Almost 12 months ago (25th of July, 2020 to be exact), Carlton and North Melbourne did battle in a game that found both teams in eerily similar situations – the Blues needed to win to keep their faint finals hopes alive, while North were towards the bottom of the ladder and in the midst of a season measured more in the gains made by their young players than in wins or losses. Carlton were victorious last year by just seven points, and at half-time in this game it looked like we were in for a game with a similar margin.

And then the third quarter happened. To say that North Melbourne dominated Carlton in the third quarter is like saying The Beatles are a British band – while it’s ostensibly correct, it tells an infinitesimal part of the story. The Roos were so good, and the Blues so bad, that it almost fooled me into thinking we were watching a battle between the top and bottom-placed sides. The ease with which North Melbourne players transitioned from defence into attack had all the hallmarks of a training drill where the players were instructed not to touch one another. In a game that mattered for the Blues, and I mean really mattered – a win could have set them up for a run into the finals – the level with which they choked on the moment cannot be overstated.

In short, North were absolutely fantastic and Carlton were terrible. In what shapes as a potentially famous victory for the Roos, their 39-point win brings them level on points with 17th-placed Hawthorn, while the loss for the Blues consigns them to yet another season of missed opportunities.

Before I say too much, I should probably start my four points.

 

  1. Pressure

 

Pressure can do funny things to people and its impact can have long-lasting effects. At half-time in today’s game, Carlton led the Roos by two points, and were struggling to make the most of their dominance around the ball. This is not something that would shock people – Carlton’s full-forward, the Coleman-medal leading Harry McKay was a late withdrawal from the game – and I imagined that most of their half-time break would have been spent with the coaches reinforcing to the players the oft-quoted footy phrase “lower your eyes” when entering forward 50.

Their season was on the line, and with a still-live chance to play finals for the first time since 2013, I expected that they would come out of the long break switched on and fully focused to put away a plucky, but prone-to-error, North Melbourne team. What happened was, well, not that.

No, what happened was that North Melbourne put together their best thirty minutes of footy in a long time, while for Carlton put together one of their worst. I’ll speak about North later, but for now I want to say some things about Carlton.

There’s a scene in a movie that I love (but will not watch again so as to avoid having to cry in front of my wife… again) called About Time where a playwright is describing an actor forgetting his lines in the premiere of the playwright’s new play. “He didn’t just forget his lines, he forgot his lines to the extent that no actor has ever forgotten their lines before in the annals of dramatic history.” If anything, that understates how poor Carlton were in the third quarter, and have been consistently for the last few years when faced with pressure. While watching the third quarter, I started thinking about what it was that Carlton are missing, what are they lacking that makes them so disappointing. They have more than enough talent, so it can’t be that. They have plenty of good ball-winners, good kicks and good marks, so it’s not like they continually lose control of the ball.

As Jack Martin sprinted hard and jumped in front of a leading Matt Owies to take a chest mark inside 50 about ten minutes into the third, it dawned on me. Carlton have a lot of players who are happy, even willing, to run as hard as they can if it means that they get a possession or have a shot at goal. But when the opposite is required, to stop the other teams ball movement, all of these players go missing. Players like Martin, Tom Williamson, Sam Petrevski-Seton, Matt Cottrell, Matt Kennedy etc. simply choose not to work hard when their team doesn’t have the ball, and the chances of them winning the ball and kicking a goal are low. Too often today, North were made to look better than they were (sorry North fans, I’ll have really nice things to say about you shortly) because Carlton players refused to defend.

I remember once hearing (I think) Jimmy Bartel speak about his approach to football, saying that he realised early on that even if he got 40 touches, that meant that he would have the ball for maybe one minute of actual match time. While what you do with the ball in your hands is important, what you do when you don’t have the ball is even more so. And as this makes up about 99% of the time you spend on the field, you have to get really good at it if you want to win games of footy. All of the players I mentioned above (and others) would do well to have a think about this. Frankly, the lack of pressure applied almost all game as North rebounded the ball out of their defence and took it the length of the field to kick a goal was not worthy of an AFL team. Heck, it wasn’t even worthy of 3rd grade amateurs.

Carlton are going to have a long off-season to think about that thirty minutes, and how badly they performed when it mattered. Their long-suffering fans deserve better than what they saw today.

 

  1. Nick Larkey

 

See North fans, I told you I was about to say nice things about your team! And here’s one. Today, Nick Larkey became a man. I don’t mean in the Bar Mitzvah sense, I mean in the sense that he is now, without doubt, the leader of North’s forward line. Yes, Cam Zurhaar is great, but he’s going to be the Robin to Larkey’s Batman for the next half-dozen or so years.

Cast your mind back to last year and remember the guy who everyone thought was the leader of North’s forward line – Ben Brown. He had kicked 60 goals three times in a row, but had a couple of bad knees that meant if the ball was on the ground, he quickly became a liability. Seeing this, North started to persist with another young tall forward that the cool kids call ‘Souv’. When North traded Brown at the end of last season, they effectively handed the keys to the forward line to a kid who had played less than 30 games and still looked like a stiff breeze would knock him over.

After today’s performance, Larkey showed why the hierarchy at Arden St had confidence in him. His career-high tally of seven goals coming in a game he broke some other career records – disposals, kicks, marks and contested marks. At 23 years of age, he seems primed now to start dominating the competition and if today’s performance shows anything, that domination could be devastating for defences. He’s wonderfully agile, has a great pair of hands and is a nice kick at goal. With a ruckman like Todd Goldstein constantly winning hit-outs to midfielders like Jy Simpkin, Ben Cunnington and Luke Davies-Uniacke, the possibility of Larkey being hit on the chest as he leads out of full-forward is high enough to warrant the wearing of a protective guard.

Combining him with Zurhaar, Tarryn Thomas (whose four goals didn’t go unnoticed) and Jaidyn Stephenson promises that North will have a dangerous forward line for years to come. That Larkey performed like he did today against opponents the calibre of Liam Jones and Jacob Weitering underlines how impressive his performance was, and suggests that the chemistry of North’s forward line is already starting to grow. With another 12 months under their belt, and a few extra pieces added to the mix, the possibilities could be endless.

 

  1. Aaron Hall and Jack Ziebell

 

As I made my pre-match notes today, I wrote that I was looking forward to the ‘match-up’ (insofar as it can be deemed one) between North Melbourne half-backs Aaron Hall and Jack Ziebell and Carlton half-backs Adam Saad and Zac Williams. As with virtually everything else in the game, the prospect of this match-up changed dramatically after half-time, with Williams being subbed out with an injury, and North dominating the game.

Early on in the match, though, I thought that Saad and Williams out-performed their North counterparts. Saad’s laser-like pass to Kennedy for the first goal of the game was just about one of the best kicks I have seen all year, a perfect display of timing and waiting for the right option, and then an ability to execute the skill like almost no other. Down the other end, Hall’s kicking left a lot to be desired. In fact, North’s ball use in general in the first half (particularly the first quarter) was quite bad as kicks were often either over the head or landing a metre or so in front of their intended target. Hall’s kick out of bounds on the full in the first quarter was particularly bad, leading to an observation from Jordan Lewis that was simply breath-taking – “I reckon you’ve just gotta kick it to the advantage of your teammate.” I’ve long thought that ex-footballers who get into commentary after their careers do so because they are not intelligent or coherent enough for a career in coaching. It’s good to know that I am right sometimes.

But back to Aaron Hall and Jack Ziebell. Though Hall’s kicking efficiency was down in the first quarter, he kept working hard, consistently running to provide an option for his teammates almost like he was working under the assumption that the more he got the ball and kicked it, the better his kicking would become. The crazy thing is, it did. All year long, his run from defence has been of vital importance to North Melbourne. Again today, his runs through the middle of Marvel Stadium were fantastic to watch (even the one where he butchered the bounce of the ball) and wreak of a guy who has been given licence to take the game on. He finished today with 511m gained, and I thought was one of the best on-field, particularly in the second quarter when Carlton were pushing the Roos hard.

Where Hall’s game is built around dash from defence, Ziebell’s game is built on standing in the hole, putting himself in dangerous positions, as well as elite kicking. His move into the backline this season has been inspired, and along with Hall, he has used his experience as an AFL player to calm an often under pressure defence. His willingness to seemingly park himself in front of the opposition’s best forward is admirable, but it’s his use of the ball that sets him apart. He’s always been blessed with a dangerous right-foot, but now he has ascended to almost Shannon Hurn-like territory with the precision of his kicking. Yes, he makes mistakes by foot, but when you’re taking risks like he does you’re bound to.

Though he wasn’t as dominant as Hall today, I still really liked the game of Ziebell. He had seven rebounds from defensive 50, and four score involvements, showing the ease with which North were able to set up attacks from their backline. But more than any of that, Ziebell looks to me like a guy I’d like as a teammate. He won’t ask you to do something he wouldn’t do himself, and never shirks a contest. Coupled with a few other players in North’s line-up (namely Cunnington and Goldstein), the leadership of their football club looks in very safe hands.

 

  1. Jaidyn Stephenson and Tarryn Thomas

 

I think this might be the second time I’ve reviewed North this season, and as such I must admit that I haven’t seen too many of their games. But every time I have found myself watching them, I’ve enjoyed the way that they play and particularly the way that Jaidyn Stephenson and Thomas play.

When Stephenson left Collingwood at the end of last season, I was annoyed that the club I support didn’t try and poach him. I’ve been a big fan of his since before he was drafted and believe he could be one of the most damaging forward-mids in the game. He proved exactly why I believe that today, finishing with 24 touches, eight marks, seven score involvements and three goals. I’ll be the first to agree that two of his goals he probably could have passed to teammates, but damn if I don’t like a guy who takes the responsibility to finish a play off. Some may call it selfishness, but I reckon it’s knowing and trusting your own talent. He has speed to burn, runs all day, gets to dangerous areas often enough to be a thorn in the side of any opponent and pulls off the long-sleeved look better than just about any other current player. If they didn’t know it before today (and let’s be honest, they definitely did know it) North got itself a bargain in the trade for Stephenson and they will reap the rewards for at least the next decade.

When the bid for Tarryn Thomas slid to pick eight in 2018, I reckon North’s recruiters would have been laughing. They’d have paid a much higher price for a kid this talented. To say that Thomas is silky-skilled is almost an insult at this point – he’s smoother than that. He has a rare ability to glide through traffic, beating one or two opponents, before hitting a teammate on the chest with a beautiful foot-pass. If his performance today wasn’t a career-best, I’d love someone to point me to what was – he gathered 23 touches, four marks, five tackles, five clearances, had nine score involvements and kicked four goals.

North are blessed to have both Thomas and Stephenson playing along half-forward and drifting into the centre square on occasion. While, in terms of the midfield, they are burst players at the moment, with another year or so of development, they’ll be making the centre-line their own before too long.

 

Stray Shots

 

  • Was it just me or was Eddie particularly salty when it came to the push-in-the-back rule today? Gees, if I didn’t know any better, I’d think his team must have lost last night.
  • With North’s poor kicking in the first quarter, it was quite ironic that it was a Curtis Taylor hand-pass that got them beyond the centre-line and led to their first goal – of course, Nick Larkey kicked it.
  • While I’m on Larkey, I have to say that I don’t really blame either Jones or Weitering for his dominance today. They were quite good, in fact, but were constantly let down by a midfield and forward line that basically refused to chase.
  • On Carlton’s forward line, it was a tough day at the office for Eddie Betts. Kayne Turner, in a sign of his growing importance in North’s back six, held the living legend to just two disposals. With nearly 350 games, and more than 600 goals to his credit, though, I think Eddie can be forgiven for the bad day.
  • I know he didn’t do too much today, but I’ve quite liked the impact of Josh Walker in the backline for North this season. At his third club, he’s carving out a nice niche for himself as an almost total shut-down tall defender.
  • Tom De Koning looks about 12 months away from doing what Sean Darcy has done this year, all he needs is for Carlton to keep the faith and continue to play him.
  • I’m sorry I’ve gone this long and haven’t said anything about Jy Simpkin, but that’s the way it goes sometimes. He was fantastic today, at times tagging Sam Walsh, at other times playing as North’s premier mid. He and Davies-Uniacke seem to be learning their midfield craft quite nicely, and with a leader like Cunnington to learn from, North fans can rest assured that they’ll be learning the tough way.
  • I’ve mentioned that North’s kicking early was horrible, but there was one bright spot – Will Phillips. It won’t be news to anyone that Phillips was a controversial draft choice selection for North last year, as most judges had them taking Logan McDonald with their pick. Watching Phillips today, I can see exactly what North’s recruiters saw in him. He is a cool head in a crisis, and has a very trustworthy right-foot to go with it.

 

That’s about all I’ve got for today’s game – an upset win for the Roos over the Blues by 39 points. Next week might see North travelling to Tasmania to host Geelong (I say might as I’m not sure if that’s going ahead yet), while the Blues play the Saints at Marvel.

 

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