It’s not often I read columns by Damian Barrett with interest, but one caught my eye this morning. He addressed the North Melbourne Football Club and what he perceived as an uphill battle for the club that has perennially been tagged as ‘struggling’ by those in the AFL media to remain at their spiritual home of Arden Street.

Yep, here we go again, right?

North is not a powerhouse club . Odds are it never will be. It is a suburban Melbourne club with a home ground that ceased being used as a V/AFL venue in 1985 – I’m guessing many people reading this weren’t even born at that stage. I was. This old-timer used to attend games there as a kid.

I would hear jokes about the way the Kangaroos would recruit, or more to the point, how other teams would use the North Melbourne facilities as the comparison when showing off their own. “You could come to Carlton and use our state of the art facilities, or go to North Melbourne… and do push ups in the mud.”

North were a bit of an easy target for shots like that. And it was other stupid comments akin to that which led to Carlton players having the shit punched out of them in London at one stage… but that’s a story for another time.

Barrett may believe that North are up against it, and his intimations indicate that the Kangaroos could still be a Tasmanian team before all is said and done, but that plucky team from Arden Street has made a habit of proving people wrong over the journey. Whilst the bespectacled journo has laid the challenge at the feet of the new North coach, Rhyce Shaw, the new CEO Ben Amarfio, and new General Manager of Football, Brady Rawlings, I prefer to look at what the team is capable of on-field, and as we scan the list of the footy club, North are looking well-poised heading into the next few years.

 

THE LEADERSHIP

 

I don’t care who gets the official titles of leader at a club. I trust the eye test, and having watched North quite closely in 2019, there are some who stand out.

 

JACK ZIEBELL

For some reason I thought Jack was older than he is. At 28, the captain was redeployed into the middle more often in 2019, and with the emergence of a couple of young stars in the making up forward, we may see him spend even more time there in 2020.

So what does he bring to the table? What makes him a good captain?

There are few players in the league harder than Ziebell. At one stage, all he had to do was fart in someone’s general direction and he’d be rubbed out for three weeks, but after a couple of years of not running afoul of the match review officer, it seems as though Jack has found the sweet spot in terms of being relentlessly uncompromising when the ball is in the area, and not getting reported.

If he gets a full pre-season, Ziebell has the potential to be a game changer with the right support around him.

 

BEN CUNNINGTON

Just the lazy six games with 20+ contested possessions in 2019… you know, the same kind of numbers that the media wet themselves about when it was Patrick Cripps doing it.

Anyway, Cunnington is a definite “follow my lead” kind of player. He’s not out there with his head in the social section of the paper, he’s not sitting on every second panel show trotting out clichés or having columns ghost-written by blokes like me (heads up… I work cheap!). He plays footy.

Cunners plays it hard, plays it tough, and occasionally dumps a tagger on his shoulder when he gets a little pissed off. Remember the furore about his little love taps to the stomach last season? Remember the cries to suspend him for those? Geez there’s a lot of soy boys around, isn’t there?

Gimme Cunnington at a stoppage any day of the week – I’ll back him to win it. That’s leadership. No BS, no posturing – just tough work at the coal face.

 

ROBBIE TARRANT

I really felt for Tarrant last season. He was cruising along, playing his regular kind of unsung and underrated defence when some bozo on commentary decided to wheel out the stats that he hadn’t been beaten in a marking contest all season. It was something like 42 one-on-one contests in a row at that stage.

It was like the Lou Richards’ kiss of death. By the end of the first quarter against the West Coast Eagles, Tarrant had been cleanly beaten in marking contests twice. It was bound to happen.

While other defenders around the league took the plaudits again, Tarrant compiled another stellar season down back for North. Like Cunnington in the middle, Tarrant is all steak, whilst many others supply the sizzle.

 

THE STARS

 

BEN BROWN

The most consistent full forward of the last three years, Brown has gone 63 goals in 2017, 61 in 2018, and 64 in 2019. Sadly, his efforts have yet to net him a Coleman Medal, OR an All-Australian berth… that somehow went to Tom Hawkins this season.

Brown has been lacking that genuine second option to take the heat off him at times, but as I’ll get to soon enough, North youngsters are showing signs that this might be about to change.

If Brown can have his fourth consecutive season at 60+ goals, he almost deserves an AA blazer as recognition for his work over recent seasons. Reliable, a beautiful kick, and an absolute workhorse, Brown has been the constant up forward for the Roos, and with help starting to come into their own, there’s the chance he might get even better.

 

SHAUN HIGGINS

The Rolls Royce… the Ferrari… the Jeep Compass… ok, I threw that last one in as a joke. Higgins was on track to crack 30 touches per game until he was injured very early in the Round 12 game against Gold Coast.

Still, he managed to post a career-high disposal average for the third season in a row, and at 31 years old, shows no signs of slowing down just yet. Whilst Cunnington is the midfield ‘yin’, Higgins just ‘yangs’ it up on the outside, where his run and carry can tear a game apart.

I love watching him stream toward half forward, but I have to admit there have been times when he has decided to blast it 55 metres to not much, when the forwards are all leading toward him. Maybe it’s the heat of the moment, but if Higgins can lower those eyes just a couple more times per game, it could be the difference between winning and losing.

Still, with the ball in hand, Higgins remains a potent weapon. It will be interesting to see whether some other North mids can make the next step into the top bracket and alleviate the pressure on him in 2020. North has a few that should be primed to take the next step.

 

TODD GOLDSTEIN

One of the best and most consistent big men of the last ten years, Goldy is now often overlooked in the wake of the Grundy v Gawn All-Australian tussles, but on any given day he can be the most important player on the park.

Ignoring overtures from other clubs to re-sign with the Roos, Goldstein’s tap work is integral to the midfield grunt of Cunnington being effective. Cunners had 10+ clearances six times in 2019 – how many of those first possessions were the result of Goldstein playing his role perfectly?

Whilst nobody expects him to challenge the big two rucks for the title of best in the game at 31 years old, Goldstein’s value to North will come in the way he aids young mids such as Dumont and Simpkin first use, helping them grow into their roles and supporting them via his tap work.

 

THE NEXT LEVEL

 

JARED POLEC

I’m a big fan of giving someone twelve months in a new environment to acclimatise before judging them, but a fair few people aren’t of the same opinion. The knives came out for Jared Polec at times in 2019 as he didn’t quite hit the same highs he did at Port in 2018.

There were little things I noticed, with players handballing to him as he was running onto his non-preferred foot, which caused hack kicks forward… those things start getting ironed out as players spend more time together. I’m pretty confident in stating that, injuries aside, we should see Polec post career-high numbers in 2020.

If he does that, those blokes in the top bracket will have some company, and the North forwards will be licking their lips at the prospect of long, direct kicks inside 50 giving them every chance.

 

TRENT DUMONT

This is the guy, right here. Entering year six at Arden Street, Dumont has all the tools to move into the upper echelon of midfielders. He’s24 years old, has improved his numbers every season since debuting and is now poised to take that next step.

And North Melbourne need him to.

The Kangaroos are a genuine class midfielder away from having a great midfield. Their kids coming through are excellent, but Dumont has to be that bridge between the old guard of Cunning/Ziebell/Higgins and the new breed of LDU/Simpkin and Scott. I would go so far to say as to that Trent Dumont will be North Melbourne’s most important player in 2020.

He started 2019 like a house on fire… actually, no – a house on fire kind of just burns to the ground and doesn’t go anywhere. He started like a Corvette  Stingray and ended up like a Jeep Compass (yep, Jeep Compass again… can you tell what I drive?). In the first 14 games, he had under 21 disposals just once. But in the last seven games of the season, he dipped below 20 on four occasions.

Maybe another pre-season will help remedy that apparent fade out from Dumont? The spot in the midfield is wide open for him to walk in and claim. A midfield mix of Cunnington/Higgins/Dumont and Jacobs could provide a real handful for opposition coaches to combat, but Dumont will need to play his part at the expected level. The chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and Dumont needs to be strong in 2020.

 

JED ANDERSON

This is the bloke who adds the back up to Ben Cunnington in the guts. If Cunners can’t get to the clearance, it’s Anderson’s job to get to the player who does, and drag them to the deck.

He seems to have kicked the injury bug now, playing 38 games over the past two years, and at 25 should be ready to well and truly enter his prime. It will be of interest as to how Rhyce Shaw uses him in 2020. If Ben Jacobs can’t get up, an accountable role for Anderson beckons, but if Jacobs is able to work his way back, it frees Anderson right up to wreak havoc at stoppages all over the park.

At 5.5 tackles per game, Anderson is North’s best exponent at the art of dragging an opponent down. If he can elevate that number toward seven and become one of the best in the league, North could have found themselves a genuine two-way player (I’m thinking an Elliot Yeo-type… in player type, if not in ability. Settle down Eagles supporters).

 

JASPER PITTARD

The pick of the 2019 recruits, Pittard didn’t need too much time to adjust to life at Arden Street, and finished in the top ten in the Syd Barker Medal.

Pittard is not your regular kind of running defender. He reads the ball well but can be a little… hmmm, wayward at times. Is that fair? Not that he is alone in that regard – plenty of the elite runners in the game seem to get a little lost when they take off from half back. Just watch Adam Saad.

If Pittard can improve on what was already a very solid debut year for North, things are looking very rosy.

 

THE KIDS COMING THROUGH

 

LUKE DAVIES-UNIACKE

The progress has been slow and steady for LDU over his two years. Whilst it is unfair to expect more at this stage, there would be quite a few at Arden Street hoping he has his breakout year in 2020, an quite a few disappointed if he doesn’t.

He has shown flashes of his immense ability, holding the ball for an extra second or two to assess the positioning further up the ground demonstrated the poise that classy players possess, and you’d have to think that North would be eyeing him off as a potential replacement in the midfield for Shaun Higgins in the long run.

With almost 15 touches per game to his name in 2019, LDU should be looking for 19-20 disposals per contest next season – minimum.

 

JY SIMPKIN

Consistency. That’s all that’s required now from the 21 year old. He has proven he can get plenty of the ball, but needs to do it more often to take the pressure off the Cunnington/Higgins combination.

He had 25+ disposals on four occasions in 2019, but had 12 or less six times. The gap between his best and worst needs to close dramatically, because North are a team that needs consistency. Wild fluctuations in output not only hamper the gameplan, but leave coaches scrambling to compensate for a player’s inability to get involved.

With 56 games now under his belt, Simpkin should be ready to start firing more often. This will be the season he cracks 20 touches per game, and if he can exceed that by a couple of touches, we could see him emerge as a player to rival the young midfield stars getting all the press.

 

NICK LARKEY

19 games to his name, two bags of five goals in 2019 and 26 goals for the season… North have found their marking option at centre half forward.

Coming into 2019, there was much speculation as to who would stand up and take the heat off Ben Brown. Many though Mason Wood could provide that target, and though he had a decent year, it quickly became apparent that he was not going to be the long-term solution.

But Larkey could be.

His 1.4 contested grabs per game may not sound like a heap, but it was the way he took those clunks that should be opening the eyes of both supporters and potential opponents. Taking the body contact and still pulling down one-grab marks is something so many young players cannot do. Hell, it’s something experienced players can’t do, but Larkey is doing it often. At 21, he has a couple of years to fill out, but in terms of young forwards, you’d look at a bloke like Aaron Naughton, then maybe Mitch Lewis, Esava Ratugolea and Larkey making up ground behind him.

Have loved what I’ve seen of him thus far.

 

TARRYN THOMAS

It’s so hard to pick how a second year star will go. Thomas showed enough in flashes to indicate he had special talent, but to expect too much too soon is to set him up to fail.

He had a steady year, bobbing up in games to kick a couple here and there, but didn’t grab the game by the scruff of the neck… not that there’s anything wrong with that; in his first year you wouldn’t expect him to.

Thomas looks to have the support around him to continue to develop at a pace that benefits him and the club. The talent is undoubted, but it will be how long that talent takes to morph into consistent form that will be on the minds of North supporters.

 

BAILEY SCOTT

Scott jumped out of the blocks in Round One, picking up 21 touches and kicking a couple of goals. North fans must have been thinking they’d hit the jackpot with the then-18 year old, but after a foot fracture in July, Scott didn’t get back into the senior team, playing just four games for the season.

He will be like a new recruit this season, only with a second pre-season under his belt. I was almost tempted to throw him to the x-factor category due to the way he plays the game and the potential for him to be a break out star in 2020, but erred on the side of caution.

Look, Scott could jump out of the gates again in the new season, and if he does, it’ll be another reason as to why the Roos are a team to watch.

 

THE X-FACTORS

 

CAMERON ZURHAAR

This is the bloke I’ve wanted to write about. If you’re not familiar with the work of this young man, keep your eyes and ears open as we start the 2020 season; you will soon be painfully aware of who he is.

An old-school player with the skills and finishing ability of a modern player, Zurhaar emerged as a potent forward who is unafraid of putting his body on the line. After nine games over 2017-18, Zurhaar played 19 in 2019 and emerged as the missing link in the North forward half. He finished with 26 goals for the season, but it was his attack on the man and the footy that impressed most.

As a forward, he finished with 11 tackles in North’s win against the Tigers in Round 11 – one of the main reasons the Kangaroos’ pressure was able to match that of Richmond, and he backed it up with nine tackles against the Hawks in Round 20 – a win that ruined the Hawks’ finals campaign.

Whilst the AFL media went into raptures about the exploits of Connor Rozee in Port Adelaide, with his bag of five goals against the Lions making the footy world sit up and take notice, Zurhaar’s five goal haul against Carlton didn’t receive the same amount of attention. Nor did his bag of five against the Saints. Whilst Rozee finished the season with a career high of five goals on one occasion, Zurhaar did it twice!

Ladies and gentlemen, Cam Zurhaar had his breakout season in 2019. If he builds on this in any way in 2020, North have found not only the answer to their question of who will be the beguine second forward option to help Ben Brown, but they’ve found someone that will pose so many questions for opposition coaches that even when he has an ordinary day, he causes headaches.

 

MAJAK DAW

Now here’s an interesting one. There was a point where it looked like it was career-over for Majak. After things looked at their most bleak, and we all put footy aside in the hopes he would be okay, there has been a bit of a spark, and Daw may yet play senior footy again. But at what level?

He was really starting to come into his own in 2018 as a key defender. He was reading the play better, taking intercept grabs, and making thumping spoils. With his physical gifts always apparent, the footy smarts were starting to come to the fore as well.

Can he get back to where he was? Can he slot into that back six to aid Robbie Tarrant and company stifle long kicks inside 50? If Daw can make it back and play good footy, it will be like having a new, ready-made recruit in defensive 50 to compensate for the loss of Scott Thompson.

There’ll be many eyes on Majak as pre-season progresses.

 

BEN JACOBS

The last of the x-factors, Ben Jacobs sat out 2019 and watched his title as best tagger in the game bounce to Matt de Boer. We have short memories in footy, and on his day, no one is harder to beat than Jacobs.

His impact on this North Melbourne team over the past five years has been immense. He is all but guaranteed to shut down one of the best opposition midfielders, and wins plenty of the footy in the process.

There will be plenty of eyes on Jacobs as he starts his pre-season. If those concussion symptoms are a thing of the past, North are an infinitely better side immediately. Don’t believe me? Check the win/loss record with/without him in recent years. It’s eye-opening.

 

So I’ve talked up the Kangaroos a bit. After thinking they may drop a fair bit last season, I’m of the opinion we could be seeing the re-emergence of North Melbourne as a finals team in 2020. They’ll need a bit of luck (all teams do) but with the right players firing, and the injury gods smiling on them, 2020 may not be as bleak as Damian Barrett would have you think.

And how nice would it be to throw his doom and gloom scenarios back in his face