North Melbourne vs Port Adelaide shaped up as an interesting game for several reasons. While both teams have had a horror start to the year, Port has since steadied the ship and came into the match looking for their fourth win in a row, while North… well…. North are looking for 2023.

The lead-up

They say that all press is good press, but North Melbourne might disagree. During the week, the ever-voracious Melbourne media machine—through its unquenchable hunger for content to supply the hundreds of hours of footy panel shows—shone a light on several things that will concern North Melbourne members.

The first was that Noble’s verbal lashing after the 108-point loss to Noble’s old employer had disenfranchised a few of the younger players, and that he’d since apologised to the squad. Now, in hindsight, it can be said that the team responded fairly positively to the bake by putting up their best effort so far this season against the Swans the following week, but you can only continue the whipping to improve morale for so long before it loses the impact.

The second story was that Jason Horne-Francis has stepped away from contract negotiations, resulting in many supporters of other teams going from calling him “over-rated” to suddenly crowing with excitement that he may find his way to their list. He still has a year to run on his draftee deal, and it’s unlikely North will be outspent on any proposed contract, so moving him would have to wait a year at least. The only other way would be through trade, and with the pick one value already increased by removing the speculation of him being up to league football standard, it’d take an enormous trade deal for North to agree to moving on a person who has already created such a following at the club. It’s hard to imagine anyone at the club being more important than JHF, though whether that’s a good thing remains to be seen.

Arden St seems to have a direct line to the footy media at the moment, and the only thing leakier than the club head office is the team’s backline.

Port Adelaide have been in the news as well, though mostly positive. The pressure on Hinkley has abated with the current streak, and the AFLW team’s inaugural signing of a sure-fire future Hall of Famer Erin Phillips was augmented during the week with the announcement that (former) Fremantle gun Gemma Houghton will be joining her at the Power.

So, two very different situations regarding pressure and morale were at play before the opening bounce.

Ins and outs

North welcomed back spearhead Nick Larkey from his one-week suspension, along with Tom Powell and Kyron Hayden. Unfortunately, Ben McKay, Jason Horne-Francis and Jy Simpkin were all outs due to injury, and Hugh Greenwood due to Health and Safety protocols.

North were never going to enter this game as favourites, but losing a majority of their first-string midfield rotation and the key backman made it even less likely that they’d have a chance to shorten the odds.

Port weren’t without their own concerns though, with Riley Bonner, Tom Jonas and former Kangaroo Tren Dumont all out of the side, with Farrell, Frederick and Fantasia coming in.

The opening

North set up well, with Jack Ziebell meeting Ollie Wines head on. They both kept their eyes on the prize as North had identified this matchup as one that they had a 50-50 chance of winning.

Unfortunately, the coin landed on “heads”, and Wines won the right to choose which direction to kick.

North’s luck really didn’t change much for the rest of the match either.

From the opening bounce, North were on the back foot, with the Port midfield and transition game looking very slick. It took less than two minutes for Port to get their first goal through some clean and smart play as Finlayson tapped the ball out of a marking contest to Robbie Gray as he scooted by, who found Mitch Georgiades somehow in space out the back and strolled in for the first goal of the day.

That play defined North’s day, and the season at large.

Lachie Young and Aiden Corr both went at the ball while Port allowed their players to earn it on their own and instead running to create options. North’s major issue for the whole season has been not trusting each other to win the ball, getting in each other’s way, and then if they do get the ball they have no options. That is when they’re not outright spoiling each other.

North did manage to respond shortly later with sequential free kicks to Goldstein and Larkey, who kicked his 100th career goal, but while the kick was there, it’s hardly a great strategy for a team struggling with form and morale to rely on getting those.

Port then went on to put on five unanswered goals, rebounding from North’s own poor forward 50 entries and missing multiple shots on goal that an AFL team should really be converting at least a few of. The end of the quarter had Port sitting on a 32-point margin, and their 41 point total their highest first-quarter score of the season, well above their 12.5 point average coming into the game.

And from there, Port treated the game like Shapelle Corby’s weed dealer—they had it in the bag.

The mid-game

To North’s credit, they had several players working extremely hard in the second and third quarters. Cam Zurhaar was trying to will his team into an attacking mindset while LDU showed some highlight-worthy weaving in and out of traffic, and Todd Goldstein even channelled his inner midfielder with some great work below his knees and as an intercept mark, but it wasn’t converted on the scoreboard anywhere near enough to actually threaten Port’s dominance.

North managed to beat Port in the second quarter by a point and lose the third by the same margin to show some competitiveness interspersed with some wasteful forward 50 entries and some shocking errors in their back half to stymie their forward transition.

It took Zurhaar six shots on goal to register his second major, all of which were gettable. He’s far from the one most responsible for his team’s margin but converting those would have brought the game back into a contest.

Josh Walker was tasked with keeping Todd Marshall quiet, and well, he did not. Marshall put on a pair of goals that Walker should have at least been able to make into a contest, but in the end he couldn’t match the canny positioning that Marchall displayed.

Walker has been the sort of utility player that all clubs love to have on their list. He can play forward, back or pinch hit in the ruck, but he isn’t quite dominant enough to make a single position his own. With McKay out, North had no other option except for throwing a draftee into the fray in the form of Matt McGuinness, but with the young KPD only recently back from injury and yet to debut, it seems Noble decided that he’d rather blood the young big man when they can support him down back, rather than when they know they’ll be giving him the best forward the opposition has. He’ll get his shot soon, but it’ll likely be after McKay returns.

While Charlie Dixon is the spearhead that the Power enjoy using most, Marshall has shown that he’s no certainty to sit out once Dixon returns. He not only managed to hit the scoreboard himself, but also created goals by working his small forwards into the game and showing a lot of situational awareness. He’s in some great form, and looks to be building into something special.

One highlight for the crowd in the second quarter was a loose ball spilled between Sam Powell-Pepper and Kayne Turner. Both went straight for the ball and ran solidly into each other, bouncing off, getting up and continuing to play. No remonstration, no gloating, no quasi-tough-guy posturing, just two blokes going hard at the footy, and getting set to doing it again. Turner gives up around 20kgs to SPP, so while many may criticise his quality of disposal, if the rest of the North squad had his same commitment… well they may not be in the state they’re in.

During the whole of the second and third quarters, only once did a team manage sequential goal, which was through Sam Powell-Pepper and Mitch Georgiades late in the third quarter. North will come away with that as a positive, but the final quarter kind of took the polish off any small wins that they might be talking about in the Monday game review session…

The blowout

So, after stopping Port’s ability to score heavily for two quarters, North may have felt a little tingling of confidence. Tarryn Thomas seemed to be standing a bit taller, Goldstein was winding back the clock, and Cam Zurhaar looked primed to kick a bag if he could neaten up his radar a little. But sometimes that little bit of hope can be a most fragile thing, and when Port brought the hammer down, so too did North drop their heads.

A six-goal streak from Port killed any enthusiasm North had for the contest. Todd Marshall kicked his third of the day, and had a hand in most of the others. Motlop, Duursma, Farrell, and Wines all added to the pain before Tom Powell could get one back for the Kangaroos during junk time.

Port’s forward line ran rampant over North, though not all of it can be laid at the feet of the defenders. Very little pressure was put on the forward 50 delivery for much of the match, though the work of Rozee, Butters, Wines, Powell-Pepper and Duursma to create chains of possession and spread into space to become a handball option can’t be understated. You can only beat the team on the park, but the work of the Port playmakers looked brilliant, and they will trouble many sides if they can continue such cohesion.

Port ran away with a nice margin of 69 points, sliding into 9th spot, just behind the Bulldogs on percentage.

 

Midfield battle

With North’s midfield rotation hampered, Luke Davies-Uniacke was tasked to lead the group, with Stephenson and Anderson besides him. While Anderson has a five years of AFL footy over LDU, he only has 30 games more to his name, and has only played eight games in the seniors in the last two seasons.

It’s hard to imagine what the young lad would have thought when looking across at the midfield he was tasked with matching, but it’d be fair to say that with 222 combined games between the three mids and their direct opponents having almost a hundred more games experience and a Brownlow medallist to boot, it’s fair to say LDU’s midfield leadership would be tested. It would also be fair to say that the 22-year-old was found wanting.

Port comfortable won the midfield battle, with Wines, Butters and Rozee combining for 84 touches (44 contested), 23 clearances and 15 inside 50s. North’s rotation managed 68 disposals (25 contested), 12 clearances and 10 inside 50s. A majority of those stats were from LDU as he played almost a lone hand in trying to give North first use of the pill while trying to keep Ollie Wines accountable.

It’s commendable that Davies-Uniacke could do as much as he did with Anderson underdone due to spending so much time out of the game due to seeking specific medical advice for a covid jab, and Stephenson trying to maintain a 1.5 metre distance from any form of contact all game.

By half-time, Ollie Wines seemed to shift from looking to dominate for his team to looking run his younger teammates through drills on how to play against moving training cones. Wines is too much of an experienced campaigner to put the cue in the rack, but he definitely took the foot off the gas and made sure to give Rozee and Butters every chance to build their own form.

It’s a sad fact that despite North showing competitiveness in the middle quarters, Port had the game well in hand, and could have switched to a more aggressive structure at will. It’s a credit to Hinkley’s coaching that they were able to keep a lot in reserve should North put up a fight, but also keeping some powder dry for next week against Geelong at GMHBA.

Ruck Battle

The ruck contest was entirely the opposite situation of the midfield matchup, with Veteran big man Todd Goldstein had more than 275 games and 8,700 hit outs over Port’s rookie ruckman Sam Hayes, though if Hayes had any sense of concern, he did not show it, immediate winning the first tap with quality ruck work that allowed him to paddle the ball to Butters, giving Port the immediate clearance.

Todd Goldstein and Callum Coleman-Jones vs Sam Hayes and Sam Powell-Pepper. On paper, the all-time leader in hit outs supported by a younger ruckman that North had worked hard to get to the team taking on a rookie ruckman and a medium forward should have been one North could be somewhat confident about.

The reality is that Hayes and Powell-Pepper at the very least drew even with their opponents, and it could easily be argued that they were more influential in the play.

Hayes’ athleticism worked to his favour with Goldstein, with the North ruckman often finding himself on the receiving end of the former’s physicality at the ball-ups and throw-ins. Goldstein has never really relied on brute strength though, and used his veteran wiles to counter the difference in the number of protein powder shakes consumed by standing back from his opponent, and pushing forward underneath his outstretched arms to try and take front spot or cause an over-the-shoulder infringement on his opponent.

It worked fairly well for the most part, though the commentary team noted a few non-calls that made this tactic far less effective, but Hayes wasn’t put off his game by a couple of free kicks paid against him. He ended up with 33 hit-outs to Goldstein’s 25, and had similar numbers in metres gained and clearances. Goldstein did have a little more of the ball and was generally more of a target around the ground, but Port would be extremely happy with how Hayes handled a veteran opponent at such an early stage of his career.

The second-string rucks were CCJ and SPP in a hyphen-to-hyphen battle. CCJ had double the hit-outs, but attended almost double the ruck contests, so SPP gets a big tick for his work against a much bigger opponent.

It’s worth mentioning too that Goldstein’s set-up against Hayes initially seemed to be getting some results as Hayes struggled to deal with the tactics Todd was using, but with a smaller, stockier and altogether nuggety-er SPP taking several boundary throw-ins, Goldstein couldn’t get low enough to employ the same tactic, allowing SPP to use his lower centre of gravity to position himself right into Goldy’s ribs, and bring the ball into a neutral area and allow his fellow mids (and sometimes himself) to come away with the ball.

All up, great result for Port, and Hayes will walk away with knowing a few more tricks than he went in with, which can only be good for his development.

The Umps

Look, umpiring Aussie Rules is a tough job. I’ve done it myself in country leagues, and the vitriol directed at umpires is no joke. The rulebook is highly up to interpretation, and I’m yet to find any other sport in the world where the ump needs to make so many decisions based on reading the intention of a player. They almost need to be psychic in order to officiate the game.

However, the part where the game becomes playable at least, is when umpires are consistent in their interpretations.

That was not the case in this game. Some tackles were allowed to do the full 360 and continue, others were not. Some players dropped the ball in tackles and were pinged, others were not. Nick Larkey’s mark was identical to one taken by Martin Fredrick a few minutes later, yet the former was given a play on call, followed by a free kick against for dissent, while the latter was given the mark.

And on the subject of dissent… it’s gone well beyond the intent of the rule and into the realm of farce.

Umpires deserve respect, and definitely deserve to do their job without abuse at any level of the game. Tightening up on swearing at an umpire or nagging them to distraction is fine, I think even most players would support it. Making the umpires unaccountable for contentious decisions and penalising players for so much as a look or a gesture is not going to help umpires at any level.

Sure, penalise the worst examples. Give a 50 if the player goes beyond the line of decency, but if all they’re doing is the same hands up gesture that your average nun would use when asked “was it your turn to clean the tabernacle or was it Sister Beatrice’s?”, then the AFL has to at least consider that it has gone too far.

Much in the same way that the head should be protected, so too should umpires be protected, yet in both situations, any long-term, meaningful solution needs to take into account some contribution from everyone. Like they say in the UFC; protect yourself at all times.

Some of the umps do this really well, explaining their decisions in a few words and moving on, occasionally admitting that they didn’t see something or called based on the order of incidence. For all the criticism, old Razor Ray has been pretty good at this. When players tried to remonstrate, he would simply say he didn’t see that or saw something else first. If players got out of hand, he’d simply tell them to calm down, and famously “we don’t talk to each other like that here.”

Now, Ray may not be the most popular bloke, but let’s be honest—would you prefer a quick “mind your manners” chat from the ump, or for these dissent frees to be paid for the foreseeable future?

Yeah, me too.

Pressure on the coach

When his team was 0-5, Ken Hinkley stated that he thought that Port could still play finals this year. Since then, he’s done a lot to prove his prediction right, but will need to keep delivering to make it actually happen. Either way, the pressure that was mounting has largely dissipated now.

David Noble’s 1-4 start was actually a little better than some expected, but the win was due in no small part to West Coast having to field a WAFL team in their match up. As talk of his famous spray, a bit of tension with the young group and some media outlets claiming that he may have ‘lost the group’ already, there is some pressure building on the North coach.

During the week, David King had an interesting segment where he compared not just the wins of clubs that have had successful rebuilds (noting Brisbane and Melbourne in particular) but the percentages and the players acquired during the bottoming-out phase. In both cases, North was on par with the Lions and Demons during their lowest ebb. King also noted that the rebuild coach rarely survives, at least without the administration showing a lot of faith and being willing to ignore the calls from the media and supporters to do something.

If North can keep the faith, Noble may be able to reward it, but it won’t be in 2022, and probably not 2023 or 2024 either, but with smart recruiting and by getting games into young players, they could look at mounting some finals runs after that.

What won’t help, is having to name a fourth coach in four years.

Regarding the ‘losing the players’ bit… There’s a lot of people who seem to think Noble is some sort of old-school, fire and brimstone coach in the same vein as Rocket Rodney Eade or other coaches partial to a bit of verbal lashing. Some people forget that Noble has worked with a lot of young players in his time in the TAC cup, with the NSW/ACT Rams and the Oakleigh Chargers, as well as successful coaching stints at the Bulldogs and the Crows when both teams were relevant in September.

Sacking Noble without a top-level coach lined up won’t help North at all. Unless of course, that coach happens to be a former player with premiership credentials.

In what was likely a simple throwaway line, Alistair Clarkson said he’d love to coach North Melbourne, due to the young talent the side has. Would he actually do it? Very, very unlikely, in my opinion. I’d say that he would probably be looking at becoming Tasmania’s inaugural coach, and failing that, looking for a team a lot more along in their rebuilding timeline than North currently is. But even just the slightest hint that he may even one day possibly, if the weather is nice and his petunias are in season, perhaps consider potentially not entirely disregarding a future where he may think about thinking about coaching the Kangaroos… it still adds to the pressure that is gradually piling up on Noble.

It looks like David can handle it well enough. He’s had his apprenticeship and worked to get to where he is today after it looked like it had passed him by, but the bigger question is can the board handle the constant demands from supporters and sponsors for the team to show a lot more than has been on display so far in 2022?

Time will tell.

Other bits

I know some Power fans have had frustrations with SPP, but he was mighty in this game. He brought controlled aggression and managed to fill every role asked of him on the day. He looked like he enjoyed the day out immensely, and if he can continue this form, Port will be able to match the muscle of just about any team.

There have been loads of rumours surrounding the reasons for Jason Horne-Francis’ omission this week, from a legitimate hamstring hotspot through to a verbal stoush with Noble, all the way up to a conspiracy theory that involved a Ben cousins-esque night out in Adelaide that would make ASADA’s entire lab into a dance party due to the contact high.

The AFL media machine loves to report on drama while complaining about how much drama other reporters are talking about. The truth is likely a little more controversial than North are letting on, but likely a lot less interesting than the most salacious rumours going around.

Lachie Young has been something of a whipping boy for North fans, and this game was no exception. He showed long periods of sustained effort and drive at the ball, only to serve up goals on a platter to opposition with simple intercepts. He’s averaging about one a game of these, and they’re completely avoidable. When “Don’t do a 20 metre kick to an opponent in our back 50” becomes a repeated coaching note, the player better start listening if they don’t want those brain-farts to overshadow the hard work he did for most of the day. Looking at a lot of his intercepts, they do seem to have been the right option most of the time, he just telegraphs his intent so plainly. He stares at the player he wants to kick to, looks around, looks back at the player, then takes 3-4 steps towards them before kicking it higher than necessary. It’s fair to say that if you find yourself playing heads-up poker against the lad, it’s entirely possible that he’ll flat out tell you what cards he has, whether you ask him or not.

Can Wines go back-to-back with another Charlie? The soft start to the season will hurt him, as well as the form of players like Ben Keays, Patty Cripps and Andrew Brayshaw, but there’s plenty of time left, and past years have shown us that 9-10 good games is all it takes to be in with a red-hot chance. He’ll likely walk away with three votes here, and a couple of other votes in earlier rounds should see him setting up a late run nicely.

A bit of a grapple between Flynn Perez and SPP in the second quarter had SPP running his studs across Perez’s face. It wasn’t’ picked up during the game, but if the review looks at it, it could be a bit of bother for the lad.

Next Up:

Port Adelaide had over to Geelong to take on the Cats at GMHBA. Geelong are coming off a close loss to St Kilda and will be smarting from that, while Port came out of their training session looking primed for action.

On one hand, an angry Geelong at GMHBA will give any team cause to worry. On the other hand, the intensity of the game will have some players at less than one hundred percent, and Selwood still looks a little off. It’s a tough one, but I think Port by 11 points.

North will take on… oh shit, it’s Melbourne. Well… North have been fortunate enough to avoid sitting at the very bottom due to West Coast’s poor percentage and severe disruption due to covid protocols this year, and the only reason it might continue is that they play Melbourne themselves on Sunday. The combined margin from those two games could easily push Melbourne into record-breaking percentage figures for the AFL era.

No one, and I mean not one single person who can identify a Sherrin from a lineup with a pot plant and a pair of vintage dungarees will tip North here, unless they are already spectacularly behind in the work tipping contest and just want to be able to claim they had a feeling in their waters.

 

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