a sense of purpose and care when times are tough,” Thorp said.

There’s no better example of this than 19-year-old Josiah Burling, who Thorp said “no one had a more difficult season” than.

Before the season began Burling was suspended for 12 weeks, but that was nothing when compared to the hardship he later faced.

“As a young man he made some errors, one in the Under 18’s Grand Final and then in a practice game.

“Underpinning that was his mum Kate was diagnosed with terminal cancer.”

The club made sure to wrap its arms around Burling, providing support in both his football and personal life.

“We took a journey as a football club, from our welfare team to our coaching staff to our players, to support him through a very difficult period.

“That included bringing Kate to one of Josiah’s first senior games back later in the year. For her to meet the players, get some pictures with Josiah in his senior playing kit, was really uplifting for him, Kate and his family.”

Two weeks later she sadly passed away, leaving both Burling and the club in the difficult position of dealing with the grief of the situation.

“On the day that she passed away Josiah played for Launceston. That was a really difficult day for everyone involved because we weren’t sure how to handle it.

“Ultimately we left the decision up to Josiah and he just wanted to be around the football club and place that had provided him with a lot of care, nurture and support over a difficult period.

“His mum, God bless her, in the final few days told him ‘make sure you play, no matter what’ and sure enough he did.”

Burling went on to play in the Grand Final and became a Premiership player, the culmination to a year where he showed incredible resilience and strength.

But Launceston’s impact on Burling isn’t seen through his exploits on the football field, but through how the club supported him during such a tough situation.

“Some would have noticed he’s taken over the number nine, which I’ve obviously personally worn over my whole footy career,” Thorp said.

“That’s just the relationship he and I have personally formed over a difficult season.

“I’m just so proud of the young man, not only to bounce back from the 12-week suspension, but to be able to mature into a strong leader in his family, where he’s got three brothers and sisters.

“I’m really proud of what he’s turning into.”

(Mitch Thorp, Kate Steuart and Josiah Burling. Picture: Launceston Football Club)

Cody Thorp’s suspension

The fixture of any Grand Final is the inevitable drama and build-up leading into the game.

It could be the race against injury, a battle for the final spot in the 22 or match review controversy.

For Launceston it was the latter, and it impacted the team in multiple ways.

Cody Thorp, Mitch’s younger brother, was suspended in the Preliminary Final against Clarence.

He failed to successfully challenge the charge at the Tribunal later in the week, meaning he didn’t play in the Grand Final.

“It was a really emotional week, there was a lot of layers to it,” Mitch remembered.

“He (Cody) came to the club with some real question marks over him as the person. I don’t say that lightly, he’s obviously my youngest brother.

“It was great to watch him train and see the habits he started to create as a professional young man with his work and a child on the way.

“He made an error during the Prelim, we went through all the relevant channels to try and make him available for the Grand Final, but we obviously didn’t make that happen.”

From a team perspective, Cody had stepped up when Dylan Riley went down, kicking 30 goals for the season (including three in the Preliminary Final) and making the TSL Team of the Year.

But for Mitch, dealing with the fallout from the suspension went beyond what most coaches have to grapple with.

“I had to separate myself from the emotional side of our family being so disappointed for Cody, by making sure the players knew how we were going to win.”

This of course centred on who would replace him, and there were a lot of options to choose from.

Ruckman Hamish Leedham could match Cody’s size and strength, while Brayden Pitcher had performed well throughout the season.

But when looking for a replacement key forward, there was one obvious candidate.

“To be honest and brutally frank, I didn’t think I could play. I’d only played three games for the year,” Mitch said.

“In the last game that I’d played against the Tigers, I took myself off at three-quarter-time and said to my bench coach Sav, ‘don’t let me ever play again’. That for me, I was done.”

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The former Hudson Medalist felt he was valuable in the coaches box, but that view wasn’t shared by others in the match committee.

“We went into the team meeting to pick the side, it was Fletcher Seymour who stopped everyone and said ‘Thorpy you’re playing’,” Mitch said.

“My heart sunk a little bit because I respect Fletcher so highly and there were some things we were trying to achieve in front of the ball that he felt I was probably best placed to make happen.

“When you get that pressure from one of your peers and someone your respect so highly, I didn’t want to take the easy option and say ‘no I’m not playing’.

“There were certainly some people that didn’t think I should have played, and I was one of them early in the week.”

Those doubts were helped with reassurance from his wife that he could still play a role, plus more players saying he needed to suit up.

Mitch has never been bothered by white noise or the opinions of others, but still called the week a dramatic blur.

Beyond the drama of being his own brother’s replacement, he had to figure out how he was going to perform come game day.

No Dylan Riley and Cody Thorp represented nearly 90 goals coming out of the side, and the enormity of the situation was felt by Mitch leading into the match.

“I remember sitting in silence before the game about a minute before we went out, as nervous as I’ve ever been for any sporting event in my life,” the former top Hawthorn draft pick said.

“But I knew I needed to show confidence in my own ability and the team.”

Thankfully for Mitch, he did so from the opening bounce.

He kicked two goals in the first quarter, while providing the forward structure and method at ground level that the team needed from its key forward.

While celebrating being both a back-to-back Premiership player and coach, Mitch made sure to thank Seymour after the game.

(Mitch Thorp celebrating during the Grand Final. Picture: Solstice Digital)

Jack Donnellan

With the joy and jubilation of any Premiership, there’s also heartbreak from those who miss out.

That was the case for Jack Donnellan in 2020, a loyal clubman who has been with Launceston since he was 15.

Described by Thorp as someone who has had his “ups and downs” in life, Donnellan is another player who has found purpose and support through his time at the club.

That was what made missing the Blues’ first Premiership since 2011 so hard.

“Probably missing last year’s Grand Final hurt him more than anyone, because he’d put so many years and sessions into getting into a position to play in a Senior Men’s Grand Final,” Thorp said.

“I remember when I told him that he wasn’t going to play how much that hurt him.”

After the heartbreak of missing out, Donnellan took some time to weigh up what he wanted to do with his footy, before ultimately returning to the club later during pre-season.

“He did have some financial opportunities to cash in on his football and make some money out of it elsewhere,” Thorp said.

“But he came back to us, he put his head down and bum up and played with some real passion.”

That attitude and mentality saw Donnellan earn a spot in Launceston’s Grand Final side last season, and he played like a man who wanted to prove that he belonged on the TSL’s biggest stage.

He laid 12 tackles playing as a small forward, but his definitive moment came halfway through the final quarter.

Donnellan received a free kick inside 50 after being taken in a head-high tackle, with Launceston holding a tight 11-point lead.

Despite still feeling dazed from the effects of the tackle, he made no mistake and started a run that ultimately ended in Launceston’s 34-point victory.

“To see the boys get around him and the way he celebrated, it was that of relief that he’d contributed in a big way to a Senior’s Men Grand Final,” Thorp said.

“I think we’ll see some good things from Jack in the future.”

(Jack Donnellan after kicking his match-winning goal. Picture: Solstice Digital)

Joe Groenewegen

Launceston’s recent success has been driven by new players etching themselves in the club’s folklore, but that doesn’t mean the current squad is without stars from the Blues’ past glory.

When ruckman Joe Groenewegen returned to Launceston in 2020, his resume already boasted two club Premierships and two Best and Fairests.

But in Thorp’s own words, Groenewegen wasn’t that same player when he initially arrived.

“Joe came back not in great shape, he was a little bit overweight and hadn’t played footy for a little while.”

Groenewegen’s journey to pull on the Blues’ guernsey once again took another and more devastating hit when he broke his leg before the season even began.

“When he broke his leg in a lane kicking drill, which I smile about because only a ruckman could break their leg in a lane kicking drill, it was a big setback,” Thorp said.

“It was tough both physically and mentally, because he really wanted to get back out there for the club that he loved.”

While such a serious injury could have easily been the end to Groenewegen’s comeback plans for that year, the big man never gave up.

“It was a long season and I pushed him personally really hard to continue hanging in there, because you just never know,” Thorp said.

While number one ruckman Tim Auckland had been strong all year, playing every game, the team had been wondering about whether it needed a second ruck for the finals.

This led to Groenewegen playing three games to end the regular season, two in the Reserves and one in the Seniors when Auckland was rested.

His form was so good, that Launceston decided to run with a two-ruck combo in the finals, which resulted in Groenewegen winning his third Premiership.

But heading into 2021 after Auckland had departed the club, Groenewegen didn’t just want to take over as the number one ruckman, he also wanted become a dominant force in the competition once again.

This all started in the pre-season, when he lost 12kg’s and ran a 6:30 2km time trial, which was in the club’s top six.

“I remember a running session he did with Liam Canny, a really little fit man. There were doing 300s, Joe just would not let him beat him,” Thorp said.

The work Groenewegen put in saw him voted as vice-captain by his peers, and his leadership was on full display when it mattered most.

Following its disappointing loss to North Launceston in the Semi-final, Launceston needed to rally to keep its Premiership dream alive.

Groenewegen led the way in the team’s Preliminary Final win against Clarence, where he was one of his team’s best players.

He carried that form into the Grand Final, when he was up against the league’s most accomplished ruckman Alex Lee.

“He had some really key moments,” Thorp said.

“In the first couple of minutes of the third quarter he worked hard forward, took a mark and kicked the goal. Then at the start of the last quarter, he pushed hard forward again and kicked a left foot snap as a ruckman.”

Groenewegen’s 23 disposals, nine marks, eight clearances and two goals were enough to see him named the Darrel Baldock Medalist as the best player on the ground.

One year after having to fight back from injury to take part in the 2020 Premiership, Groenewegen left UTAS Stadium as the same dominant player he had been during his first stint in the league.

“For he the person, it’s been a great journey over the last two seasons. He’s really looking forward to continuing his career over the next couple of years at Launie,” Thorp said.

(Joe Groenewegen with his Darrel Baldock Medal. Picture: Solstice Digital)

Going forward

Wearing the crown and expectations that come with it can sometimes be as challenging as achieving success for the first time.

While Launceston’s 2021 season ended with another Premiership, that journey and individual stories that shaped this campaign were completely different to the year before.

But the Blues and their players showed they have the heart of a champion, rallying to support each other when times got tough.

Now targeting an elusive three-peat, with a revered culture and wealth of emerging talent coming through, it’s hard to see Launceston’s reign ending anytime soon.

(Picture: Solstice Digital)

The full version of Hamish Spence’s conversation with Mitch Thorp can be found here and here on Launceston’s Instagram page.

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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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