In a fitting end to a wild round of footy, North Melbourne ventured west and took on the Eagles… and what a see-sawing, nail-biting, gut-wrenching contest it was!
Earlier in the day, I was chatting with a couple of Eagles supporters, who immediately informed me that it was bucketing down in Perth. “You know what that means,” asked one?
Yes, indeed I did.
The problem for West Coast is that EVERYONE knows what that means. It is no secret, and North Melbourne attacked this contest like an animal that smelled fresh blood.
It was an arm wrestle, with the slippery conditions doing exactly what they always do, bringing ordinary players back a step and increasing the value of the sure-footed, tough and skilled players willing to put their heads over the footy. Looking at the game overall, North had so many players committed to the cause that it is difficult to pick the absolute best. Ziebell played perhaps his best pure defensive game, Cunnington, despite the lack of clearances, was immense, Zurhaar’s attack on the footy was almost suicidal, and then there was ex-Magpie, Jaidyn Stephenson, who had not only his best outing as a Kangaroo, but of his career, compiling a ridiculous 25 second-half disposals to finish with 38 for the game.
I want to do this team justice here – they rebounded after the Eagles jumped them to start the last quarter, with Josh Walker playing a pivotal defensive role, Luke Davies-Uniacke displaying star potential and the man with the most hit outs in the history of the game, Todd Goldstein clunking a huge mark in the goal square in a moment that will be widely discussed.
There is an enormous amount to get through here. A massive win for the Shinboners, and a knife in the heart of the Eagles.
Let’s go with The Mongrel’s good, bad and ugly. Buckle up…
Don’t fret, North fans – there is a heap of stuff coming for you, but in order to get to the response, first you have to address what happened first.
At the commencement of the last quarter, the Eagles unleashed on the Kangaroos. It was a withering blast, with four goals in the first six minutes of game-time, gaining West Coast the lead. With all the momentum swinging their way, and players like Kennedy, Allen and Ryan stepping up to the plate, it seemed as though for all North’s efforts, they’d be walking away from another game as honourable losers.
Elliot Yeo started to win in the clinches, Nic Nat barreled the footy forward, and players in the back half such as Brad Sheppard attacked the footy with a ferocity that left no question that the Eagles meant business.
As Tim Kelly’s bouncing, tumbling kick eluded North players and dribbled through for a goal, you could forgive the North players for dropping their heads. All they’d worked for, all they’d done, all they’d put in… evaporated.
A lesser group would have given up the ghost and permitted the Eagles to have the run of the game for the next 15 or so minutes, settling for a 20-30 point loss after fighting hard for three quarters.
But this group was made of tougher stuff than that.
See, that wasn’t bad, was it. Now we get to the North Melbourne fightback.
What was it that compelled North to get up off the mat after being pummeled by the Eagles for the first six minutes? Was there a catalyst? Was there a moment that someone stood up and said “come with me”?
Or was a collective lift from a team that refused to go quietly into the Western Australia night?
If you watched, you would know that it was not just one player that lifted, but an entire team.
There is an aura about North Melbourne – in recent years is has been rather faint – barely visible at points, but at other times, there exudes a presence about them that enhances every single act of bravery, every attack on the footy, and every tackle as being that little more physical than that of their opponents. It is a ferocity other teams would kill for… if they had that ferocity, I suppose. It’s a catch-22.
They don’t have it. And that’s the point.
A North Melbourne team moving in for the kill is a delight to watch. You could see the hunger and passion in the way Cam Zurhaar attacked the contest, in the way LDU tackled, in the way Ben Cunnington stood up under pressure and made excellent decisions (for the most part) with the footy whilst chaos reigned around him. Josh Walker and Jack Ziebell stood like pillars of strength in the defensive fifty, refusing to allow the Eagles room to clunk a mark, and players like Luke McDonald, Jy Simpkin and Jaidyn Stephenson ran their guts out to give their teammates support.
Make no mistake – this was as gutsy a win as you’ll see. This team lifted, and they did it as one.
With nothing to lose and plenty of respect to gain, the North leaders outworked their opposition. They were harder, faster and were willing to sacrifice more to get their team over the line. If you’re looking for a complete team performance, load up your kayo, or your foxtel box, grab it off a torrent or even wait til the AFL loads it onto their site, but go back and watch the last 15 or so minutes of this quarter and you will see a young team come together under some stellar leadership to overcome what should have been a match-winning assault by the Eagles.
We learnt a lot about West Coast in this game, and my guess is that their capitulation will be a huge story over the next 24-48 hours, but we learnt so much more about the Kangaroos, and irrespective of how the season plays out, we have seen North turn the corner. The worst is over and the rebuild now starts to reap some rewards.
Right now, they’re the Pantene team – it won’t happen overnight, but damn it, it will happen, and we’ve seen the start of it already.
OH CAPTAIN, MY CAPTAIN
Jack Ziebell has copped a bit of flak this season. Some justified over the journey, but most was just a pile on.
Deployed to half back in order to provide some stability and experience, the captain found himself holding a defence together with the AFL equivalent of sticky tape and clag. Robbie Tarrant was out of action, Luke McDonald had a late start and then a lengthy absence, which left him with Ben McKay, Josh Walker and a ragtag bunch of misfits you could probably make a good movie about to combat the best forwards the game has to offer. It spelled trouble.
But you have to give both David Noble and Ziebell credit – there was a defined method to the madness, and though Jack was having to do almost everything at one stage (and was being criticised for it), things started to work into place to alleviate the pressure on him and give him the support network he needed to thrive.
Look at me, sounding like a shitty ad for workplace employee assistance…
Aaron Hall went to a half back flank, giving North another kicking option from defence, Tarrant returned, allowing Ziebell to stop having to back into packs whilst getting no protection, and Luke McDonald came back, drifting into defence to give North some additional run.
And Ziebell? Well, he was now able to play the game he was meant to play for the Roos. And he was spectacular in the role in this one.
His spoil to end the game, closing the distance and thumping the ball a good 25 metres was as much an act of a relived club leader as it was a stoic defender. It was Ziebell taking out months of frustration on the footy as a big F-U to those who said he as “padding his stats” or “trying to do too much” earlier in the season. The thing is – Ziebell had to do everything early on. He had to try, at least. What other option did the club have?
He finished this game with 27 touches (22 of them kicks) whilst running at 85% efficiency in trying conditions. His eight intercepts were vital as the North defence held fast in the last quarter, and his 11 rebound fifties gave his team enormous drive from the back half.
When David Noble opted to play Ziebell in defence, this is the type of game he was envisioning. Credit must be given to the coach – he resisted the calls to throw his captain into the middle throughout the season. He is obviously in the role for a long time, and not necessarily a good time in 2021, but he had a good time in this one, and so did his captain. A brilliant game from Ziebell.
THAT’S THE PLAYER NORTH WANTED
Earlier in the season, right before the North Melbourne v Collingwood game, Jaidyn Stephenson was quoted as saying he wanted to make the Magpies regret moving him on this season.
After watching his game this evening, I reckon there may be 16 other teams with a few regrets about not throwing their hats into the ring to see if they could acquire the services of the former Rising Star winner.
Remember last season when Stephenson looked as though he would rather be anywhere else than on the field playing for the Pies? He looked like a shell of the player he was the two previous seasons, and came across as a player that needed to be rebuilt. If he were a racehorse, at that time you may have considered pulling the sheet around him and sending him on a trip to the glue factory.
I think it is fair to say that Stephenson had not made Collingwood regret moving him on this season up until the commencement of Round 17. As noted during the broadcast, his season has mostly consisted of games in the teens in terms of disposal numbers, however, if he required a kick start to things, he certainly provided it in this game.
With 38 touches, including a monster 14-touch third quarter as the Roos turned the screws on the Eagles, Stephenson’s run through the middle for North was outstanding. Running up and down the wing, he continually gave his defence an outlet target and was a valuable link man as North rampaged (copyright St Kilda) up the ground to establish their lead.
Consistency now becomes the issue for Stephenson. After an outing like this, belief in his abilities would be high, and whilst no one can expect him to wander out against the Bombers next week and repeat the dose, games in the teens for possessions should now be fewer than before. He has shown what he can do in an arguable best on ground performance. Now, it is time to build on that.
There were a few moments we could highlight to once again get North fans excited about what could be with Luke Davies-Uniacke, but you all know where I’m heading, don’t you?
Not only can he find the footy in traffic, demonstrate fantastic speed off the mark, and shrug tackles like they were mere children pawing at him as he waded through a playground… not that he does that… he unveiled a little piece of magic to set up a goal for the old bull Cunnington in the pulsating last quarter. And like the lovely fella I am, I have that vision for you right here.
Initial comparisons to Chris Judd may have been premature – Judd was a marvellous player right off the bat and his presence elevated West Coast as a team almost immediately – but if you cannot see the oak tree in the acorn that is LDU, you are either blind, or stupid, or stupidly blind… and also stupid.
There are going to be moments where LDU makes mistakes, runs himself into trouble and does one or two things arse-backwards – that is the nature of having to learn this midfield caper on the fly, but the return of Ben Cunnington to this team has added so much to both his game, and that of Jy Simpkin that it makes you openly wonder, in terms of an individual, is there anyone who is more valuable to their side than Cunnington?
Hell, I am jumping the gun – Cunners is in the next section. Back to LDU – at 22 years old, there will be a time in the next few years where everything clicks for him, and he is the heir apparent to Cunnington in the North Melbourne midfield. Sure, he doesn’t possess the fend off and belligerence of the current number ten, but with feet that can move like we saw in this game, he doesn’t need it!
The jury has been out for many on whether LDU will be a star in this league or not. As of right now, I can see the juries coming in all over the league, and they’ve all come to the same conclusion – it has taken a bit of time, but North have something that could be very special on their hands with LDU, and his emergence has been well and truly worth the wait.
THE HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER
Is it just me that sees a bit of Clint Eastwood in Ben Cunnington?
A man of few words and plenty of action, I reckon he could play a western hero without too much of a stretch. Picture this…
The piano plays in the bar as the locals celebrate another day of living in filthy conditions and having no real sanitation. They smell, argue over claims, play cards, and down whiskey like it was apple juice. The crowd is always raucous and the threat of violence always sits on the periphery of every conversation.
In the corner, two men eye each other dangerously across the table. They look at their cards and then back to each other. A pile of coins is on the table before them. One lays down his cards and the other leaps to his feet and slugs the other. There’s an accusation of cheating and a fight erupts – pandemonium breaks loose…
… but when the saloon doors swing open and Ben Cunnington walks into the bar, things go quiet.
The piano stops playing, the fight ceases and people turn to look at the figure at the entrance.
He doesn’t say a word, eyes slowly moving from one person to the next. In response, those people bow their heads or avert their gaze. They know not to challenge the man. Some have learnt this the hard way. As he scans the room, his eyes settle on the two men who were fighting. Cunnington takes but two steps toward them before they back-pedal.
“Sorry Mr…” starts one, daring to address him. An arm shoots out from Cunnington, planting in the chest of the vocal one, sending him crashing into a table – a classic Cunners fend. The other man turns to flee, but the vice-like grip of Cunnington catches him, and North Melbourne’s number ten drives him hard into the floor. Cunnington gets up, doesn’t bother to dust himself off, and collects three coins from the table where the man were playing cards.
He looks to the barkeep and throws him one. “For the table,” he says. “Whiskey… leave the bottle,” he adds, dropping the other two coins on the bar.
A young miner looks over to his friend. “What’d he say his name was, again?”
Ben Cunnington makes his teammates walk taller. He is everything you want in an enforcer-type on a team. Unassuming, team-first, with a killer instinct that sits just under the surface of a seemingly calm and docile demeanour, but if there were one person in the AFL I would not want to be on the bad side of, it would be him.
His toughness, willingness to fight for the ball, and sure hands brought his other mids into the game at points, and it was great to see them do the same for him. One of my favourite players to watch, and again in this one, made a strong claim for his first-ever AA selection. Seriously, had he not missed a couple of games early and took a week or two to get going, there’s be little debate about his place this season.
And apologies for the crappy fan fic. I get a but carried away.
AN ALL-TIME GREAT?
So, Nic Nat had some good moments in this one, and though many will point to his 20 touches and 17 contested possessions as a clear indicator he got the better of Goldstein, the loyal big fella from Arden Street had two very important touches that swing the pendulum in his favour.
Both of them were goals, and one of them, very late in the piece will be the subject of a section below.
During this game, Goldstein eclipsed the all-time hit outs record, formerly held by Aaron Sandilands, and etched his name into footy folklore for at least the time being. Max Gawn and Brodie Grundy may challenge Goldy’s record mark in a number of years, but if anyone thinks is akin to Nick Riewoldt surpassing the great Gary Dempsey for the most marks of all time, only to wander off into retirement, think again – Goldy has plenty left in the tank.
His clunking mark in the goal square will be one of the lasting images of the game. With his direct opponent hanging out at half forward, Goldy was able to navigate his way to a clean run at the footy, and his big mark broke some West Coast hearts and gave critics of Naitanui more ammunition.
Goldstein has a couple of seasons left should he wish to play on, and his loyalty to this North Melbourne team, when others looked for glory elsewhere, is one of the more endearing things about his career. I was rapt to see him become the number one hit out man of all time, and I hope he is around for a while to build that number to a point that makes it pretty bloody difficult to catch.
THE TWO UP FORWARD
I know he is not everyone’s cup of tea, but I bloody love the way Cam Zurhaar plays footy. Seriously, I love it – he is a throwback to when players had an air of physical intimidation about their play, and if the opportunity arises to put the hurt on someone, he takes it.
And working in conjunction with him is a young man who really put his hand up made his case as the best option for the Roos ongoing as number one forward. Nick Larkey engaged in an enthralling battle with Tom Barrass, who I rate as one of the best pure spoilers in the game. At 23, Larkey is still developing as a forward, and in a team that has not been delivering the footy well inside fifty for a couple of seasons, it is a hard ask to post great numbers when you’re often finding help defenders floating back into your path, but in Larkey and Zurhaar, North have these two workmanlike (such a North Melbourne thing to be) forwards that can hit the scoreboard and/or the body of opponents when the time comes.
Both have a little more work to do on their fitness, with Larkey needing to be stronger in the contest and Zurhaar needing to be able to run down the more casual defenders, but the makings of a dynamic duo are there and growing. Who North target to play the role of third forward will be very interesting in the coming off-season. Sure Tristan Xerri is nice to have there, but he is not the answer – he just isn’t. Perhaps North end up with someone slotting in as a second option , relegating Zurhaar to the third spot?
Imagine that? Zurhaar applying pressure on the third-best defender each week? It’ll be carnage!
Anyway, Zurhaar’s second efforts in this one were fantastic, and Larkey’s ability to keep both Barrass and McGovern honest in the air deserves a lot of credit, as well. On the road and in front of a hostile crowd, these boys excelled, and the future for both looks incredibly bright.
A VICTIM OF CIRCUMSTANCE?
Believe it or not, I don’t blame Nic Naitanui for the late game mark in the goal square to Todd Goldstein. I actually don’t think it is his designated role on the team to be back in the defensive goal square in moments like that. If it is a team rule, then that’s fine. It just backfired.
Initially, as Goldy rose and clunked the telling mark, my instinct was to wonder where the hell Naitanui was. A quick pan of the camera showed him hanging out at centre half forward, doing what he does. I have to admit, my stomach turned as I pictured people copying Reilly O’Brien’s message from last year and sending it around to their mates.
However, I got to thinking – how often do you ever see him down in the opposition goal square? Is this a team rule that there is a handover when the opposition ruck drifts forward? Was Goldstein actually his responsibility at that point, or was this a team defence failure?
As much as I would like to stick up for Nic Nat and blame the structure for the failure, there are times in the game when you have to step out of what is deemed regular transmission. You have to follow your man, get back on the line and make sure nobody gets a clean run at the footy. Even if Nic Nat’s designated role was to be at half forward ready to be the release target as soon as possible, part of me knows that with the game on the line, he should have thrown caution to the wind and got his ass back on the goal line to help.
Even as an aesthetic, it wasn’t a great look for him.
Goldstein’s ability to hit the scoreboard evened up their contest and was pivotal in the final result, and whether or not it is a team structure issue, whether McGovern or Barrass were expected to kill the contest, it is a terrible look to see the opposition ruck crash a pack, mark and goal while your All-Australian star stands at centre half forward fifty metres off the action.
There was a definite hint of fake toughness about the Eagles in the first half of this game, and whilst I usually like seeing a bit of the rough stuff from teams, I had to take pause and look at who the targets of their aggression were in this game.
Four moments stood out to me.
One was the altercation following Jamie Cripps ultra soft gut shot on Tarryn Thomas, who must have a set of abs like I do now to go down after what was a love tap from Cripps. The small scale melee after it saw Thomas leave the field with blood coming from his mouth, so there was obviously a bit to it following the initial weak tap to the guts.
The next one saw Tom Barrass run off his line to crash into Jack Mahony as he trailed the ball out of bounds. Nothing wrong with it – just a bit of good physical pressure…
We had McGovern crash into the exposed back of Jy Simpkin in a marking contest, which appeared to piss off a few North players. Gov tried to argue it wasn’t a free kick – it was. It definitely was.
The last one saw Josh Kennedy flex a bit of muscle, and the victim was again Jack Mahony… who I guess, the Eagles dislike?
Now, again I reiterate – I like physical footy, but this Eagles side needed to assert itself physically not just on 19, 20, and 23 year olds… they needed to do this stuff to Cunnington, Zurhaar, Ziebell, Tarrant… you know, the guys who can actually stand up for themselves – the guys who have the capacity to fight back! That is how you make a statement. Instead, they seemed to target kids, and that proves bugger all.
Three in the bad section tonight… I must have seen a bit I didn’t like. If you’re an Eagles fan, I am sure you did as well.
This one may or may not be a big deal, but the defensive running of Dom Sheed seems to be very… selective? Is that the right word? I’m really not sure he puts the hard yards in, or has the sense of urgency you want to see in a game like this. He kind of ambles along, only really putting the foot down when there is a chance that he’ll get the footy.
Ask yourself – when was the last time you saw Sheed run flat out defensively? He spent a fair whack of time inside defensive fifty. He just didn’t seem enthused about it. His lack of pressure on Jy Simpkin at one stage allowed the North mid to stop of the boundary, pause and look inboard. You could almost see Sheed think “oh shit…” when he realised his pressure could have prevented that option.
So, when was the last saw him run fla out to defender? I might be waiting a while for your answer. I saw Yeo do it. I saw Shuey do it. I didn’t see Sheed do it, and at the risk of sounding like a 40+ bloke who has only run his mouth in the last fortnight, I reckon Sheed puts the cue in the rack in terms of hard run.
WET WEATHER SPECIALISTS
Another wet day, another loss for the Eagles.
This has been their Achilles heel for years now, and in playing the bottom of the ladder side, as soon as it started raining, you just knew the Eagles were going to struggle. They won the clearances. Contested touches were about even (-10 on the game), but for whatever reason, as soon as the ball is wet, West Coast forget how to play footy.
Is this a personnel issue now? Have they become so geared toward the style that won them the 2018 flag that they simply cannot play head-to-head contested footy and win?
This mob now cling to eighth place in a season where the vultures are circling and there are a number of teams just waiting for further slip ups. This season has seen the Eagles fall over like some of those petrified goats my missus was showing me on her phone the other day, whenever something doesn’t go their way. Where is the resilience? Where is the ability to dig deep and fight through adversity? I thought this team had it at one stage. Maybe they did.
Or maybe I was just flat out wrong about them.
DID LIAM RYAN DO MORE HARM THAN GOOD IN THIS GAME?
We have to acknowledge that his kick at goal in the last quarter was absolutely stunning, and he should be applauded for it, but for the rest of the game, I was of the opinion that Ryan was playing like an entitled little prick.
Flying for screamers in the wet conditions… selfish garbage. Giving away downfield free kicks when your teammate is about to kick inside fifty – undisciplined. He was absolutely sucked in by Kayne Turner and should be feeling pretty disappointed in the way he conducted himself in this game. Sure the shot at goal could have redeemed him, and if the Eagles had won, I am sure it would have painted over a lot of blemishes, but he was ordinary in this one, and I reckon it was as much attitude as it was execution.
WOULD JOSH WALKER SNEAK INTO THE VOTES?
I thought he was enormous in this game, and got better as the game wore on. Matched up against Jack Darling, he held the big fella goalless (the conditions helped) and was two spoils away from a defensive double-double.
Really strong game, and I’d love to slot him in, but North had so many that were so good.
IS A FIT ELLIOT YEO THE KEY TO WEST COAST?
In a nutshelll yes he is. But we won’t get to see a fully fit Yeo this season.
It is no coincidence that when Yeo won a hotly-contested footy the Eagles looked good. When he was able to shake a tackle, power through a contested situation, or crash through a stoppage, the Eagles walked taller, but he is just not able to do that enough at this stage, and I reckon he needs a good run at a pre-season in 2022 in order to be the player the Eagles need him to be for four quarters.
He is a star, but I reckon he is about 80-85% fit at the moment, and it just isn’t enough.
Interesting to see him give McGovern a blast at one point, as well. Make of that what you will.
SO YOU’VE BASHED WEST COAST A BIT – WHO WAS GOOD FOR THEM???
Yeah, I know… this has been a very North-centric review for such a close game.
Shannon Hurn was solid as a rock. That is both great and a real worry. Those tree trunk legs… how long do they have left?
Nic Nat was very good in the contest, but the forward work of Goldstein will hurt the perception of his overall game, fair or not.
Elliot Yeo did what he could with what he has in the tank. A couple of his contested wins, shrugging tackles and getting out of trouble were brilliant.
And I always have time for Brad Sheppard, but he well and truly had his hands full in this one.
This review is close to hitting 5K words… I need to get to bed.
Josh Rotham is not the man you want taking kicks that require precision from defensive fifty. Two really poor kicks resulted in a stoppage and a goal to North when they should have been easy exits from 50.
Adam Simpson playing Andrew Gaff in the middle at times…I don’t understand it. He is a wingman – play him on the wing all the damn time. You have Yeo, Shuey, Kelly… Gaff does not need to be in there. He had seven clearances but how many were effective and how many where just thrown onto his boot in hope? He is best served as one handball removed from pressure.
Nice four-quarter outing from Tarryn Thomas, but I feel he was at his best in the first half. Just looked smooth and in control with the footy. If North can get him averaging over 20 touches per game next season, they have a genuine star on their hands.
I cannot believe Shaun Atley has played 230 games. I’ll leave it at that. Wow…
Interesting to see Jack Mahony called for a throw at one end, but Josh Kennedy allowed to throw it to set up the Oscar Allen goal moments later. All people want is consistency, right?
And that’ll about do me. Great win to the Roos, and one you would be absolutely proud of. If you’re a North supporter watching… like my uncle Gary who started handing my number out to people – I know you read this, damn you – you’d be thrilled with what you saw and what it means for the next few years.
If you’re an Eagles fan… as much as I want to believe in this team, they’re making it damn hard. Are finals out of the question now? Just making up the numbers, or do you have a faint hope that things will click at the right time of year. Maybe some dry days as finals approach and the Eagles go bang? Or not, and the Eagles go… pop?
Massive thanks to our members – without you, there is no us. Cheers – HB