On paper, this should have been a slaughter. A struggling side at the very bottom of the ladder coming up against a top four team with premiership aspirations. What we saw instead was a classy Brisbane side outlast the plucky Kangaroos squad, but not put them to the sword as expected.

Brisbane’s Dayne Zorko and Ryan Lester were out of the contest due to suspension and injury, replaced by James Madden and Thomas Berry. Zorko is a bit of a mascot player, so losing him hurt a bit. Coming into the side for North was Vice Captain Luke McDonald to replace the injured Taylor Garner. McDonald has had an injury-interrupted season for 2021, starting late with leg issues and then managing to tear his pectoral in his first match. He managed to finish the game without incident, which bodes well for him.

 

Tasmania to the rescue

With the Victoria treating lockdowns like an on-again off-again office romance that has everyone around feeling uncomfortable, the AFL decided to send North Melbourne v Brisbane and Hawthorn v Essendon over to Tassie. Is it just me, or is the AFL treating Tassie like a side-chick? Won’t commit to a long-term relationship, but when the weekend is looking bare, suddenly there’s the late-night booty-call asking to come over for some fun n games.

It was a poetic choice in this case though, with both coaches boxes being lead by Taswegian-born-and-bred coaches. Chris Fagan marked his 100th coaching game against former apprentice David Noble in Noble’s home town of Hobart.

Quite a few locals seemed to appreciate this too, as the crowd was the most vocal of the North Supporters I’ve seen since… well… I honestly can’t remember when. There were moments when the crowd seemed to be ten times the size that the turnstile numbers suggested, and I say that due to the volume of noise that is in no way related to a disproportionate heads-to-body ratio.

The weather wasn’t conducive to the sort of effete football that some sections of the media seem to be screaming out for, but this is where I may be the odd one out—I love wet weather games.

I can appreciate the beauty in end-to-end plays where the ball never hits the turf and the players seem to be collecting the ball without breaking stride, maintaining the smirking superior expression on their face as they slot through a major. I have no problem with that at all, however, I would honestly trade it in for a game in greasy, muddy conditions where effort and will are just as important as class and skill.

Give me the moments where quality players keep their feet while others slip and slide around them, as we saw so often this afternoon as Neale and Cameron shucked their opponents into a mud bath. Give me the thumping punches of a water-soaked ball like we saw with Tarrant and Robertson. Give me a look into which players are there because of innate ability, and which had to out-scrap, out-work and out-will everyone else to make it to the level. For my money, playing at Marvel stadium with the roof closed shows me what you can do, but playing at a water-logged second-tier ground shows me who you are.

From that perspective, quite a few players put themselves on show.

And yes, two lads on the ground with a footy in between them, hooking into each other’s kidneys looked exactly as odd as you’d expect. I’m sure there will be highlights up on social media by now.

On the other side of the ledger, Brisbane seemed to embrace the physical side of the game with little fear of reciprocation. Harris Andrews frequently gave Nick Larkey a clip every time he was near the ball, Neale seemed eager to hit Thomas and Taylor, even when they were over the boundary line, and Mitch Robinson was looking for someone to crash into at every contest.

Let’s be clear though—every successful team needs a level of physicality. They need to make their opposition worried. Worried about being hit. Worried about letting them get too close. Worried about giving them too much space. Worried about being in the frame when a highlight moment happens that they should have stopped. That physicality was as much a reason for Brisbane winning this match as their ability to adapt to North’s rigid structure was, and they’ll need to bring even more of it when they play finals.

North on the other hand have precious few players with any physical intimidation. Ben Cunnington is as hard-nosed as it gets, and if someone told me he’d dumped a body from his fishing boat because the bloke ran over his dog, I’d believe it and keep my mouth shut about it, too. Tarrant is fresh back in his second game, but didn’t have the physical presence they needed from him there. Zurhaar is the only other one who seems to like the contact from the squad today. They will relish getting Jed Anderson back later this season, as he not only seems to not mind the rough stuff, he seems to prefer it to the actual game of footy.

The hard lesson here though is that North need to have a solution for when LDU, Thomas, Powell, Larkey, Hall or Taylor get man-handled, because at the moment it seems like those players don’t know if they’ll have their teammates there to keep their opponents honest, and that’s a problem.

 

The start

The opening bounce seemed to be the indicator of the night. Todd Goldstein tapped down to a waiting Ben Cunnington to give him his first of his six clearances, but unfortunately, the forward 50 entry was less than ideal and resulted in the ball coming straight back out again.

North had much of the play, but struggled to have the impact they needed. The commentary team accused the North playmakers of being overly-timid with their choices, and I think there’s some accuracy to that. Brisbane were in constant motion when they didn’t have the ball, making it seem like they were covering a lot more area than they actually were, halting the play-on-at-all-costs style that almost got the job done for North last week.

After a few minutes of back and forth, Brisbane managed to open their account with Charlie Cameron turning Kayne Turner around and sneaking out the back door to a well-weighted kick and an easy goal. Turner seemed to learn from the moment though, and from then on kept guarding the goal-side. Against a player with the pace and ability of Cameron though, it seemed an odd matchup. On one hand, keeping  a player like Cameron to just five disposals for the game sounds good. On the other hand, all five were shots on goal for a 2.3 return. In a game saw only 15 majors kicked, giving up two and a half and only amassing six touches for himself may not see Turner looking forward to the game review on Monday.

 

North’s run

Momentum is such a massive part of footy. When the game is going your way, you need to get the reward on the scoreboard. North managed to finally kick a major just before quarter time with Stephenson slotting a nice goal with less than 30 seconds to go. This helped them jump out of the blocks in the second quarter with some decent link-up plays in an evening where the dew and rain made it difficult to control the ball in hand.

Larkey and Zurhaar managed to put on two more goals to wrest back the lead, with Goldstein dominating the ruck contest to provide his mids with enough space to get clear, which meant it wasn’t until the sixth minute that Brisbane managed to get the ball into their forward 50.

Larkey then kicked another and there seemed to be a bit of belief in the North squad, but in a side so unaccustomed to winning, that belief can often be a brittle thing.

 

Lions take control

At the next centre bounce, Brisbane quickly got the ball away and struck back with a goal to Lincoln McCarthy. McCarthy’s athleticism was on display all day, but his tackling here was superb, managing to get a nice holding the ball decision on a night where the player with the ball seemed to be given more than ample chances.

Much of the second quarter saw the ball in dispute as Brisbane adapted to North’s short disposal style that saw them commit to a flank or look through the middle. North rarely switched the play, which may have been a pattern that Brisbane took advantage of, as their defensive setup pushed up and outwards to cut off the corridor while ignoring the long backwards-diagonal that switch plays use so often.

The third quarter is where Brisbane took control, stopping North’s run and putting some time into Luke Davies-Uniacke who had been having a decent night in the middle. Neale also lifted and McCluggage joined in using Goldstein’s somewhat predictable tapping avenues to take control of the clearances.

The Lions started a run that saw them kick four unanswered goals and with the rain continuing to come down, North seemed to accept that this was another game that they let a lead slip through their fingers.

The Lions never really looked worried however. Their belief in each other, willingness to trust that their teammate would win the ball and understanding that North are yet to finish a game strong in 2021 saw them simply push aside the current wooden spoon favourite.

 

In the middle

Brisbane have few players as important to their squad as Lachie Neale. His return last week was a little lacklustre, but he seemed up to his usual standard again this week. His 30 touches were impactful, and he managed to bring in players around him for some nice link-up plays.

North were well served early with Cunnington, Simpkin and LDU all getting nice service from Goldstein. Fagan is nothing if not a student of the game though, and he had scouted his opposition well. He pushed Lyons onto Cunnington and seemed to instruct him to expose Ben’s lack of pace. Neale gave LDU a lesson in contested possessions and pushed him to the off side of the contest very often. It’s no coincidence that when North were in the lead, LDU was up and about, and his fade out saw North similarly melt away from the contest.

Jarryd Lyons was dominant and is likely to pick up three votes in this match. 36 touches is a good return for any mid, but add in his game-high 12 tackles 6 marks and 4 inside 50s and it adds up to a very nice return for a player that may be a bit underrated, or perhaps just a little too far in the shadow of his higher profile teammates.

 

Ruck battle

Goldstein continues to take on a majority of ruck duties for his side, despite Xerri, Walker and Larkey able to give him a chop out. The stats sheet shows he managed to get his hands to the ball a lot more than his opposite number Oscar McInerney, but Big O managed to pull six clearances to Goldy’s single, as well as get a bit more of the ball around the ground.

Daniher and Xerri helped out in the ruck, but Daniher seemed keen to leave as soon as he could to run forward, while Xerri seemed to be looking around to make sure he was actually allowed to contest the ruck. What North do with Xerri is going to be very interesting for the future of the club. It would be good odds that Goldstein is not going to be North’s ruckman by the time they can have a finals tilt, and there will likely still be interest in him come season’s end, so North may be forced to consider a trade for him, or at least allow that it will be an option. If that’s the case, they need another ruckman ready to go. Xerri isn’t there yet, and playing him along with Walker and Goldstein doesn’t make a lot of sense when Tarrant is the main tall down back with McKay and Larkey is the other forward target.

McInerney has been building a solid body of work for some while now. It’s easy to forget he’s only 26. He has some improvement to come yet, but his style of play blends very well with the rest of the mids in the squad.

 

Where it was won

Without a doubt, the game was won in the coaches box. Last week we saw North get very close to upsetting GWS, and for a few moments there seemed to be the potential to go a step further against the Lions, but Fagan had learned a lot from the tapes of that match. Aaron Hall provides so much of North’s run from half back, linking up for 1-2s and pushing the ball into attack with momentum. He was allowed absolutely no space, and every disposal he had seemed to come at the cost of a body on him that stopped his momentum—not to the point of infringing on him, but just that broken stride and change of focus to put him off his play.

The aforementioned adaptation to Cunnington and LDU also helped in the middle, as well as changing the setup to rove Goldstein’s taps rather than have a 50:50 contest.

For all the stars Brisbane have on the ground, the one that will be most instrumental to their premiership chances is the bloke bringing it all together from the box.

Faganism will only get stronger from here.

 

Tarryn Thomas seems to really piss people off

Another product of Tasmania, Tarryn Thomas has had some fantastic moments, and North fans are rightly waiting with great anticipation to see him break out into the X-factor player they believe he can be. He seems a quiet sort of lad too, which is odd considering he seems to get the sort of treatment you’d only expect from someone who was a bit too free with the lip.

There were quite a few incidents where Thomas seemed to second guess the need for contact in this match. He had some great moments, including some fine marks and field kicks that looked inspired, but he also was on the receiving end of several old-school ear massages in those contests, as well as Lachie Neale seeming intent on trying to make sure Thomas leaves the Apple Isle without an Adam’s Apple. This is in addition to Mumford executing a fairly decent Rock Bottom finisher on him last week, so it seems that there’s a bit of a feeling that putting him off his game just takes a bit of physical attention to the body.

Once a player has that rep, it’s very hard to shake, and Thomas did himself no favours when a late hit to Josh Walker after the half-time siren was blown and he tried to fly the flag in a fairly water-soaked manner. It was almost an obligatory effort, and that’s pretty telling. There needs to be a few North players who aren’t named Ben Cunnington willing to protect the young talent that the squad is amassing, because without that protection they will either leave or never achieve their potential.

It may come down to the young brigade looking out for itself. One of the few seeming to embrace the physicality was Tristian Xerri, which is kind of understandable given his 200cm, 100kg frame. There was a fairly comical moment when he was tackled by Mitch Robinson—no stranger to a bit of the hard stuff—and seemed to be trying to convince the umpire of his sincerity at disposing of the football by punching the ball through Robinson’s kidneys. Mitch quickly responded by showing equal sincerity when he returned the favour with a kidney shot of his own.

 

They’re off today

One thing that has been consistent in the last six or so rounds of footy with North Melbourne is the commentary that their opponents look “off” today. Melbourne were having an off day when North was leading, only to fall short. Collingwood were “off”. Hawthorn were “off”. GWS were “off” and now watching the game against Brisbane, once again there is the narrative that the team playing North was “off”.

The question is, is this a case of teams talking North too lightly, knowing that they struggle to run out a game, or is it a case of North’s early pressure forcing better squads into playing an accountable brand of football? The answer will be apparent in the coming months, as will the dilemma of what North will do if they somehow manage to pinch a couple of wins and avoid the wooden spoon. While there is a point of pride in avoiding adding a paddle to the trophy case, when it comes with a #1 draft pick, the sting is far more temporary than the benefit.

 

Cruel Intentions

Somehow, we’ve moved from deliberate out of bounds to insufficient intent to keep the ball into play, and this game showed that sometimes it can just be taking things a little too far.

There were three deliberate calls on North in a row in the third quarter, so when a 30-odd metre kick found the boundary line 10 metres in front of a Brisbane player, the crowd found their voice to appeal for the free, and umpire Craig Fleer obliged.

I think it’s a bit unfair to penalise such a long kick, but it did seem like a bit of an even-up from some previous decisions the other way. Plus, I would imagine the umpires would be quite unaccustomed to having the home crowd so involved in a North game.

 

Other bits

Both teams left the ground injury-free, which is rare enough for both sides for it to be a pleasant surprise.

Nick Larkey had another decent game, presenting well and marking in difficult conditions with an All-Australian backman right up his clacker at every contest. His kicking style is a concern of late though, bending the knee to take some of the depth off the kick to the point that he fell short on a few shots at goal. It almost looks like the way a player kicks when the hamstring or hip is giving them trouble, which would be a big concern if that is the case.

Jaidyn Stephenson once again rocking the long sleeves, and I’m a fan of it. Clarko may have famously said that long sleeves were a sign of weakness, but he’s the sort of bloke to wear shorts to an ice hockey game.

Eric Hipwood seems to be getting younger. The lad is 23, but if I was behind the bar at a pub and he asked for a drink, I would need to see some ID before serving him, and even after that I’d want to run it by someone who knew how to spot a fake.

 

Up next

Brisbane head home for a Thursday night blockbuster against the Cats at the Gabba. Both teams have the short turnaround, so it won’t be a great concern. What will likely get airplay is the incidents that saw Selwood get fined for some fairly unsavoury actions. Brisbane will be keen to let him and the rest of the team that disrespect on that level will not be tolerated in Queensland.

With Geelong coming off a last gasp, hard fought win against the Bulldogs, and Brisbane cruising for much of the night, I think Brisbane will cause a bit of an upset here, and likely take the win and third on the ladder at the same time.

North head back to Tassie to take on the Gold Coast in a game that will reveal just how far this team has come in Noble’s time at the helm. In round two, the Suns put a hurting on the injury-ravaged and disconcerted North team, dominating almost every matchup to win by ten goals.

North’s recent form has been much better, but whether it will be good enough to overcome the suns is a big question. Almost as telling will be who makes it into the squad. Could this be the time we see another lower rung team suddenly decide to experiment with youth in positions that “alas, alack, were not enough to take us off the bottom of the ladder”? Or will Gold Coast put them to the sword again?

I think this is a winnable game for north, especially in the cold Tasmanian ground, but whether they give it everything or treat it like a learning opportunity is a question that stops me putting money on them. I’m tipping Gold Coast in a scrappy affair.