In the game earmarked to celebrate their 150th anniversary, North Melbourne came out of the gates as though they were lame. The Hawks were all over them, slotting the first four goals, and it looked as though it’d be a sombre mood amongst the Kangaroo faithful.

They managed to peg one back before quarter time, but from the outside looking in, they looked anything but a team wanting to go into their biggest night of the season, celebrating the best their club has had to offer over 150 years, with their heads held high. They looked listless, lost and overwhelmed by the Hawthorn pressure.

Ben Cunnington had just five touches, and their other prime mover, Shaun Higgins, looked as though he hadn’t quite shown up yet. He had only two to quarter time.

How quickly things can change in footy.

The Kangaroos showed plenty of the much talk about ‘Shinboner Spirit’ in this one to not only drag themselves back into the game, but overrun the Hawks and out-hustle them.

It’s funny – this morning I drove past the Arden Street complex on the way to work. I don’t usually go that way, but I dropped my missus off somewhere and swung by. The sign on the building read “The Home of the Shinboner Spirit.”

It made me smile a little. I remember going there as a kid – I lived within walking distance in those days. Tonight I saw footage of Kerry Good and Malcolm Blight in the stands; they’re the blokes I watched at that ground. It was a nice little trip down memory lane for me, and as I start this good, bad and ugly report, I do so with a great feeling about the future of the North Melbourne Football Club.

You just never, ever write them off.

What a damn shame I’m a Hawthorn supporter. Here’s The Mongrel’s good, bad and ugly.

THE GOOD

THE ROLLS ROYCE

As mentioned above, the Rolls Royce was in need of a bit of a push start at quarter time, after collecting just two disposals in the first stanza.

But man, he made up for it. As soon as Shaun Higgins got his motor running, he headed out on the highway. He was looking for adventure, and whatever came his way – and what came his way was 26 disposals in the next three quarters as he proved to be the difference between the teams.

Aided by a lift in the clinches by Ben Cunnington (see below), Higgins started to exert his authority on the contest in the second quarter, and unlike other mids, who do it via sheer force, Higgins provided several amazing little kicks and handballs to get the Roos off and running. Whilst some use power, Higgins used skill. His handball to the running Marley Williams in the third quarter was an absolute beauty, and set up an eventual goal for Ben Brown.

The fact that Higgins had an equal game-high ten score involvements whilst kicking a couple himself is indicative of the influence he had on this contest. He had two direct goal assists as he used his vision to set up teammates, and some of his clearances at pace were exactly what North needed at those points.

After a first quarter where Hawthorn threw down the gauntlet to North Melbourne, Shaun Higgins picked it up and answered the challenge. His nine second quarter touches were pivotal in getting North back into the game, and having them close enough at half time to strike.

Before this season started, I mused as to whether Higgins could elevate his game again this year and hit the 30-disposal per game mark. Even North supporters I know thought that was a bit beyond him. Prior to his Round 12 injury, he was averaging 31.2 disposals per contest but as he was hurt early in that game, the three disposals he was credited ruined that chance. Still, it is worth noting that Higgins is on career-high pace again.

What a recruit he has been for North over the last five years – such a star.

THE HUMAN PINBALL

This bloke is now my favourite North player – Cam Zurhaar… take a fucking bow!

Nine tackles, 12 touches, four tackles inside 50 and a recklessness and courage that can only come from being either an absolute maniac, or a complete competitor. Or both.

The passage of play that saw Zurhaar smash into Ricky Henderson, bounce off and repeat the dose on Ben Stratton was the sort of act that can inspire a team. It hurt him, but he did not flinch. This kid is just 21 years old – he is still filling out. He is going to check some players into the house of pain over the next few years, and like the Hotel California, they may try to check out any time they like, but they’ll never leave if they’re in Zurhaar’s sights.

I commented to my fellow Mongrels that it has been quite a while since I’ve seen a player of his age throw his body into contests the way Zurhaar does. In an increasingly contact-averse code of football, watching Zurhaar is an absolute joy. An old school mindset combined with a new school skill set, Zurhaar is everything you want in a pressure forward, and the great thing is, when it is his turn to go, he does not shirk the responsibility.

If he doesn’t get a write up in the papers, or a mention on the footy shows, it’ll be criminal. If you know this man, send him here to the Mongrel – we appreciate what he adds to this team and the way he goes about his footy. He is what my old man would’ve have called a “footballer’s footballer”. He is a beast, and is only getting better.

ANSWERING THE CALL

Ben Cunnington won’t have great stats in this one, but at quarter time, I reckon the challenge was thrown down to him – James Worpel was tearing the Kangaroos to shreds, and while Cunnington was far from disgraced (five touches in the first), the young Hawk racked up seven clearances all by himself.

I reckon Rhyce Shaw threw this at the feet of Cunnington to see what he was going to do about it.

Plenty, it turns out. Worpel collected plenty of the footy, but his influence at stoppages ceased as soon as Cunnington’s attention turned to him. By the end of the first half, Worpel had eight clearances and Cunnington had seven – six of those came in the second quarter as he took the responsibility of extracting the ball for his runners, and did it time and time again.

Cunnington came in for some defensive pressure of his own after half time in the form of Daniel Howe, who, in turn, reduced his effectiveness at stoppages, but this allowed Shaun Higgins to come to the fore.

Cunnington will not poll votes in this game, and rightfully so. His 21 touches do not compare to the output of others, but his second quarter, where he collected nine disposals, is more than worthy of a mention.

MARLEY AND  AHERN

Uh-oh… sounds like a movie where one of them dies, huh?

On a side note, how can Marley and Me be classified as a comedy? I watched it with my kids at one stage and about 40 minutes into the show I had this horrible feeling that we weren’t watching a movie detailing all the funny moments of a dog… we were watching the life cycle of a dog. I looked across at my kids… they didn’t know what was coming. Bad parenting, Mongrel… bad parenting. Any tears were shed.

Anyway, back to these two. I really liked the way Marley Williams was able to hit the ball at speed tonight, stay in control and use those evasive skills to avoid getting caught. Matched up on Paul Puopolo, there is always a danger of Poppy not just snagging a goal (though he had been in a bit of a drought) but also using his chase and pressure inside 50 to cause turnovers. Marley was composed enough to ensure that was not the case tonight.

He restricted Puopolo to nine touches, and more importantly, just two tackles inside 50. This has been an area Puopolo has really made a difference this year. With Williams working off him to amass 18 touches, his influence was important.

Though there was a lot of noise about Paul Ahern’s ability to win the ball in the guts last season, I reckon North may have found a great role for him at half back. When he was able to drift back there, Ahern used his ability to read the ball in flight to consistently put himself in the right spot to break up the Hawks’ forward entries.

Ahern had a game-high 602 metres gained as he drive the Roos out of defence, and added eight rebound 50, and five inside 50 disposals to his tally of 26 disposals. At times he was guilty of throwing it on the boot when he had a little more time to work with it, but in terms of winning the ball at half back, I think North may have found a bloke who can fill that role.

JAMES WORPEL

Last year, Hawks fans were screaming out for Worpel’s inclusion in the side, and it was obviously for good reason.

He collected a career-high 37 disposals in this one and was the engine room for the Hawks all night. That’s saying something given he is in the company of both Liam Shiels and Jaeger O’Meara this evening.

Whilst on O’Meara, I think it has become evident that he is the perfect number two midfielder for the Hawks. He has all the ability in the world, but needs a real workhorse to take the heat and attention. He had 26 disposals in this one but never really looked capable of tearing the game apart. The nature of his disposals means that he is not getting the chances to really hurt opposition with them, but that may change once Mitchell returns. The fact O’Meara is playing week in and week out is the big positive, and if the Hawks can secure another good mid… who just so happens to be good mates with Jaeger, we might actually see him at his best next season.

Back to Worpel – does he have what it takes to be the best mid at Hawthorn? Not yet, and not consistently. He is a nice third or fourth option to have in there, however, and if the Hawks get their full component of mids up and running for 2020, could continue to sneak under the guard of plenty.

He finished with a game-high 11 clearances, but did most of his damage in the first

THE BAD

GRANT BIRCHALL

You hate seeing a hamstring happen to a bloke who has come back so far to get into this side, but Birchall struck a forlorn figure on the bench as he iced up his hammy.

He was playing a fairly decent game, with 17 touches across half back, and even a running goal in the first quarter to set the Hawks alight, but with a recent string of bad luck still prominent in his mind, it must have been heartbreaking to feel the twinge in his hamstring.

Will he go on? Will the Hawks keep a spot on the list for him given his recent ailments? It’s hard to answer, but if the Hawks believe they are likely to contend next season, they’ll have to recruit well, and if they recruit well, they’ll need to make room. Sadly, I believe that Grant Birchall will be one who makes room. Thanks Grant.

CONOR NASH

Come on Clarko – does this bloke have pics of you and a bunch of oiled up pygmies or something? Yeah, I loved his chase out of defence on Jared Polec in the second quarter, but when the best thing you did all game was chase a bloke and NOT catch him, you know you really haven’t had much of an impact.

I saw Robbie Tarrant matched up on him and could not for the life of me understand a) why Nash didn’t run Tarrant around more, and b) why Rhyce Shaw would waste a prodigious talent like Tarrant on someone who basically never impacts a game in Nash?

He has had under ten disposals on seven occasions this season. He’s only played 11 games. If you’re telling me that Jarryd Roughead couldn’t offer more than Nash is at the moment, I’m not sure I could possibly believe you.

Defensive pressure could be your argument? Well, if Luke Breust didn’t act as though he’d developed an allergy to tackling at times, Hawthorn may not need Nash applying so much pressure.

He has had five tackles on three occasions this season, which is nice, but I suppose it’s probably your job to tackle a lot when you can’t get your hands on the footy.

Am I being harsh? Yes – he is being given a spot in a professional football team every week. Did you see the option he took in the third quarter as he ran through the middle with a rare touch? No? I’ll help you out. He had two targets ahead of him – one a marking target in Tim O’Brien, and the other a crumbing forward in Luke Breust. Both were in one-on-one contests. Who do you think Nash kicked it to in the air?

If you guessed no one, you get a partial credit as that’s where many of his kicks usually go, but on this occasion, he went to Breust in the air and O’Brien was forced to make ground to come in and collect the spill.

What’s wrong with that picture? Nash’s decision making is what’s wrong. Thanks for playing.

THE UGLY

THE MOMENTUM STOPPER

This may come across as picking at James Sicily, but god damn it he does some stupid things.

With Nick Larkey taking a mark on the wing, Mason Wood decided to turn back and run toward the North forward line. It was at that point that James Sicily decided to drop a shoulder into him and deck him.

Was it overly malicious? Nope.

Was it reportable? Nope?

Was it stupid? YES!

And here’s why – James Sicily cannot be an idiot. He can’t be, can he? I’ve heard him speak – he doesn’t sound like an idiot, so he either does a great impersonation of one at times on the footy field, or he does a great job of being a non-idiot when he is off the field.

 He is an intelligent footballer when the ball comes into his vicinity, reads it well, led the game in intercept possessions tonight, and might be All-Australian. Why then, when North Melbourne finally get out of a tight Hawks press across half forward, would he do something that umpires would be watching for, and cost his team a shot at goal? That’s what an idiot would do, right?

Look, Sicily can throw his head back in disgust at the umpire’s decision. He can plead his innocence all he wants. He can pretend to be some sort of martyr for tough, hard footy if that’s what he thinks he’s doing, but at a time when the Hawks appeared to be making a challenge, Sicily gave North a free shot at goal.

Larkey may have missed, but this does not diminish the silliness of Sicily’s actions. Actions like that change the game. They change momentum, and they change the perception of Sicily from that of a great defender who occasionally makes a dumb mistake, to that of a dumb player who happens to play good football.

Don’t give me this “he plays on the edge” stuff, either. He doesn’t. He falls over the edge way too often. And you can give me a rest with the “he’s umpired differently” garbage as well. If he knows umps are watching him, why give them an excuse? If he is willing to do silly things and take chances with what the umps will and won’t pay, then he deserves what he cops, and if Hawthorn are willing to accept what he does, then they deserve it too.

If he wants to see how to impact a game physically, get him to watch a tape of Cam Zurhaar.

QUICK BITS

What a start by Mitch Lewis, but he clearly has to have a big pre-season in order to continue to have an impact on the game as it wears on. He looked buggered out there after half time.

Where do we see Jy Simpkin at right now? 15 touches tonight in a rather inconspicuous kind of game is the sort of output he’d want to improve on. He’s had 11 games with possessions in the teens this season, with two games of 30+ disposals. I know a lot of North supporters were hoping for a marked improvement from both him and Trent Dumont this year, and whilst Simpkin is +3.9 disposals per game, and Dumont is +3.15 disposals up on their 2018 numbers, you get the feeling that too much is left to Cunnington and Higgins.

It ended up being a really nice night for Ben Brown, huh? Four goals, three contested grabs and ten score involvements are a nice night at the office, but did you hear the umpire almost sigh as he dismissed Brown’s pleading for a free kick in the ruck contest in the third quarter? He really needs to get that shit out of his game. The best game I saw him play this season was his bag of six against the Bombers – I don’t remember seeing him play for one free kick all game.

Can we get the instruction to Taylor Garner that when he takes the ball, he is to dish off to the nearest teammate as quickly as possible rather than attempt to hit a target himself? The AFL app says he went at 54% efficiency. I reckon they’re being lenient on some of his disposals.

Daniel Howe had a great game a couple of weeks ago as a defender, but until he was moved onto Cunnington, he was really stinking it up down there tonight. Mistakes, getting caught holding the ball… Howe was doing it all.

Both sides appeared to have enormous issues getting the ball over half back when they took possession in defence. The game really ebbed and flowed on the basis of which defensive structure was able to lock down for the longest.

Nice game for Chad Wingard for the Hawks without hitting the scoreboard. He hasn’t really been able to have his signature game with Hawthorn this season. Overall, you’d consider this year a fail if you were grading him, but I often think recruits should be judged on their second year at a new club. Things take time to gel.

Unless you’re Jasper Pittard, I suppose. I don’t think many would’ve picked him as the recruit that was going to perform above expectations for the Roos this season, but he is.

You know what – everyone talks about Alastair Clarkson’s coaching magic, and how he is a maestro, but I think he was outcoached tonight by Rhyce Shaw. Clarko obviously had his set up right early, but the adjustments of Shaw really seemed to turn the game. He took Smith’s run out of play after quarter time, gave Cunnington the responsibility of Worpel, and threw Ziebell forward – all moves that had an impact.

Clarkson may have countered, but North were gaining the ascendancy by that stage, and Shaw had made the moves that put Clarko on the back foot. It’ll be interesting to see what happens next time, because I don’t think Clarkson, being a coaching genius and all, is the sort who won’t do his homework on Shaw’s style. I want to see how Shaw comes out next time – I hope these two clubs play early in 2020.

So, does this kill off the Hawks? Only if we want to write off North as well, who draw level with them. If it wasn’t this week, it’ll be next when they travel interstate to take on GWS. They handled them easily earlier in the year, but the Giants seem to be working into September form.

And North – they get the Cats at Kardinia Park. If they can cause the upset there, finals are a chance. If not, we saw a nice game tonight between two teams not good enough to play finals.

That’ll do from me. If you’re going to North’s 150th celebrations, have a great time and send us some pics at The Mongrel. I’ll distribute them to Joe Ganino and he’ll use them to… actually, don’t send them – he’s a disgrace.

 If you would like to help us out and support the work we do, you could become a patron of the site. It’s a drop in the ocean for you, but together we could really build a great alternative football site. I need your help to do it though. Please consider it.