What a round of footy it’s been to finish off the home and away season, and none more exciting than this match.

OK, so that’s an overstatement, but for a match that had to follow some red-hot games to define the top four, 17th vs 18th was always going to be a hard sell, even if it had managed it be a close one. While there were a few highlights, this won’t be a game with much replay value, especially for Noth Melbourne fans. In fact, the biggest cheer likely came from GWS fans, when the Adelaide win propelled them up to 15th, dropping Collingwood (and their first-round draft pick traded to GWS last year) down to the second-bottom of the ladder.

The match featured some fairy-tale moments for the Crows, and lets them end a pretty tumultuous season on a high. For North, eh… it allowed them to finish a season that at least wasn’t as bad as it looked like it was going to be earlier on.

The build-up

Pitched as the reigning wooden spooners taking on the heir apparent to the title, if this were any other season, the idea that this match could feature a near-capacity crowd would be laughable, even for the parochial Adelaide supporters. However, with the city of churches one of the few places still having crowds (though far reduced from the seating capacity), it managed to attract quite a few to see their team take on the bottom-ranked side and farewell some great servants of the club with Tom Lynch being delisted and David Mackay calling time on his AFL career. Lynch could probably expect a bit of interest, but it depends on where he wants to go.

Both teams went in with a few leaders missing, with Crouch and Talia out earlier in the season with longer-term injuries, and Walker out with his well-documented suspension. The Kangaroos lacked their Captain Jack Ziebell, as well as midfield stalwart Ben Cunnington.

Both teams opened up selection to debutants though, with Adelaide Lachlan “Gollum” Gollant and North giving Phoenix “Spicy” Spicer their official welcome to the top level. Well, the bottom of the top level anyway.

 

The opening

The opening bounce set the tone for a highly contested and congested game, with both teams sticking tight to their opponents and putting a body on at every opportunity. North managed to push forward along the near-side wing and create a scramble that allowed Jed Anderson to commit to a ground ball, and collect a knee to the face for his trouble. He seemed unshaken as he took the kick to give North the early lead with a goal.

At just shy of four minutes in, this point created some optimism for the North fans that would unfortunately not pan out for the rest of the match.

Adelaide increased their pressure, but paired it with relentless running and playing on at every opportunity to push the North midfielders and defence into reacting on instinct. In a well-drilled side, this can result in quality defenders cutting off passing lanes and creating opportunities to intercept or at least kill the ball. Against a North side that didn’t seem on the same page, it created a disorganised defence that looked stuck between ensuring their direct opponent was kept out of the play or playing the sort of zone-off team defence that most clubs use.

The confusion hurt North on transition, and Adelaide frequently capitalised. Their run and gun style gave them options everywhere, though they were helped out by many unforced errors from north’s midfield.  Luke Davies-Uniacke has long been touted as a player North need to become the inside bull to drive the play, but he had a bit of trouble with his disposal tonight, starting from an early error clearing the ball from a ball up deep in defence, only to find Seedsman sitting pretty just inside the top of the arc.

Josh Walker managed to peg one back after a fairly light in the back call with Frampton’s hands in his numbers, but hardly any added momentum to Walker’s movement. It’s a free kick in the rulebook though, so Walker duly converted.

Adelaide quickly responded with a highlight sure to be rolled out in the off-season fan forums across the internet. Fogarty took a shot from 50 metres, only for it to fade late and fall short. Young livewire Shane McAdam leapt into the air to sit on Aiden Bonar’s shoulder to pull down the sort of hanger that gets people up on their feet cheering. He easily converted and gave Adelaide the momentum and the lead.

Adelaide continued to pepper the goals, perhaps a bit unfortunate not to add a few more to their total. Many opportunities came from a predictable North kick out structure, which pushed right at every opportunity, only for the ball to be intercepted or brought to ground with alarming regularity. This is normally when Ziebell would step in to take a few and drop the occasional torpedo into the centre circle for good measure, but Aaron Hall and Luke McDonald just don’t have that sort of penetration on their kicks, so it was right side or bust for much of the game.

Another player looking to get a decent contract in front of him was Atu Bosenavulagi. He may struggle to ask for much on the back of this game though, as he frequently managed to find himself dropping intercepts and struggling to take possession of the ball, including an overrun that allowed McHenry to collect the ball at the top of the goalsquare to slot through an easy one as Atu fell forward and lay on the ground.

Bosenavulagi compounded his mare of a day as his man McAdam took another contested mark from a centre clearance as McDonald was forced to leave his man to help. McAdam hardly looked as comfortable with being double teamed as a seasoned porn star though, and promptly fired off a shot with distance and accuracy that would be the envy of any man found in the non-football related hub.

Ben Keays continued to run through the middle of the ground with reckless abandon, linking up plays by the fist full. Kayne Turner’s efforts to limit Seedsman’s influence had some success, but the focus meant one less player trying to stop Keays as he simply tore the game apart.

 

The mid game

Much of the second quarter and start of the third told the same story, Adelaide pushed forward with alarming regularity, but had trouble splitting the sticks. Ben Keays managed to get some return on his effort with a regulation goal, and Adelaide looked confident, sprinting off the half back line to surge forward and trust their teammates to present options and cover their flanks.

McAdam and Chayce Jones added to North’s woes with goals that gave Adelaide the last six in a row and take most of the wind out of North’s sails.

Nick Larkey was the recipient of some rare clean play from North, as Kayne Turner took a moment off from attempting to convince Paul Seedsman to murder him to find Goldstein 60 metres from goal. Curtis Taylor runs past and collects a regulation ruckman handoff and delivery to Souv-Larkey perfectly. Larkey converts the shot from about 20 metres with the sort of kicking action that has become smoother as the season wore on. Earlier in 2021, he lacked depth in his goal kicking, often falling short. It could be that he had hamstring concerns or something though, as he’s fixed that particular issue as the season went on.

Schoenberg managed to steer one in one the run from the pocket while Larkey responded again with a textbook mark-and-goal from 30 to give North a bit of a sniff in a game that Adelaide had dominated in every area except goalkicking efficiency, where they seemed about as accurate as the blokes on the hill at the urinals behind the scoreboard.

Larkey added further value when he managed to bring a marking contest to ground and allow Tarryn Thomas to collect and dribble through a goal that may have reminded the local crowd a little of Eddie Betts’ efforts in that area. The quarter ended with North five goals down, but managing a little bit of spark.

Late in the quarter saw Cam Zurhaar put on ice with a leg problem and Bailey Scott come in as the medical sub. Zurhaar hadn’t managed to have the impact that he is capable of as he seemed more interested in taking shots from the arc than finding an open teammate, turning his back on Stephenson and Larkey in space in the opening half. It’s fine when it pays off, but when a forward misses the shot, it can cause a bit of tension in the ranks. Not that too many players would want to stir the lad up, he seems to like a bit of a strut.

 

The finish

The spark was given a bit more life as North pushed forward immediately, setting up several shots that should have saw them add to their goal tally, but all too often multiple players flew for a single mark or led into common spaces.

Anyone who has read my reviews before knows I love a good tackle. While there is a lot that goes into a tackling technique, none of it matters without a player with the will and determination to make the tackle stick. If they go in half hearted, it just won’t work. That’s why North fans should take some heart from Curtis Taylor’s tackle on mature-aged rookie Keiran Strachan. Despite giving up 30kgs and 20cm, Taylor managed to make up with ferocity what he lacked in size, spearing the bigger man like a hip-seeking missile, winning the ball for his team. Taylor has had a bit of an inconsistent season, but moments like that give a coach a reason to keep them in the side, and Taylor has done himself no harm at all with his efforts in this match.

North managed to get a bit of a lucky free as a quick forward thrust results in Larkey catching his defender with a holding the ball decision. The replay suggests he accidentally kicked it back to himself rather than sucked the ball back in, but Larkey still took the six pointer home for his third of the day.

North were within touch, but lacked the polish to mount the sort of challenge that may have pressured Adelaide into the mistakes that could cost them the game, as we’ve seen several times this round.

Ben Keays once again halted North’s momentum as he collected the ball in the pocket to produce the sort of reverse-swing kick that would have players rage-quitting AFL Evolution on playstation quicker than a Red Bull going through a TV screen. Coming into the right only to break left and through the goal as if Keays was controlling the ball with his mind, and he may well have been considering how often he found himself with the Sherrin for the day.

Phoenix Spicer managed to put a body on two Adelaide defenders to allow Will Phillips to collect the ball and run into goal and snap at the angle that is just bread and butter in the modern game. Spicer did everything right there, and looked a lot more comfortable compared to his earlier nerves.

The Crows had their own exciting young talent though, with Thilthorpe seemingly taking advantage of Ben Keays’ mental powers to kick a sky-high checkside that Aiden Bonar completely misread as it bounced just behind the line as Bonar looked on in confusion from the point post where he had anticipated the ball to land.

Ned McHenry continued to be a problem for North as he managed to find the retiring McKay on a lead about 40 metres from goal. McKay manages to convert this one and his teammates swarm for their congratulations as North seem to accept that the game was now beyond them.

Adelaide weren’t finished with the script though, and debutant Gollant took a good mark on top of McDonald as the rain started to fall in earnest. He settled into his shot and before the ball had even cleared the line he had teammates around him celebrating.

The celebrations didn’t stop either, as Tom Lynch found himself taking a shot from the pocket, and bending it back through the goals to give his teammates another cardio-stressing moment as they ran from all over the field for the third time to congratulate him.

North got the last goal as a consolation prize as a long kick to a young and outnumbered Eddie Ford looked like it would see him laid out, only for Ford to bring the ball to the back of the pack where a waiting Bailey Scott managed to give his team one last goal for 2021.

Adelaide surged forward again and again right up until the final siren, but only managed some minor scores as the clock ran down and Adelaide managed to move themselves up to 15th, to the delight of everyone but the list manager, who could be seen frantically calculating the draft points he had to play with.

 

The midfield battle

It would be hard to claim anything short of total dominance for the Adelaide midfield. Keays, Laird, Sloane and Schoenberg far exceeded the impact of their opposite numbers Thomas, Simpkin, Anderson and Luke Davies Uniacke.

The Adelaide midfield managed to combine for 28 clearances, led by Laird’s 10. North’s midfield only managed 14 by comparison, despite Goldstein winning the hitouts against Strachan 41-34 and winning his own clearances 5-3 in his favour. Strachan did manage to get a bit more of the ball around the ground though, and pushed forward to threaten fairly often. I’d say the honours between rucks were a split, though I’m inclined to give the decision to Goldstein for his tackling. He did seem the be unusually fired up after half time, but it didn’t really help him against his young opponent who seemed to enjoy the physicality a bit more than the veteran North big man.

The difference

While there could be a few points here, for my money the key difference was cohesion.

Jack Ziebell and Ben Cunnington are irreplaceable for North, in that their ability to act as on-field generals is how North were able to adapt in the latter half of 2021. Without those two players, North was forced to do a lot more improvising without an on-field shot caller to get the team structured up on the rebound. Aaron Hall still attempted to improvise on the overlap, but more often than not resorted to taking the safe option on the boundary, while the players that should have been putting a body on the chasers ran wide for a handball, then doubled back to help out.

Up forward, the results were no better. Far too often Walker and Larkey led into similar spaces, spoiling each other with frustrating regularity. It’s hard to say from the other side of a screen, but for my money, it looked like a lot of North players were playing for contracts slightly ahead of the win. Walker seemed to be trying to do too much in an effort to get another couple of years, while Hall seemed on a mission to try to break the rebound fifty record. He fell short, by the way.

 

Showing their class

Oddly enough, the worst performance on the night wasn’t even on the field for my money. The commentary team for the TV broadcast had Mark Riccuito, Gerard Healy and Dermott Brereton. While it’s not an all-star line-up, Big Roo and Dermie did their best to call the game, add some flavour and hype up some of the young talent in both camps. Healy however, seemed to have thrown down a few ambiens before the match. He frequently seemed to misinterpret the rules for free kicks, and unlike his compatriots, never seemed willing to put some winding Abe Simpson-like tale on hold to call the actual play, even when a goal was being kicked. Add in his inability to identify players a half dozen times, and his harsh criticism of Taylor Garner’s lack of effort in a game that he wasn’t part of and likely watched from the comfort of his home in Melbourne, and I just wonder what Riccuito and Brereton slipped into his Gatorade.

A lot of North players had poor nights, but most of them had at least one highlight. Healy’s seemed to peak when he realised that Tarryn Thomas and Phoenix Spicer were different people.

 

Debutant discussion

First games are about getting through them, and if you make an impact, that’s a bonus. By that standard, both had games that might have been above expectations, but it’d be hard to argue against giving this matchup win to Gollant. He managed to gather 11 touches and three marks to go with a goal. He was a bit unlucky with his set shots to not have a couple, but he didn’t seem too over-awed by the moment.

Spicer looked lively all night, much to the delight of Dermott Brereton who cheer-led him all evening, giving Spicy a bit of a pump-up whenever he got near the ball. He had some excellent positioning and was always looking to have a go, but his butter-fingers moment in the second quarter will haunt him in the offseason. Finally finding himself open, he received the ball and fumbled the gather, only to have it slip out of his fingertips twice more as he rushed to move it on into a very open forward 50.

He did manage seven touches though, and read the ball well, but seemed a bit hesitant to commit when he had a chance to intercept the ball. That will come with experience though, and with a cohesive forward line that will have a bit more on-field leadership structure.

 

Where to next?

For both teams, it’s all about the draft now.

Adelaide had previously been very bullish about the possibility of making some sort of deal to collect Jason Horne-Francis if North went elsewhere with their opening pick (likely after bidding on Daicos or Darcy, or just as likely to pick both before their first live selection). It’s going to be harder to do so from pick four as they jump Collingwood and Gold Coast, much to the delight of GWS who received Collingwood’s first round pick in last year’s trade sessions.

The biggest problem for Adelaide at the moment is what to do with former captain Taylor Walker. It’ll remain a divisive topic for the club until a decision is made, and likely for a while after as well.

North have problems of their own, with more than a dozen players yet to sign on for 2022, including Robbie Tarrant, Aaron Hall, Jack Ziebell, Josh Walker, Shaun Atley and Trent Dumont. I’d be surprised if there weren’t a few changes, but despite their impact in this team, players like Ziebell, Hall and Tarrant won’t have enough trade value to justify looking to move them on. Walker has shown enough versatility to keep around, especially with mid-year draft Jacob Edwards still looking a little slender to take on a key position in 2022. Dumont may again explore his options, and Shaun Atley will probably go to port Adelaide in return for their first-round pick.

What? It could happen. 2021 has been crazy enough, and it’s pretty obvious the lad can talk himself into anything. The bloke has 230+ games under his belt, and I’m willing to bet you can’t recall a single highlight of his, yet he’s in the squad, week-in, week-out. I’m confident in assuming he’ll use whatever superpower he possesses to arrange some sort of wild trade that will leave Port list management scratching their heads trying to figure out how that happened, much as North fans have been doing at team announcements for the last decade.

Adelaide seem to have fewer holes to be filled in the off-season, as their young brigade looks to be progressing very nicely.

Ultimately, both teams will be looking to improve on their current standing, but seem content to aim for long-term success rather than short term mediocrity. The problem with that approach though is it can often rely on the patience of fans and board directors, and while neither club suffers from the public commentary of, say Hawthorn, Port Adelaide or Collingwood, a coach only gets so much time before results become an expectation, fairly or not.

Both squads will likely enter preseason early, though with David Noble taking his first full offseason, he’s likely to try and implement his own gameplan from scratch this time. It’ll be interesting to see how that works and what shape it takes as he attempts to emulate Fagan’s rise with his own squad.

Adelaide look to have a lot of ingredients that will help their rise in the future, but it would be unwise to discount some aggressive plays for some class that they can attract at the trade table.

And that’s the end of the regular season to 2021. A wild ride now all the crazier for the unpredictable finals series before us. Good luck to all supporters with a team still in contention, and to the rest, there’s always the reckless optimism for next year, so let’s look forward to the predictable stories about which gun young players are training the house down and setting personal best times in the running sessions.