In a battle of 16th vs 17th, this match lived up to the expectation. It was a match that really should have been over by quarter time, but for wayward kicking, yet Hawthorn and North Melbourne somehow managed to out-exasperate each other as they strived to give the 30,000 people in attendance a reason to stay there.
Ins and outs
North made significant changes to last week’s side, with Lazarro and Greenwood headed back to the twos, while Perez, Logue and Simpkin were all out with injury, with Logue likely to be out until late 2024.
To cover these changes, in came Curtis Taylor, Jackson Archer, Josh Goater, and Liam Shiels who have all had good recent VFL form, and George Wardlaw returned from an illness last week.
Hawthorn rested Seamus Mitchell and lost James Blanck to injury, but welcomed back some massive ins with Breust, Meek and Sicily.
Where to start… well the footballs seemed to be inflated to an appropriate level. The grass also seemed relatively decent for Marvel stadium. The stands were tidy and clear of rubbish, and when putting on my thick jacket, I found a forgotten tenner that was almost enough to get a snack from the food outlets at the ground. There was ample room for walk-up seating, and the three-quarter time event saw a kid outrun a virtual Mazda BT-50 to win a $1500 voucher for the Spirit of Tasmania.
I’m not sure that Mazda are getting their money’s worth in that promo, as it doesn’t speak well of the grunt available if a work ute can lose a drag race to a ten-year-old kid giggling with glee as he sprinted haphazardly towards the finish line.
If I were the Marketing Manager at Ford, I’d do the same thing for Geelong matches, but have the Ranger smash all-comers at a pace that would have Usain Bolt leave without any prizes whatsoever (though I suppose if I were in that role, I’d have to justify the existence of the weird, ugly, part-SUV-part-station-wagon- ish Mustang Mach-E. It says a lot that I find it easier to justify my North membership than I would owning that vehicle. Blech).
But, as far as on-ground action is concerned, well it was more a matter of some players looking less bad than others, really.
Actually, that’s not quite fair. There were a few players who looked quite impressive, even if the general play won’t stir the loins of any neutral fans.
Luke Davies-Uniacke tried his guts out all day, putting together one of the more complete games I can recall seeing from him. 26 touches, 10 marks, 9 tackles, 6 clearances and running at 84% efficiency. While the disposal efficiency can be a bit of an unreliable stat, his work inside to find a teammate while most of them were standing around like a council worker on smoke-o break was impressive. Unfortunately is rarely resulted in effective possession chains, and he didn’t get much help on the inside, especially once Wardlaw went down with hamstring tightness.
Bailey Scott and Harry Sheezel both continued their stellar years, getting plenty of the ball and usually being smart about it. Scott in particular amassed nearly 800 metres gained and was one of the few able to spot a long option by foot and actually hit the target semi-regularly.
But that’s about where the good ends for North.
For the Hawks, James Worpel was a dominant force playing in the middle or up forward. His 1.3 return could be improved, but he was hardly the only one having trouble finding the big sticks. Worpel’s 32 touches came with seven clearances, and a very respectable 702 metres gained, and will likely see him take three votes from this game.
Day, Amon, Nash and Newcombe all worked well around the ball, outclassing and out-muscling their opponents frequently.
3.13 at half time is not a great return for the effort Hawthorn put in. Despite having sixteen scoring shots to North’s five, they entered the main break just one goal ahead. Many of these were gettable, with several being set shots that should have been converted by anyone at an AFL level.
To be fair, Hawthorn did remedy this in the second half, managing 9.3 for the rest of the match, though much of it was under far less pressure as North went into their shell.
For North, the bad on-field display was made even worse with injuries. Wardlaw was taken off early with hamstring soreness, and I’d be shocked if they risked him next week. He’s already had injuries to his legs last year, and if North are going to find form in 2024, he’ll need to be a part of it.
Along with Wardlaw, Cam Zurhaar seems to have had something of a freak ankle injury that could see him sidelined for a while, Jackson Archer pulled a hammy, and Callum Coleman-Jones had his second recent concussion, so will be forced to spend a couple of weeks on the sidelines as he is assessed.
Liam Shiels went down clutching his knee as he landed awkwardly, with many Hawthorn fans in the crowd expressing their hope that he was OK. Whoever they were praying to must have listened, as he went from hobbling old man to running around again as if he’d been given some high-quality H2O from a simpleton waterboy.
Aside from the injuries, there was plenty to pick on here for North. The structure around the ball was astonishingly bad, with Hawthorn regularly drawing defenders wide to open the corridor. If David Warner could get easy runs like this, Australia would already have the Ashes.
Additionally, the back six was dysfunctional at best. From the sidelines, it seemed there was no leader back there, despite captain Luke McDonald sitting on the flank for much of the match. It may be that McKay, Corr and McDonald just don’t understand the role of backline general enough to gel together, as they’ve struggled to have someone actually manage the backs since Robbie Tarrant left for Richmond.
Incidentally, congrats to Robbie on a great career. I strongly believe that had he played for another side, he’d have made All-Australian.
The most frustrating part though—and I feel confident Clarko will agree—is how often North had their tackles simply ignored.
Tackling is a tricky action in modern footy. Can’t be too rough, can’t sling, can’t get too high, can’t get too low… I can understand the confusion, especially as North have consistently given away more free kicks than their opponents in 2023 (not to mention 50 metre penalties).
But, sticking a tackle is a massive indicator of intent.
This was an interesting match up for my money. With Goldstein in the twos, it was Xerri and Coleman-Jones taking on Ned “Noodle” Reeves and Lloyd Meek. I can’t think of a game where the rucks and back up rucks were all so young. Maybe it’s a record? I wouldn’t know where to start researching that.
At the match itself, I was fairly impressed with Xerri. I rate Reeves very highly as a ruck, but I’d say that Xerri managed to equal the output of the big boxhead. They had similar hitout numbers, with Reeves getting slightly more hitouts to advantage with six to Xerri’s four, while Xerri managed more clearances from stoppages with six to Reeve’s one.
While I think that Reeves integrated better with his midfield, as a solo effort, I’m giving the nod to Xerri for playing a bit of a lone hand.
The integration between mids and ruck can’t be underestimated though. Having played as possibly the game’s shortest ruck for much of my junior years, I was made to look good by having two All-Australian U/18 midfielders, as well as the fact that opposing ruckmen were not too bright. If I was losing the taps, my mids would set up behind me to shark the ball. If I was winning, they’d go to the side I indicated. If it was split, they’d set up slightly defensively so they could attack the drop of the ball hard.
That’s just nuffie country footy, but the gelling between the ruck and mids matters even more when the pace is exponentially faster at an AFL level. Clearances depend on mids running in straight lines. If the ball is tapped to where they are or worse, where they were, they won’t be able to get a kick off in time to clear the ball.
Xerri hasn’t really played much with North’s AFL midfield, having spent more time with the second string players in the VFL. Hopefully, once he’s had a chance to understand the mids around him (and with Simpkin returning) he’ll be a bit more effective from a team perspective.
The second string match up between CCJ and Meek was far less of a contest, with Meek easily out-performing Coleman-Jones in all measurable metrics. CCJ has had some good VFL form, but still seems to suffer from a crisis of confidence at an AFL level since joining the Roos from the Tigers. He has enormous potential though, so maybe the return of Clarkson in a fortnight will be the sort of spark he needs.
The tertiary ruckmen were also interesting, with Mitch Lewis and Nick Larkey chipping in for forward ruck duties a couple of times, but it was very confusing to see Jaidyn Stephenson and Harry Sheezel take ruck duties in North’s forward line multiple times for boundary throw ins. I’m at a complete loss on why this happened. A ball up may allow them to use timing and leap to overcome the height difference, but being shoulder-to-shoulder with Reeves while giving up more than a foot in height and more than 20kg in weight makes it practically impossible to have any impact on the tap under the current “no third man up” ruleset.
The stats that matter
There were plenty of indicator stats here. The inside 50s was a big one, with Hawthorn winning that 70-41, but also the efficiency inside 50 favoured them 22%-37.1%, aided by winning the marks inside 50 stat 9-3. This is despite North having more marks overall 107-89, showing just how easily Hawthorn were able to penetrate North’s defence.
Most of the other stats don’t shame North too badly, which just further emphasises that the issue isn’t with getting the ball, but doing the right thing with it when they do. It’s the intangible factors of situational awareness and decision-making that need to be improved the most, and that’s not a quick fix in a team coming from this far back.
If you’re not familiar with a young lad for North by the name of Eddie Ford, he’s worth having a look at. He’s in his second season at the Roos, being picked up in the fourth round of the 2021 draft. Injury and form have kept him out of the AFL side for a while, but it doesn’t seem to have affected his confidence at all, as shown with his interaction with James Sicily. For anyone that hasn’t seen the vision, the rookie was standing beside the opposing captain, loudly pondering why a player of Sicily’s calibre had so few possessions in the first quarter, while Ford was able to list many more of his own.
It’s cheeky as all hell from a kid yet to claim his first AFL win, but it’s the sort of belligerent confidence that Sicily can probably relate to, and certainly not the worst attitude seen on the day.
Once again, the subject of priority picks and assistance packages has been raised. Some people are against it due to the fact it compromises the draft, but it’s fair to say that North have also been the victim of a compromised draft too. Would the squad be better with the inclusion of Daicos and Ashcroft? No way to be certain, but they didn’t have the choice, and with Jed Walter Gold Coast bound, they’ll have to deal with that again.
Whether further compromising the draft is the answer is a question worth thinking about, but very few people are making noises about stopping father-son or academy eligibility, so for now equalisation takes whatever form it has to take.
I would expect it to be closer to the ‘trade only’ sort of picks that North received last year than the multiple open picks Gold Coast had over the last few years, but when the formula can be summed up as “Lol, trust me bro!”, it’s anyone’s guess what the outcome will be.
Both teams will be ramping up their efforts towards this season’s goal—drafting and trading in good talent.
Hawthorn have a six-day turnaround to take on the mercurial Richmond side that is coming off an interstate win against the highly-probable wooden-spooners, West Coast.
While Richmond led from the time they kicked their first through to the end of the match, they weren’t terribly impressive as their clearance work showed. They were efficient when they did win their own ball though, and did manage to notch their third win in a row. Unfortunately, that will mean endless articles from tertiary sporting publications and one particularly high-profile sports journo about how their form is building into a tempest that may engulf every other team in its fury as they sprint towards a flag.
Hawthorn have improved in the last two weeks after big losses to Gold Coast and Carlton, and while they will put in the effort, Richmond need a big win if they’re to play finals. It’s not impossible that in search of percentage, their attacking play will leave them vulnerable to Hawthorn’s running game, but I wouldn’t put any hard-earned money on an upset here.