So, COVID continues to disrupt the season. As important as it is for both sides to try and get a win, most of the attention on this game has been for the precedent set for continuing with the game, despite having 12 players out due to COVID protocols. Combined with injuries to Gaff and Nelson, West Coast came into the game with 14 changes, six debuting for the Eagles.

Now, it’s fair to say that the game wasn’t exactly a showpiece for the sport. It featured a lot of state-league level movement, intensity and an obvious unfamiliarity with the core gameplan—and that was just North.

It may seem a bit unjustified to put the torch to the feet of last years’ wooden spooners over a game they actually won, but let’s get serious here: West Coast were playing with a team made up of whoever they could get, that hadn’t played together before, and a majority of whom would not have been in the top 100 targets of any list manager in the AFL system. It should have been a walkover for North, but instead, it was a case of just enough being good enough.

The changes

Let’s cover this off first. I imagine that it’s what most non-North or Eagles supporters will be interested in anyway.

West Coast had Andrew Gaff out with a foot injury, which would have already had a few Eagles supporters wincing, but the additional outs of Naitanui, Barrass, Kennedy, Redden, Waterman, Dixon, Langdon, Jones, Rotham, Winder, Edwards and Hough due to Covid health and safety protocols, it’s understandable that many would have expected the game to be postponed.

On one hand, it makes complete sense, but the AFL would need to set that expectation for the rest of the season, and it seems they just wanted to ignore the obviously compromised nature of the game in favour of just letting it run.

Challenges bring opportunity though. Liam Duggan returned to the side, while Callum Jamieson and newly-drafted key forward Jack Williams were named to debut. Add in the players from the COVID-contingency list with Aaron Black (the West Perth WAFL one, not the former North Melbourne and Geelong forward) and former AFL players Angus Dewar (25 games for Hawthorn) and Stefan Giro (11 games for Freo)

Former West Coast players getting the call up were Brayden Ainsworth, who was delisted by the Eagles at the end of last year, to go with the returning listed players in Jackson Nelson, Jack Darling, Liam Duggan, Liam Ryan, Alex Witherden, Luke Edwards, Luke Shuey and Tim Kelly.

Former North Melbourne midfielder Declan Mountford was the travelling emergency, after being delisted at the end of 2018 and going home to WA to play for Claremont. While he was heading up to the coaches box in his polo shirt and cargo shorts to grab a pastie and a coke, Jackson Nelson was in the medical staff’s hands, having injured his knee in the warm-up. Mountford left the box just as the opening ball was being bounced, dashed down to the changeroom and pulled on his playing gear.

So the end result is that 14 players were unavailable for selection in this game, and only Gaff was injured. You would see more people familiar with each other at an anonymous parkland sex meetup than in the Eagles’ team in this match, but like the open-air gangbang the result might have been messy, but not entirely unpleasant to experience.

With that in mind, West Coast can be forgiven just about anything that occurred in this game. The same cannot be said for North Melbourne.

The Opening

West Coast treated the game like they had nothing to lose, and it paid off early. Their attack on the ball and complete freedom from expectations allowed the individual players to choose their own playing style rather than having to squeeze into a larger structure. While there are big drawbacks to that, it was by far the best option for a team that barely knew each other by name.

There was an early payoff though, as Liam Ryan showed his ability with a clever gather near the boundary as he held the ball in play, ran back over the line and spotted Willie Rioli one on one with Aaron Hall 20 metres from goal.

Rioli protected his space but couldn’t quite pull down the mark. He was able to quickly gather the ball and wheel around Hall to put through a right foot dribbler that you just knew was coming. Jack Ziebell definitely knew it was on the cards as he sprinted to the goal line to get a touch on the ball but was a couple of steps short.

With West Coast kicking the first goal, there were a few players in blue and white looking a little nervous. They may not have been worried about the result of the match this early on, but there were definitely some players thinking that they needed to make certain they weren’t shaded by their state league opponents.

North kept working the ball methodically, which seemed an odd choice when rapid overlaps were frequently an option, but it looked a lot like a team that wasn’t concerned with anything but putting a win on the board. It didn’t feel like a team taking on a wounded opponent, but more like a group desperate to get a win with as little risk as possible.

There were exceptions though, especially from North’s two highly-creative midfielders in Luke Davies-Uniake and Tarryn Thomas.

LDU set up North’s first goal with some great weaving through traffic in the corridor to put the ball low and hard into the chest of Nick Larkey. That single kick won’t get a lot of mention in most wash-ups, but it was a perfect example of where North has let themselves down in the past few seasons. Forward 50 entries have mostly been short kicks to the arc or long up-and-under bombs that had four Roos flying and very few crumbers. A low, hard kick to a leading forward that hits them hard enough to bury into their solar plexus is a joy to behold for any forward in the league. If Larkey gets that service from LDU, they’ll both look like geniuses.

North had another opportunity shortly after, with Callum Jamieson bobbling a backline switch to allow Nick Larkey to contest the ball on the deck. Jamieson compounded the mistake by putting hands in Larkey’s back as he was over the ball, giving Souv a free kick from 30 out, and converting into his second goal.

North started to understand their structural advantage after this, pressuring the person with the ball to cause errors at every opportunity. It’s a credit to the Eagles’ players that such errors weren’t all that common as they tried to work off each other and bring players into the game.

North weren’t unwilling to keep it simple either though, as shown when Aaron Hall launched a kick out into he centre square to hit up a running Tarryn Thomas. Thomas kept his pace and played on, had a running bounce and once he saw a completely open forward 50, dropped the ball in front of the forward streaming towards goal. The ball bounced about 25 metres out, and dribbled through for a goal just beyond Nick Larkey for an 80-metre goal that moved from end to end in about 13 seconds.

Tim Kelly, Liam Ryan and Willie Rioli were constant dangers for North, and I was a little baffled as to why they didn’t simply tag one of them to stop them linking up. They combined again for West Coast’s second as Kelly found Ryan on the arc and Ryan managed to kick a pass to Petrucelli that had West Coast fans yelling for an in the back free kick (and not without cause). It mattered little in the end though, as Rioli gathered the tumbling ball, turned and snapped over his left shoulder to keep West Coast hot on North’s heels as the first quarter wound down.

The Meatgrinder

North wanted to win this match, but they wanted to build confidence and opportunity for their young midfielders almost as much.

That’s why the injury to LDU at the start of the second quarter hurt them so much. LDU gathered a tap on from Xerri to drop step Xavier O’Neill, but he hadn’t realised how quickly Willie Rioli was closing from his back left. He likely heard the footsteps because he managed to get a little handball off, but as Rioli pinned the arms, his forward momentum pushed LDU to his knees and levered him into the turf face-first.

LDu suffered a concussion and was subbed out of the game. That fact alone means it’ll be looked at, but I personally hope it doesn’t result in a suspension. It looked like Rioli tried to move to the side to keep out of LDU’s back, tried to roll with the tackle and his first intention was to create a turnover, not hurt someone.

A rundown tackle is a dangerous move, but also one of the spectacular parts of the sport. Not a lot of games have the full 360⁰ playing style that AFL does, and very few contact sports. Tackling from behind means the player chasing has had to pursue the player with the ball, and it shows the sort of desperation that we love to see. No one wants it to result in a concussion, but I personally think this was just an incident that happened due to the speed and strength of modern players. If he does answer for a case, I’d hope it’s just a fine and not some sort of even up from his overturned suspension last week.

Rioli did go to check on his straight after, and none of the North players seemed to be too remonstrative, which they usually are if one of their younger brigade are unfairly targeted. Aiden Bonar came on as the medical sub, but while Bonar has some adaptability, losing a midfielder affected North’s rotation significantly. Not that you would expect much Sympathy from West Coast for having a reduced selection of players in this match.

An example of that was soon after when Hugh Greenwood hit up Jack Mahony just inside the arc. Mahony was pushing forward to get the mark, took it and then had Alex Witherden wrap him up and fall into his back. The umpire called it as a 50m penalty for taking Mahony down after the mark, and Greenwood wasn’t shy in letting Witherden know that a professional free like that wasn’t going to be tolerated.

It wasn’t a terrible decision from Witherden though, as many players will constantly do the same to hold up the ball and allow their defence time to pick up their opponents. It was just a fraction late in this instance, and combined with the size difference, it created enough of an impact for the ump to bring Mahony to the goal line for an easy six pointer.

It might seem unfair to mention the size difference as a factor in the decision, but I only point it out because it increased the visual impact of the incident, as well as the potential consequence (or “likelihood to cause injury” as they like to say at AFL house). It’s the same reason so few players get long suspension for striking a ruckman compared to hitting a smaller player, even when they have to jump up to punch them in the head (looking at you Jordan Lewis).

Witherden did himself (and his teammate Luke foley) no favours shortly after when a kick out caught an unexpecting Foley flat footed, which allowed Hugh Greenwood to collect a juggling ball from the hands of Foley and kick the ball right over Witherden’s head to a waiting Nick Larkey for his third goal.

Liam Ryan once again proved his worth with a clever centring ball in the forward 50 to give Liam Duggan an easy mark, which he converted into West Coast’s third goal from 40 metres out, pegging the margin back to 15 points in a game that North probably should have had double that margin.

Despite Larkey having a few goals to his name already, Adam Simpson kept Callum Jamieson as his direct opponent, though gave Jeremy McGovern free rein to take the intercept marking role that he does do well. Without McGovern, West Coast would have been in far worse shape in this match. Jameison didn’t quite have the balance and body strength to match Larkey though, as he nudged Jameison out of the contest to take the mark and convert for goal.

While West coast’s AFL page lists Jameison as a Key Defender, much of his junior career has been as a ruck, which makes a lot of sense for a 200cm bloke tipping the scales at 95kgs. His pinch-hitting in defence will help him develop quicker though, especially against some of the more physical rucks in the game if he is to take on some of the load from Nic Nat in the future.

With just seconds left in the half, West Coast showed their commitment to making a contest of the game with Bailey Williams (Bailey J, not the key defender for the dogs) keeping his space in a marking contest to collect the ball as it dropped to the back of the pack and kick through a goal that any ruckman would love to add to their highlight reel.

That kick also kept West Coast in touch with North, bringing the margin back to three straight goals.

North were further depleted when Tarryn Thomas attempted to smother a kick from Luke Foley, and copped a full-blooded boot to the ribs. Whether his ribs were cracked or he had damaged his internal organs isn’t known just yet, but he was taken to hospital. Now down two midfield rotations, North were eager for the long break to assess their options.

Carefully does it

The long break gave each side a chance to look at how their game was going, assess where they could change things, reject all that and just run out to do what they were already doing.

For North, that made sense. They had the lead and were desperate enough to lock that in that they played a very conservative brand of football. West coast had nothing to lose, so gave every player a big rubber stamp of approval to go with their instincts.

West Coast had further list concerns when Brayden Ainsworth went down with an ankle injury from a seemingly innocent bit of play. Those are often the most concerning though, so the added burden to the selection committee will not be welcome, even if they manage to get their players back.

North extended their margin with a clean team goal that originated from Tristian Xerri on the wing through Mahony, Larkey, Zurhaar, Simpkin and ending with turner alone in the goal square. On slow mo, you can see Simpkin’s eyes light up as he receives the ball from Zurhaar and looks to goal, only for a bit of a frown to creep in when he realises he’d have to stroll right past the wide open Kayne Turner to kick a major. He did the team thing and passed off for the easy goal, though you can bet that North runner Brent Harvey would have been shaking his head in disbelief that he handballed so close to goal. Boomer wouldn’t have handballed. In fact, he’d probably have run past Turner and expected him to shepherd any players chasing him.

Rioli’s third came from an excellent gather, quick movement and kick to advantage from Shuey to give him every chance of taking the contested mark and converting from a set shot with ease.

Kayne Turner took a mark on the arc, only for McGovern to mirror Jameison’s earlier effort by bringing Turner to ground in his back and conceding the 50 metres and an easy goal. People may disagree on whether it was deserved, but it’s at least consistent with the earlier calls, so an experienced player like McGovern had no excuse.

On the subject of no excuse, Lachie young gave Willie Rioli his fourth shot at goal with an undisciplined arm across the body and a hand in the face. While it initially looked like an old-fashioned coathanger, replays from front on showed that Young’s arm was underneath the armpit of Rioli, though the hand in the face alone was enough for the free. Rioli put a bit of mayo on it, but that’s the forward’s prerogative, and I’m yet to meet a forward who won’t give the ump every chance to give them a free shot at goal. Lachie young has been around long enough to know this, so even giving Rioli half a chance is a chance too much.

 

Bringing it home

For football aficionados who support neither team, chances are you probably switched over to the other game by now. That’s not to say it wasn’t an interesting spectacle, especially with the amount of debutantes and WAFL stalwart Aaron Black showing that he wasn’t out of his element at AFL level, but there just seemed to be a bit of venom lacking in the game. West Coast had the intensity, but not the cohesion to really put fear into North. North had the result, but were playing cautious tempo football to preserve their margin rather than try to put the depleted West Coast side to the sword.

It’s an understandable, if frustrating, gameplan from North. As the wooden spoon side, taking the wins where you can makes sense. It also shows that they respected the abilities of the Eagles’ players as well as their top-up group. Whether they respected them too much is up to opinion, but I can imagine Noble would much rather be criticised for a conservative win than losing to the collection of talented-but-still-second-stringers that took to the field for West Coast.

Nick Larkey added to his tally, chasing down the ball that spilled over the back from a marking contest with Shannon Hurn. While he might have been able to extend himself and put a shepherd on McGovern who was rapidly closing in on Kayne Turner as he collected the ball, Larkey played it smart, ran far enough away from the ball that McGovern couldn’t cover them both, and collected an easy handball from Turner to run in and kick his fifth.

There were still some stories to be told in this match, and it was Aaron Black who wanted to make sure he made the most of his moment. A ball up inside the forward 50 caused the footy to pinball about a few players before Black handballed in front of Petruccelle who collected and gave the ball back to Black in a few metres of open space.

He took a couple of steps to steady and took his shot. It’s the sort of kick that would be like shelling peas in his regular game, but the added occasion of it being the culmination of so many years toiling in the WAFL and a chance that may never have come would surely have added to the pressure. He kicked as cleanly as if he’d dreamed it himself though, and players ran to him in congratulations in scenes that were a just reward for the Eagles fans who were at the ground and watching at home.

Rumour is that his brother also made the trip over, and had to be convinced not to rush the ground as they had for Buddy Franklin in Sydney, but cooler heads prevailed and he settled for taking his short off and whirling it above his head in a way that Kevin Sheedy might find vaguely unsettling while still supporting the enthusiasm. Fair play to the lad I say.

The final goal of the game was reserved for Nick Larkey though, as he took a solid contested mark over the top of Hurn to kick from 20 metres for his sixth goal and equal leadership in the Coleman medal.

North then played to the tempo and kept the ball under their control to wind out the clock and claim the win by 15 points, giving Greenwood, Horne-Francis and Corr their first wins in the Blue and White.

The Precedent

While the situation is extremely impactful for West Coast, it can be argued that it’s even more so for the AFL.

From this point on, it’s hard to see a game being delayed or rescheduled for any team having COVID-related problems. It’s not like West Coast’s players had COVID, they were close contacts and could be again. All it will take is one player’s partner at a BBQ with a few mates, and we could see it happen again.

The situation raises a few questions for the AFL.

  1. If a club has an even-greater number of players out, will they reschedule or will they enforce a forfeit if the club simply cannot field a team compliant with registration requirements? If faced with losing the entire revenue of a game, will the AFL maintain fairness or will it choose to delay for a time until the game can be played and the tickets sold?
  2. If a club has a situation where a significant number of players are potential close contacts due to a positive RAT of a partner or close friend, what will be the penalty for simply throwing that RAT away, ignoring the result and sending the person with the virus to their parents for a fortnight? Because that choice is one that will certainly be before a team this year.
    Imagine the situation if a team needs a win to make finals, but one of their close mates who carpools with them every day suddenly returns a positive RAT? Do they let him report it to the authorities, or do they give him an unlimited Uber Eats account and let him chill out in a regional hotel room?
    Maybe I’m creating controversy where there is none, and fair play if so, but I do think the AFL needs to have significant penalties in mind, because come the pointy end of the season, the temptation will be there.

Where it was won

The fact North had a cohesive gameplan earned them the win here. While West Coast’s players toiled in earnest, they hadn’t so much as trained as a unit, so any form of cohesive structure wasn’t workable. Instead, they went with a very simple gameplan—stick to your opponent and look to move the ball quickly when possible.

North mostly stuck to the zone structure in defence, though their set up for rebounding out of defence seemed to struggle with cohesion at some stages.

West Coast often attempted to use the short kick out of defence to counteract the high zone, but occasionally suffered from not really understanding how the receiver was looking to get the ball, so their placement of the kick was less than optimal, though they’d put in every effort to then try and regain the disputed ball.

The difference in structures explains why North had so much uncontested possession, with 247 for the match to the Eagles’ 180. They just knew where each other would me more often than the Eagles did. A perfect example was Tarryn Thomas’ no look handball over his shoulder to Hugh Greenwood. It’s the sort of highlight that only happens when players know each is capable of. Thomas had to know where Greenwood would be, and Greenwood had to know that Thomas is capable of doing that sort of pass, which made his injury all the more disheartening for North fans.

Post match

Both coaches were full of positivity, with Adam Simpson proud that despite the list upheaval that the game was winnable and West Coast were in with a chance for a majority of the contest, while Noble was quick to point out that West Coast still boasted six premiership players and had a strong unit still in the midfield and defence.

Both coaches were mostly pleased with the efforts of their charges while lamenting injury concerns, which is pretty much every post-match coach speech in games that weren’t complete wipe outs.

The Rucks

By the numbers, Xerri and Goldstein had Bailey Williams covered in the meaningful stats on the sheet. It’s worth noting that Williams hard hardly any assistance all day against the evergreen Goldstein and his latest protégé. While Xerri and Goldy could swap out in the forward line, Williams had to keep going all day, with only a couple of minutes reprieve when Jack Darling and Jack Williams took a couple of taps each.

The numbers don’t lie though, but it wasn’t Goldstein that came out on top, but rather Xerri who notched up 20 touches, 24 hitouts, five clearances and a pair of decent contested marks to make his case for continuing the number one ruck role.

For a bloke who was looking to go to St Kilda a few months back, and likely feeling a bit vulnerable with the addition of Callum Coleman-Jones to the team, he seems well at home in the blue and white. Many people in his place would have simply read the writing on the wall of a well-regarded veteran, a highly-touted trade from a successful team, and a young lad that’s starting to build VFL form in Jacob Edwards, and simply decided to coast out their contract once a deal couldn’t be done.

It’s a credit to Xerri that instead, he doubled down in his preseason work and became the standard by which the others were measured on the track.

Goldstein has a well-earned reputation though, and has already shown off many would-be challengers to his mantle. Will Xerri be the one to finally take the reins from big Goldy? There are no guarantees, but he’s doing his chances no harm at all, especially in a contract year.

In the middle

Liam Ryan, Tim Kelly and Patrick Naish were a large reason why West Coast were in the game. While their numbers weren’t brilliant, the quality of their touches and ability to link up with each other was excellent.

North were getting a lot of quality ball through Thomas and LDU before their nights ended, but it was Hugh Greenwood that shone brightest for the Roos, managing 29 touches (16 contested), 10 tackles, nine clearances to star for his new team. His impact can’t be underestimated as a replacement for Ben Cunnington, and as he works his way into the organised chaos of the midfield, you can expect him to continue to be a vital part of the team if North are to have any hope of rising above the bottom of the ladder.

Down back

A big reason that the game wasn’t a blowout was due to the experience and ability of Jeremy McGovern and Shannon Hurn. McGovern managed 11 intercepts and kept north’s forwards honest as much as he was able. Hurn likewise managed to kill the ball once it hit the turf on many occasions, playing the percentages like the veteran he is.

North was again well-served by Luke McDonald with 20 touches and 9 intercepts, matched by Aaron Hall and Jack Ziebell who also managed 8 and 9 intercepts respectively. Ziebell had 29 touches, though it was Hall whose run and link up play from half back that helped North transition into attack.

Josh Walker was solid as a replacement for Ben McKay while he sits out due to concussion protocols, while Aiden Corr was able to have impact in bursts throughout the game.

Up forward

Jack Darling’s return was well overshone by Willie Rioli’s four goals and the constant threat posed by Liam Ryan and Jack Petruccelle when they were up near goal. Darling will likely take some time to get his head back in the game, and the delivery wasn’t often suited to him either, so not too much should be read into his efforts here.

North obviously favoured Nick Larkey, and Souv made the most of his chances for much of the game. He had support from some of the smaller players, and Kayne turner in particular showed a shrewd sort of hunger that North will be pleased to see.

Up Next

North head up to Brisbane as Noble takes on his old mate Fagan and his Lions. Brisbane have created a system that North are trying to emulate, so it’s a real trial by fire for this team. With LDU and Thomas looking very unlikely and Brisbane looking like a unit that will be able to hang with most teams without too much concern about being out-classed, it’d take a very brave person to put a dollar on North taking this one. They’ll be looking to win some match ups and stress-test their adapted structures, but I expect Brisbane to have too much firepower and physicality for North. Brisbane by 31.

West Coast will have their first WA derby of 2022 at Optus Oval against Fremantle. How this one turns out will certainly depend on how many players West Coast will get back, though Freo have been a bit hit-and-miss so far themselves. It’s a bit of a toss up with so much unknown, but if West Coast can get a majority of their players back after their rest, I think they’ll be too fresh and too hungry to be denied at home. West Coast by 9.

 

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