THE GOOD, BAD AND UGLY – NORTH MELBOURNE 2020 SEASON PREVIEW

 

So, we’re making this an annual tradition now – extensive season previews for all 18 teams in this format because… well, people seem to like the Good, Bad, Ugly format for game reviews and I thought why not? Also, I really like Clint Eastwood.

If there was ever a “nobody believes in us” team, it is the Kangaroos. They enter the 2020 season with a list capable of doing damage and a coach who has signed on to do just that. Still, segments of the media were quick to jump on the club about the perceived weakness of appointing a new CEO, coach and football operations manager in short order… as though they should’ve just left them vacant for a longer period for the sake of it?

Around a month or so ago, I wrote a bit of an assessment of the North list and why I thought they were on the right track – rather than double up on points, you can access it here and I’ll try to diversify a little in this preview.

Arden Street Forecast – No Doom And Gloom Today. Reign Tomorrow?

The article was met with a little bit of surprise, even from North Melbourne supporters. I likened the response of those supporters to a dog that has been kicked once too often, and was a little suspect of anyone with feet as a result. North have been whacked by the media so often that even a rather positive, or even just a fair article is viewed with a suspicious eye. It’s an understandable stance.

I’d also like to point out that I like dogs, and it is in no way meant to offend…

So, I reckon North are a legitimate shot at making finals in 2020. They have a solid midfield, a forward line that could develop into a potent weapon, and it will be interesting to see how the defence adjusts to life without the reliable Scott Thompson.

Can North Melbourne defy the critics and storm back into finals contention in 2020? Let’s explore with a little bit of the old good, bad and ugly, Mongrel-style.

 

THE GOOD

 

THE MOST CONSISTENT BIG FORWARD IN THE GAME

All hail Big Ben.

I was pretty impressed with Ben Brown in 2019, and not just because he topped 60 goals for the third straight season. It was more his ability to hit the ground running that had me nodding my approval.

You see, after having surgery on his hip during the off-season, I expected Brown to return to training and take a while to get back into shape. Well, I got one part right – he did return to training. Sadly for me, that’s where my correct summations ended. He was fantastic all season, and was unlucky not to take home the Coleman Medal.

He was also unlucky that Jeremy Cameron played a Gold Coast team that well and truly had their cue in the rack in the last round of footy, but that’s the fixture for ya!

If I got to script the 2020 season, part of it would have Brown claiming his first Coleman Medal. He has been the most consistent, and dare I say it – the best forward in the competition over the past three seasons and the reward is due.

He has now got help around him in the form of two young stars in the making, in Cam Zurhaar and Nick Larkey (strange piece in the Herald sun on these two last week) that can offer him the kind of support that will allow him more one-on-one contests. And that’ll mean more wins.

Brown is now 27 years old and in the prime of his football life. His consistency over the past three years has been wonderful, with his goals per game average fluctuating only between 2.77 and 2.96 in that period. I’d love to see him hit three goals per game in 2020 and put the race of the Coleman beyond doubt early.

 

CHALK AND CHEESE IN THE MIDDLE

Looking at midfield combinations, I started wondering whether Shaun Higgins and Ben Cunnington are the perfect two-man combination in the business, given how different their game styles are.

Yes, there are other tandems who do significant damage to the opposition, but duos like Martin/Cotchin, Bontempelli/Macrae and possibly Shuey/Kelly have areas where they cross over heavily. The Cunnington/Higgins pairing operate on different wavelengths, yet somehow manage to remain attuned to one another.

Cunnington is an inside beast. Not often celebrated, simply because he is too physical for the soccer mums who decide which players should be lauded, he wins clearances, hustles, bustles and roughs people up in the process. He ranked fifth in the league in average contested touches in 2019, and coupled that with fourth place overall in clearances.

In contrast, Shaun Higgins motors along on the outside, and ranked sixth in the league in uncontested possessions in 2019, whilst slotting in at 13th overall for inside 50s.

Whilst I am sure there are arguments for other tandems, the designated roles of Cunnington and Higgins mesh so well together that as the two best midfield performers on the team, there is zero chance of them stepping on each other’s toes.

With Higgins at 32 years old, and Cunnington at 28, both men are coming off career-best seasons for possessions per game. As much as it pains me to say it, this combination won’t last forever, and 2020 is probably the time they start filtering a little more responsibility to some of the up and comers.

We’ll cover them below, but Simpkin, Dumont, Polec and even the emerging LDU now need to start winning their share of the ball as well. If they do that, and spread the midfield wealth, we could have Cunnington and Higgins a little fresher come finals.

And I expect North to be there this season.

 

THE BEST CROP OF KIDS IN THE BUSINESS?

Ah yes, Carlton has had a heap of top draft picks over the years, haven’t they? And Port Adelaide grabbed themselves a nice group of first year players in 2019, but for mine, no team has the young talent that the Kangaroos possess.

No one.

One of my favourite players to watch in 2019 was Cam Zurhaar, as he pinballed around, using his body like a battering ram. That sort of player wins me over instantly – the fact that he was able to kick two bags of five goals was like icing on the cake.

Speaking of bags of five goals, Nick Larkey showed plenty in 2019 as well. His ability to clunk a mark and bang a long goal are EXACTLY what Ben Brown has needed as a second marking option since Jarrad Waite got hurt and subsequently finished up in 2018.

But it’s not just up forward that North have a bit of a gold mine. Kids coming through like Luke Davies-Uniacke, Bailey Scott, Jy Simpkin, Tarryn Thomas and Aiden Bonar punctuate a potential powerhouse in the making for the Kangaroos.

I know that some may fall away, and injuries may bring them back to the pack a little, but North have recruited beautifully, and with these kids on the list and getting meaningful game time, we could be seeing the nucleus of a powerful new Arden Street generation taking shape right before our eyes.

 

BEWARE THE SECOND YEAR STAR

North Melbourne recruited well in 2019, and this is the season I believe we will see it reap rewards.

I’ve written this in a couple of team previews, but I always allow a player a year to adjust to his new surroundings before I expect to see their best. Jared Polec was down two disposals per game on his 2018 numbers at Port Adelaide, and there were a few people who were speaking about his year as though he’d fallen in a heap. It was still the second-highest disposal average of his career, but it was as though some expected him to shoot through the roof in his first season.

It was never going to happen.

Polec often found himself in the wrong spots, running onto his opposite foot, and having to hack the ball forward instead of having the time and balance to steady and lace it out to a teammate. His couple of possessions south was almost matched by a couple of percent in efficiency, but for the most part, Polec did as I expected him to in 2019, and it was only late in the season that he cracked 30 touches in a game – twice in the last five games.

2020 is a whole new ball game for Polec. I expect this to be the year he well and truly stamps his authority on the role of outside runner and could very well be worth plonking a few dollars on for the Syd Barker Medal.

The other second-year player that can and should contribute in 2020 is Aaron Hall. Reports out of Arden Street prior to Xmas were that Hall was training well and his troublesome knee wasn’t giving him as many issues as previous seasons. Of course, there is the spectre of mental health he is dealing with as well, which caused him to shut up shop for the remainder of 2019.

Hall is 29, and with another year to run on his contract following this one, he could end up being a big asset for the Roos on the wing. They got very little out of him last season, so having him up and running unimpeded would be like having a new recruit to start the season.

Aaron Hall is not the key to North’s success in 2020 – no one player is, but he is a bit of a forgotten quantity in terms of potential impact on this season. People forget that Champion Data rated him as an elite wingman coming into last season and…

… I’m sorry – I just don’t take Champion Data’s elite ratings seriously at all.

What I do know is that North would be hoping they get something like the 2017-version of Aaron Hall, that averaged 25.6 touches per game for the Suns over 19 games than the one who has managed just 12 games over the next two seasons. If they get the good Aaron Hall, it is another string to their midfield bow, and quite an unexpected one.

 

DON’T SLEEP ON BEN JACOBS

Anyone who has read my articles on here for a while knows that I am very high on the influence that a professional accountable midfielder can have on a game.

We saw it in 2019 with Matt de Boer shutting down some of the biggest names in the game on a weekly basis (until Ben Cunnington had enough and fractured his shoulder – don’t fuck with Cunners) and we saw it as Mark Hutchings made a habit of shutting down Steele Sidebottom in 2018, and played a big part in West Coast’s flag.

The role of Ben Jacobs is just as important to North Melbourne, so much so that their win percentage with him in the team compared to how the team performs without him is quite startling.

I am a big believer that in every team there needs to be players who sacrifice. They don’t need big numbers in the midfield, or flashy plays – they just need to beat their direct opponent and stifle their creativity. Ben Jacobs is one of those players.

Come to think of it, he is not just one of those players – he is one of the absolute best in the business at fulfilling that role.

The addition of Jacobs back into the North Melbourne team makes them a different team in 2020. His attention to the task at hand and refusal to easily lower his colours means that North has one less midfield problem to worry about.

Whilst his time out of the game is a real worry, and his health is more important than any win-loss record, selfishly, I would love to see Jacobs back in the mix, challenging de Boer for the title as best tagger in the game, and taking back the crown he was never healthy enough to defend.

 

THE STEAK KNIVES

When the trade for Jared Polec went through, not many people batted an eyelid when Jasper Pittard was included as part of the deal.

How many though that Pittard would play at the level he did in 2019?

This is a case where the numbers really don’t do Pittard’s game justice. Playing pure defence, Pittard hit the contests hard, and made for a fantastic third-up defender at North. Where he may have had less run and carry than he did at Port Adelaide, his ability to influence defensive contests was highly underrated in 2019.

I feel pretty comfortable in stating that in the North Melbourne games I watched in 2019 (a good 12-15 of them), Pittard probably had more of an impact than his highly-fancied counterpart in Polec.

At 28 years old, Pittard displayed a maturity that really aided a North Melbourne defence that was lacking the presence of a bigger body to aid Tarrant and Thompson. His first two months of the season, in particular, made people sit up and take notice as he definitely earned his spot in the side.

 

BRINGING BALANCE TO THE FORCE

Remember a couple of years back when Brad Scott gave Brent Harvey the metaphorical foot up the ass to get him off the playing list? He used the same foot to boot Drew Petrie out the door as well – not exactly the way to win friends and influence people, was it?

But as we head into the 2020 season, and I look at this North Melbourne list, I really like the mix I am looking at. Look, Harvey and Petrie would be gone by now anyway, but Scott had a vision (to be named Competition Evolution Manager… what the…?) and it involved building via youth.

Rhyce Shaw is now the beneficiary of a list that seems (to my eyes) as a well-balanced group with the pieces in place to give the top eight a shake.

Your 28+ers have Shaun Higgins, Majak Daw, Jack Ziebell, Ben Cunnington, Jasper Pittard, Todd Goldstein and Robbie Tarrant.

The next level down from 24-27 has Ben Brown, Jared Polec, Shaun Atley, Luke McDonald, Jed Anderson and Marley Williams.

Then the 23 and unders boast Luke Davies-Uniacke, Jy Simpkin, Trent Dumont, Paul Ahern, Nick Larkey, Cam Zurhaar, Tarryn Thomas, Bailey Scott, and Aiden Bonar.

It is a very well-balanced list, with those in the top age bracket still playing excellent football, with many of them showing no signs of slowing down, whilst the improvement that should come from those under 23 should be enough for any North supporter to puff their chest out more than a little.

There are big ‘ifs’ associated with every list in the league, and the “if’ for North revolves around whether the older blokes can maintain that form whilst the younger ones stake their claims. IF that happens, North are well poised to make a run in the next year or two. I love the way their list looks.

 

FILLING THE GAPING HOLE LEFT BEHIND

You’d hate to place undue pressure on a bloke who is coming back from injuries that could have been much, much worse, but the return of Majak Daw to the North Melbourne side is one of the big ticket talking points of the season.

Majak Daw is an athlete that relied largely on his ridiculous size and power to make contests and develop into a defensive force to be reckoned with. His transformation from a hit-and-miss forward into a contest killing defender was wonderful to watch, and then seeing him sneak forward when required (the game playing against Aliir Aliir springs to mind) to become a marking forward made him an absolute weapon.

Much of North’s game plan for 2019 revolved around Majak Daw and his ability to play both ends AND pinch hit in the ruck. That was thrown into disarray when Daw was ruled out for the season before it even began.

With the retirement of Scott Thompson, the Kangaroos will be even more reliant on Daw’s ability to zone off and crash a pack in defence, but the question around his possibly diminished athleticism is one that will need to be answered early in the year.

I don’t expect Daw to fill the role of Thompson – see below – but my hope is that he is able to once again slot in as a floating defender who can use that big frame to drift across and cut off scoring opportunities.

Whilst Brad Scott may have planned heavily for the influence of Daw in 2019, I am sure Rhyce Shaw is hedging his bets a little. Is Majak capable of playing at the highest level again? Is he capable of playing to the same standard?

 

SOMETHING FOR NOTHING

If you don’t like the way North operated during the off-season, there has to be something wrong with you.

As mentioned, Scott Thompson wandered off to start enjoying retirement and not having his testicle ruptured and North Melbourne swung into action. Instead of sitting around hoping that someone like Ed Vickers-Willis would recover from his knee injury to take Thompson’s place, they made another excellent list management decision and recruited Josh Walker to the club.

Walker played 11 games for the Lions as they improved dramatically in 2019, often taking responsibility for one of the best two forwards on the opposition. It is a role I fully expect him to assume with North, who have wisely recruited to fill the specific need in defence.

The addition of Walker allows the Roos the flexibility to use their existing players in the roles they were originally designated, and should be a valuable acquisition.

The other astute recruiting decision by North saw Aiden Bonar, unable to get a regular game with the stacked midfield of GWS, move to Arden Street late in the trade period. The deal for the 20 year old for an absolute bargain, swapping a future third-rounder for a fourth-rounder, effectively picking up the young star for bugger all.

Bonar was pick 11 in 2017, and in any other team would have forced his way into the midfield. GWS is a team blessed with midfield talent and up-and-coming stars. Bonar saw the writing on the wall, and North swooped.

Bonar’s trade adds to the young riches at Arden Street. He can develop and grow alongside players such as Luke Davies-Uniacke and Tarryn Thomas as North builds a team of future stars. It was a wonderful couple of pick-ups by the Kangaroos.

 

THE OLD STAGER IN THE RUCK

The re-signing of Todd Goldstein is one of the aspects of the free-agency window that went by without many taking much notice. People often ignore the less sensational aspects of footy in favour of focusing on the bigger story.

Both St Kilda and the Western Bulldogs made some noise about acquiring big Goldy for the 2020 season, and really, the Bulldogs would have been a great fit for him, working in conjunction with a young ruckman (Tim English) and teaching him the tricks of the trade.

However, Goldstein ignored the overtures of other teams to recommit to the club he has been with his whole career. Do you think he sees some success on the horizon in the short term?

At 31 years old, Goldstein has a few good years left yet. He casually compiled another excellent season with the Roos, averaging a career-high 16.77 touches per game and making the most of the new ruck rule that once again allowed the big guys to take the ball directly from ruck contests without being pinged for holding the ball immediately. He had the second-highest number of clearances per game of his career, and was one of just four players to have over 700 hit outs for the year.

Goldstein’s presence is a vital part of the North Melbourne midfield machine, and his durability in the role in 2019 was invaluable, particularly after North lost Brayden Preuss to Melbourne and Majak Daw to injury.

Goldy will battle on in 2020, and will once again give his mids plenty of opportunities to have first use of the footy. When talking about the best rucks in the game, people (and I have been guilty of this) tend to gravitate toward Grundy, Gawn and Naitanui when fit, but it would not be at all out of place to have Goldstein’s name up there as well.

He may not be as flashy, but the results over the long haul cannot be disputed.

 

THE BAD

 

MASON WOOD… IF MASON COULD

I’m tired of waiting for Mason Wood to become something. North fans; you are a lot more patient than I am.

This season, it appears as though Wood will be trying his hand at defence, after many years of failing as a forward. Watching this bloke, it is obvious that he has the talent – so what is the bloody issue? Players with much less talent make much more of their careers than Wood has by this stage.

At 192 centimetres, and now at 26 years of age, this season is the last gasp for Wood. He either makes it as a defender, or quickly becomes one of the “what could’ve been…” players of the modern game.

The defensive deck has been shuffled a little at Arden Street with the retirement of Scott Thompson. It has left a rather sizeable void down back, and with Majak Daw returning from injury (amazing that he has made it back at all, to be honest) the door is open for players to start staking their claim.

Josh Walker is a very handy pick up for North, and as a mature body will have the inside running for the second key defender slot. He was solid for the Lions last year when he slotted in for 11 games, and should complement the defence of Robbie Tarrant well. Walker can play genuine one-on-one defence, allowing others to zone off, and this is where I see Majak doing his best work.

I suppose the question, given this section is about him, is where it all leaves Mason Wood?

Well, I like where it leaves him – with his back against the wall. He’ll be forced to scratch, bite and tear to have a regular place in the side. Gone are the days of him having ‘potential’. He is 26 years old and has to start playing like it.

Wood has the capacity to be a very good defender. He reads the ball well, and will probably enjoy attacking the contest without someone retarding his run at the footy. Can he force his way into what should be a very tidy back six for the Roos?

He’s out of contract at the end of the season – I’d say his future probably depends on it.

 

ARE THERE THOSE WHO WILL NEVER TAKE THE NEXT STEP?

Not everyone can morph into a star, and that’s okay. Teams need players who play roles and do their jobs as they’re told.

As a matter of fact, in the section above, we just discussed one of those players. And here are a few more.

Taylor Garner

Shaun Atley

Dom Tyson

I don’t know about you, but I had very high hopes for Atley during his first few years in the league. I thought he was a guarantee to end up being one of the best running half backs, or wingmen in the league.

And then he reached around the level below being a star and never progressed. I’m pretty sure I blame him for a loss in a Supercoach Grand Final at some point, which may influence me somewhat. At least I’m acknowledging my biases.

Taylor Garner is another who promised the world at one stage… and still does at times. Like Wood, he is 26 and has played over 11 games once in his career.as a forward, he has averaged over a goal again once per game, and despite having all the tools to be very successful, it seems as though he is like me in a workshop – he has no bloody idea how to use them!

This is Garner’s eighth year on the North list. Does that surprise you? It surprised the hell out of me! He has battled injuries and had a hard time staying on the park, but with his contract expiring at the end of the season, we could be seeing the last of him in blue and white unless he pulls his finger out… and doesn’t injure it in the process.

And then there’s Dom Tyson. He strikes me a spare parts player. Brought in as insurance for the midfield, North hardly made a claim on him in 2019, with Tyson playing just three games. Unfortunately for North, he has an extra year to run on his contract, and strikes me as a player who will give you a handful of games at best. He’s 26 as well – these should be his peak seasons, but it may be time to come to terms with the fact that we’ve seen the best he has to offer.

And it’s just not that good.

North have young players coming through now that should be better than those listed. Whilst I think Atley retains his spot due to his run and carry ability, I cannot see the other two bothering the list management staff too much when decision time comes on their futures. They’re reliant on other people being hurt to secure a spot, and that is never a safe place to be.

 

THE UGLY

 

A LACK OF RECOGNITION

If I wandered over, tapped you on the bum… because I’m good like that, and asked you to tell me how many All-Australian selections there has been between Ben Cunnington, Robbie Tarrant and Ben Brown over the last ten years, what would your answer be?

As a question without notice, I reckon you might get a few people stating two or three. Some might even think there’s been as many as five between them.

How about a big, fat zero?

Yep, Ben Brown has been at the pointy end of the goal kicking table for years – can’t get a look in. Ben Cunnington plays the same game as Patrick Cripps, but one gets lauded and the other forgotten, and Robbie Tarrant should have an award named after him as the most under-appreciated player in the game.

It is bordering on criminal that between them, Ben Brown, Ben Cunnington and Robbie Tarrant have zero All-Australian selections. How the hell can that be the case?

Makes you wonder if they’d have a selection or two if they played for say… Collingwood?

 

THE CONSTANT BABBLE

You know, I actually struggled to find an “ugly” for this section. I’m sure a few people will chime in and offer some, and that’s all good, but the only real negative I can see in terms of the club and their direction right now is the constant chatter about moving to Tasmania.

Look, I don’t think it should, or will happen, but every time an article comes up from one of our writers about Tassie Football, North’s name is floated as one of the two options – the other being relocating Gold Coast there.

Neither will happen, simply because the AFL is too invested in Queensland, the Roos are going well financially, and really, Tassie deserves their own team.

But that doesn’t stop people from speculating wildly, does it? If I’m sick of it, I wonder how much it must annoy North supporters?

I suppose you should just remember one thing when they trot this out again at some stage this season – when arguing with an idiot, please be sure they’re not doing the same thing.

 

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