Good Friday – or throw-it-in-the-bin-in-because-it-was-that-rubbish Friday for North Melbourne supporters, felt like it was ages ago now, but in truth, it’s only been just a smidge over three months.

It’s often been said in football that a week is a long time, but three months, a fair bit has changed.

Since then, we’ve learned a lot of things about the competition this year. We’ve learned that the Western Bulldogs will be in contention (if all goes according to the masterplan) to run deep into September this year, maybe even go all the way – but I’m not going to make such foolish and wild calls just yet – I’m not Adam Cooney.

We’ve also learned a lot about North Melbourne. Having watched a few of their games over the past month, I’ve learned that the playing group have started to buy into what David Noble is selling after what was a rough opening couple of months. They’re committing themselves to the contest more, they’re playing with more confidence – there’s a lot more cause to be optimistic if you’re a North fan.

And whilst on the graveyard shift that is a 4:40pm timeslot on a Sunday, on a freezing cold Melbourne day against quality opposition, North were always going to be up against it, but it was going to stick out as a test to see how far they’ve come against one of the competition’s benchmarks so far this year.

Following Melbourne’s shock loss to GWS the day before, this was a golden opportunity for the Bulldogs to take back top spot on the ladder. It wasn’t pretty, but they did what needed to do as they chalked up win number 12 for the season as they look towards a big clash next weekend.

So with that said, let’s break down this game with the review.

 

The Weight Off The Shoulders

Every time I watch Cody Weightman play, the more I am impressed with how the young man goes about his footy.

At times, he tries to milk frees – and look as much as I think it’s a bad look, if it presents the opportunity to put one through to the big sticks it won’t really matter too much to him or the team, because he’s proving by the week that he’s a reliable shot in front of goal.

In past weeks, he’s shown a lot as a crumbing, defensive pressure small forward – something that was a bit of an underlying question mark in his game when he got picked up by the Bulldogs back in the 2019 Draft, but in this one, he was playing more as the lead-up marking forward that recruiters came to know him as.

Small lead-up forwards feel like they’re becoming a bit of a dying breed in football at the moment. Jamie Elliott at Collingwood and Toby Greene are the only small/mid forwards I can think of that can lead and be such a threat on the lead consistently.

Weightman provides another dangerous option up forward, either as a lurking small forward ready to tackle or a lead-up option as this game proved. A career-best four goals, with three of them coming in the opening term – all of them coming from marks or free kicks from flying for a mark (I counted two very lazy shoves in the back from Shaun Atley).

Dogs fans will talk about Bailey Dale’s positional swap from forward to half back and look at him as the most improved player in the side, but I think young Weightman might have a thing or two to say if he can keep consistently hitting the scoreboard each week.

 

How Far Have The Roos Come?

So think back to round three North fans – I know you don’t, but bear with me here – the team was absolutely obliterated in every statistical category:

-31 inside 50s
-13 clearances (including -8 from centre bounces)
-48 contested possessions
-42 uncontested possessions
-28 scoring shots

You read those numbers and it’s clear as day that the side got smashed in every facet of the ground. But look to this game and the numbers read so much differently:

+2 inside 50s
+7 in clearances and +7 from centre clearances
+9 contested possessions
+27 uncontested possessions
-4 scoring shots

The stats won’t always tell the whole story, but even looking at both sets of numbers, the Roos look a lot more comfortable and they looked hungrier at times than the Bulldogs. From the first bounce, their intensity when they didn’t have the ball was better than anything I saw in round three. I think collectively, their smarts have improved – they’re getting better at picking out options and choosing whether or not to fly up for the contest or stay at ground level.

The only thing that’s letting them down is their entries in the forward half and the finishing – North had 19 inside 50s in the last quarter and kicked 4.8 and a few of their shots weren’t hard shots to put away either.

 

Robbie’s Rustling

Robbie Tarrant can be a bit of a mongrel of a bloke, but I can’t help but admit, he makes this North side look a lot better.

I covered him a few weeks back when I reviewed the North/Giants game, but the first couple of games were always going to be a little rusty coming back from such a long injury layoff. But in this one, he looked like he was back to his best.

Just so you know that he meant business, he walked up to serial North tormentor Josh Bruce and tried to rip off his long-sleeved guernsey. Dogs’ fans obviously didn’t like it and booed him upon his first possession – well I guess they don’t need to like it, but bloody hell you better acknowledge him – he’s back.

He looked like he had the direct match-up on Bruce for most of the night and kept him to just two goals – wasn’t much he could’ve done to prevent them, his two goals came on the back of hard running and leading.

Other than that, I thought he was largely impressive: 24 disposals, including 21 kicks at over 90 percent efficiency, as well as 15 marks including three intercept marks – it was a nice return to form from the key defender – certainly made Ben McKay’s job a quite easier as well – thought he put in a nice shift with five intercept marks in this one.

 

A True Midfield Heavyweight Title Fight

For the record, I love what the chief Mongrel is doing with his midfield championship belt. I think it’s quite entertaining content (I’ll take the cheque by mail for the plug thanks). In the words of the great wrestling manager Paul Heyman: “This won’t be a prediction, but a spoiler” that Jack Macrae will retain the belt – he played another brilliant game in the middle.

But for me, I’d pay big money to see Tom Liberatore and Ben Cunnington fight over the football in just a big box. In a boxing ring, Cunnington would probably win in less than two minutes – look at his arms for goodness sake, he could probably dismantle a four-wheel drive with those things. I think it’s safe to say that these two would be high up in the lists of many in terms of who the best contested possession midfielder in the league is right now.

There are a few others you can rattle off: Ollie Wines, Jack Steele, Clayton Oliver – Darcy Parish is quickly thundering into the conversation and Patrick Cripps would’ve been in the mix, but he somehow got lost and swindled into signing his life away at Carlton.

Back to the game, these two inside midfield beasts both put in really strong games in the middle, it’s actually quite hard to really tell who you’d give the points to individually, but I’d wager they’ll both be in the votes.

Cunnington kicked 2.2 from 26 disposals, but also had the nine clearances, eight marks and eight score involvements. Not to be outdone, Libba kicked 2.2 from 25 disposals, eight clearances, six marks and eight score involvements.

I won’t give a winner here – I’m not even sure if they went head-to-head at any stoppage or centre bounce – but I will say that it was just enjoyable to watch two of the best inside mids of the game go about and do their thing.

 

Not Getting Any Younger

I think it’s safe to say that the next month will be Lewis Young playing for his career. For one reason or another, he can’t seem to maintain his place in the Bulldogs’ best 22 and with the long-term injury to Ryan Gardner and the concussion of Aaron Naughton ruling him out of next week’s game at least, the next two weeks, in particular, loom as key games for him.

In this one, it was a game that should see him locked in the side for next week. Defensively, I thought he was quite good early, read the play quite well and cutting off entries which has been one of his strengths from day one.

But when Naughton went down late in the second term with a concussion, Young was playing a little further up the ground, playing key forward at times and even pinch-hitting in the ruck for young Timothy and against a guy like Todd Goldstein, who you know will do his bit for the game week in and week out, I thought he filled in that role quite well – only seven hitouts, but four of them to advantage.

He also took a couple of strong grabs in this one, which I think will do his confidence a world of good going forward. Luke Beveridge has had a big track record of strange selection decisions over the last few years, but I beg of you – keep Lewis Young in the damn team!!

 

The Zurhaar

Not since late-2019 have I seen Cameron Zurhaar play himself into this kind of form.

Since round seven, he’s kicked at least one goal in every match. In seven of his last eight games, he’s kicked multiple goals. At the start of the year he couldn’t buy a goal, although, in fairness, it looked as if he was playing in a couple of other positions around the ground.

But since then, he looks like he’s reverted to playing more of a forward role. Just for the record, I don’t mind the idea of him playing further up the ground – he’s a guy that can and will most likely make you pay with his physicality if you’ve got the ball in his vicinity.

Just watching his game, I feel like there a sense of improvement all around – fitness level, skill-set – but most importantly, confidence. At the start of the season, Zurhaar showed body language of a defeated mind, but now he looks like the Cam Zurhaar that was playing himself into good form a couple of years ago – he’s got a bit of swagger about him and I feel as if he enjoys running through blokes, especially with the ball in his hands.

Four goals in a great return when you consider that North don’t have the forward options that the Bulldogs do – Larkey kicked three behinds but is still horribly out of form, I’m not quite sure what Tristan Xerri is adding to this team nor Jack Mahony.

 

Other Bits

Welcome to that dreaded club of debuting as the Medi-Sub Eddie Ford! Seriously, why the hell do coaches even bother with this?

How do you work Will Phillips into some form? Aside from a good mark he took in the second term, he was largely unsighted and his eight disposals weren’t anything to write home about. It might sound a tad unfair given he’s a first year player, but as a high-end draft pick, it left me a little wanting in this one.

Three goals from 12 disposals for Mitch Wallis is a very good return from the Vice-Captain of the Bulldogs. Questions remain about his future in the side beyond 2021, but for now, he at least holds his spot for next week.

Tarryn Thomas is a player that will be highly lauded in the years to come, and I think this was a game that typifies that – 24 disposals, eight clearances, 10 score involvements and one goal for him in this one. Give him a few years and we’ll be talking about his balanced ability to win the contested ball and showcase skill and class on the outside.

Yes, I will acknowledge Marcus Bontempelli as head of AFL Football, but I felt as if his game was a little down in comparison to previous weeks – didn’t kick a goal but still had 27 disposals and 12 score involvements so that’s something I guess, but not as good as either Macrae or Liberatore this week.

Whilst on acknowledging, when we do we start to acknowledge Bailey Dale’s positional change as the best move in football this year? 20 kicks at 95 percent efficiency, 602 metres gained and two goals from a half back flanker is elite numbers by any means.

Todd Goldstein won the battle of the ruckmen with Tim English, kicked two goals as well from his 30 hitouts (11 to advantage) and 14 disposals, but it’s important to point out English’s ruck craft is getting better – he had the 17 hitouts of his own with seven going to advantage.

How high does Alex Keath go in the best and fairest count this year? Top five maybe a slight chance given how consistent he’s been this year – but I just love the fact that he’s evolved from just a ‘third-man up’ at Adelaide to the heartbeat of the Bulldogs’ defensive structure. Beats his direct opponent, peels off his man to intercept, spoil or even tackle and cause the turnover – this man shouldn’t be slept on.

Another strong rebounding game for Aaron Hall in this one – 23 kicks at just under 74 per cent, seven rebound 50s, 13 marks and 656 metres gained. Wonder how he’ll go at North’s best and fairest? Surely got to be up there.

Also some love to Luke Davies-Uniacke for his clearance work – had the seven clearances all up, but four of them came from centre bounces. Actually between him, Thomas and Cunnington – that’s 14 centre clearances that the trio won against a premiership contender.

Well on that note, that’ll do me for this review – interesting times ahead for both teams, one of them on their way to September, the other fighting to avoid the wooden spoon – something I think that they can do if they can maintain this level of effort and intensity.

For the Bulldogs, it was scrappy at times and they got the win they were after and are now top of the ladder once more. Next week sees the Sydney Swans come into Docklands in what will be a mouth-watering clash – The Swans have been another side I’ve enjoyed watching this year seeing them rise as a top-six team and seeing them dismantle West Coast earlier in the day, the Dogs can’t afford to be asleep at the switch or else the Swans will make them pay.

As for North Melbourne, they do take on the Eagles next week in a game that they can potentially sniff out, given how vulnerable the Eagles have looked in recent weeks. Where and when that’ll be is still up in the air with the COVID situation going on around the country – pretty funny to think that this time last year all the Victorian clubs had to flee the state and now almost everyone else has had to bunker up in Victoria this weekend 12 months later.

 

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