North Melbourne v Gold Coast – The Mongrel Review


Ah, the final round of the regular season is here. It’s a special time of the year when some teams are cruising into a premiership tilt, some are scrambling, some are watching other matches with a calculator in hand and the phrase “mathematically possible” on repeat in their head, and others are just plotting their Mad Monday costumes.

Every year, there are also some surprise results too.

With neither team playing finals, the only real stakes were pride and future opportunities, and in a huge form reversal, North managed to take their opportunities and notch up a win, ending their 20-game losing streak, avoiding a three-peat of wooden spoons while Gold Coast bided their time until the Dimma effect rolls into town.


The build-up

Practically all of the build-up was focused on the bed-wetting panic attack that was media pundits accusing North Melbourne of tanking for the spoon. It was at such a point that it seemed no commentary on the team or the game was complete without some level of admonition that North were focused on the number one pick and Harley Reid.

The only problem was… it hadn’t happened yet.

And then it didn’t happen at all.

It’s one thing to bemoan North’s season—no argument there, they’ve been terrible in 2023—but to clutch their pearls in outrage at an event that hadn’t even taken place yet is the sort of hyper-anxious behaviour that would make a movie about Chicken Little directed by Woody Allen seem to be a calm affair. Damo had his scathing opinion. Caro had her scathing opinion. I wouldn’t be surprised if Steve-O had something to say about it, considering that most who threw their words in seemed to have spent more time stealing content from reddit than watching late-season North games.

But all the hand-wringing was for naught.

For Gold Coast, the game was more about finishing off the season and showing the incoming coach what they could do. Finals were off the table, so it’s all about list spots and making a statement about who wants to be there and who is just treading water, especially after injuries to exciting youngsters. Their focus will be on getting a big preseason into young legs, which means getting through the game without injury worries, but losing to a bottom-dwelling team is the sort of sting that would definitely irk them—though it may also be the type of result that drives them to put in even more during the off-season. Time will tell.


Ins and outs

With retirements and injuries, North has called up pretty much every AFL-listed player they have for the final game. LDU ends his season early after a surfing mishap, McDonald didn’t recover from the last match well, and Jack Ziebell has called time on his career. This allowed Lazzaro, Dawson and Bergman to come in, and left their VFL squad with only four AFL-experienced players for their match (Archer, Bonar, Spicer & Young).

The Suns weren’t without their own concerns either, with Lukosius missing the game due to an Achilles injury, and Humphrey with a finger. Anyone who has watched the Suns this season will understand that these two are in career-best form, and are a key element in the future success of the side, so taking the field without them is no small matter, though it makes sense given that the focus is squarely on 2024 for the team.


The game

If you’re reading this as a non-North Melbourne supporter, then it’s likely you haven’t watched North play very often. And why would you? For a vast majority of the season, their best wasn’t good enough, and their worst made the team look like someone slipped fentanyl into their Gatorade.

But, despite missing some of their key players, North were good here. Very good. The ball movement was the best they’ve had all year (though that isn’t saying much). For most of the season, a far too common occurrence was for a player to get the contested ball and handball behind a running teammate, forcing them to stop and get caught, or worse for the ball to be intercepted and turned over.

This is the one game this season (or in the past few if I’m honest) where possession chains looked solid. Players like Scott, Powell, Phillips, Taylor, Curtis and Sheezel were fantastic in the speed and accuracy of their ball movement. For the first time this season, they looked decisive. They took quick options to move the ball, but held it up when they had to. They kicked inside 50 with accuracy and intent. They focused on maintaining possession and pushing for overlap running while actually hitting their targets, a phenomenal improvement on earlier in the season.

This isn’t to say North are a reborn team though. Gold Coast’s intent was there, but there was a noticeable lack of pressure and gut-running that they’ve shown at times this season. They had players that competed all day, like Rowell, Flanders, Anderson and Miller, but they lacked the intensity that was a hallmark of their wins against finalists St Kilda and especially Brisbane.

The first quarter had plenty to see, with both teams pushing to implement their gameplan and control the stoppages. Gold Coast looked in excellent form as Casboult, Rosas and Flanders kept North’s defence on the back ropes. The brittleness of North’s backline has been a big concern all season, so when the Suns got away to a quick lead, the North supporters in attendance would be forgiven for spending their time watching Harley Reid highlight reels.

As the quarter wound down, North started to hit their stride through rapid transitions from defence that caught Gold Coast flat-footed, gifting shots to Nick Larkey and Darcy Tucker.

As the game continued, there were a few incidents of physicality that showed that both sides wanted the win, notably a fracas between Rowell and Simpkin that caused both sides to fly the flag, but overall North showed much more intensity and drive than Gold Coast.


The second quarter was where the Suns made their claim on the game, kicking away to a 28-point lead and putting North’s commitment into question. In the first ten minutes, their ascendency in the ruck and ability to pressure the ball carrier had North doubting their passing ability, and the Suns capitalised on the mistakes.

The rest of the quarter though, was all North.

Nick Larkey kicked three goals off his own boot, blending strong overhead work with excellent positioning, and most importantly, coordinating his leading lanes with small forwards Paul Curtis and Eddie Ford.

By half-time, North had pegged the deficit back to a single goal, largely through control of stoppage clearances and moving the ball forward at all costs when they were on a fast break.


Third quarters have been North’s kryptonite for 2023. Well, their other quarters haven’t been awesome either, but in games against teams like Sydney, Essendon, Melbourne and St Kilda, they came into the third quarter leading, and ended that quarter with the match out of their reach.

This is one of the few games where they were able to reverse that trend.

North kicked six goals to the Suns’ two as they out-worked their opponents and had pressure applied all over the ground. Turner, Lazzaro and Thomas relentlessly chased down dangerous opponents in Rowell, Anderson and Miller to pressure them just enough to impact their usually stellar disposal efficiency. Rowell, Anderson and Miller still had excellent games, combining for 22 clearances and 25 score involvements, but when they needed to be clean with the ball, they found someone right on their hammer. Often they were good enough to make it work anyway, but far too regularly they were impacted just enough to force a turnover, or more often, their target player hesitated or avoided contact, resulting in a surge forward turning into a contested ball.


The difference in commitment between the two teams could not have been more apparent than late in the third quarter when a Lloyd Johnston kick from centre half back to a running Collins on the flank was a little too far forward, forcing Collins to run with one eye over his shoulder, tracking the ball as Daniel Howe came steaming forward to intercept. The ball fell right between them, and despite having around 20kgs on Howe, it was Collins who took the short step to avoid contact while Howe hit the ball at pace and took it away, setting up another attacking opportunity for the Roos.

It’d be harsh to come down too hard on Collins there, as running with the flight into a player steaming towards you is never easy, but if Gold Coast needed this win to play finals, it’d be almost expected for him to put his body on the line, especially as one of the biggest blokes on the field.


With the margin getting close to three goals in North’s favour as the final quarter started, not even the most confident Roos supporters would have been comfortable claiming victory, yet their side seemed unshaken at being in the unusual position of pushing for the win.

If an omen was needed, then it was quickly provided as Kayne Turner lined up from just beyond the 50 metre arc, only for Aiden Corr to run by for the quick handball and shot on goal, which duly sailed through the posts for his first major in the blue and white strip.

It took Corr 41 games to register his first goal for the Roos, though in fairness it was only the third in his 139-game career (giving him an average of 0.02 goals per game). The team got around him, as is tradition, but the fact that Corr had the freedom to even attempt the action shows just how up-and-about North were at that moment.

He’s lucky he kicked it though. Forward rarely enjoy a backman sneaking into their territory.

The rest of the match was exemplified by North’s attack on the ball as they moved with confidence unseen since… well about five coaches ago. Gold Coast fought back well to avoid a blowout, but the Roos could not be denied as they passed the 100-point mark for the first time since they played Carlton in round 19, 2021, and their highest score since their 22.12 gave them an 86-point demolition of Port Adelaide in Round 22, 2019.


Nick Larkey

There is a good reason why Larkey is being talked about as an All-Australian forward, despite finishing behind Curnow and Walker in the Coleman medal, and not just his nine-goal haul in this match.

A criticism has been that he’s the sole focal point of the team, and there is some truth to that, however, his 71 goals came from just 100 shots, a staggering 71% accuracy rating that puts him well above every other key forward in the league. Curnow is the closest key forward to Larkey with an accuracy of 61.4%, while Walker sits on 59%.

Now, does that give him an AA berth in front of Walker or Curnow? It’d be hard to argue that the two-time Coleman medalist should miss out, and Walker’s season has been nothing short of brilliant. Both players only had a single goalless game for 2023. Both kicked five or more five times. One striking difference is that 19 of Walker’s goals came against West Coast, while Larkey had a more even contribution, but Tex managed to kick bags against Port and the Saints when Larkey did the same against Richmond and Essendon. Both kicked five against Collingwood.

It’s hard to split them solely as key forwards, though I think Wlaker’s field-kicking accuracy would put him slightly ahead if the team were to actually play a match.

Can the AA side have three key forwards in it? Well, the bench is there for a reason. It could very well come down to whether the selectors see the team as an award for work, or as a team that should be balanced and effective.

Judging by the Mongrel rolling AA team, I’m sure people will argue no matter what happens though.


Sam Flanders

In a side filled to the brim with young talent, there is no doubt that Hardwick is looking at it with optimism and no small amount of enthusiasm. Alongside King, Rowell, Anderson, Lukosius, Humphrey, Rosas and Hollands, young Sam Flanders has had a breakout season. His work both inside and outside the contest has been excellent, and he looks poised to be a highly valuable player for the Suns in 2024.

In this match, he looked like the player most likely to cause issues for North. With Miller held to a lower-than-usual level of influence, Flanders ran hard all game, finding space where there seemed to be none while hitting up teammates inside 50. His two goals both came at times when North had a strong run of possession, showing just how effective he can be when he’s on form.

Getting the most out of him will be a key element of success for the Suns next year, and it’s worth keeping an eye on him, provided he can avoid the injury concerns that have tagged him in his career so far.


Harry Sheezel

Few players have come into the AFL system and had such an immediate impact as Sheezel. It can easily be argued that in only his second game, he won the match against Freo literally off his own boot.

A ball magnet across half back, it’d be a brave person to bet against him winning the Rising Star award (and likely someone who hasn’t see him lay much).

What can be said that hasn’t been said already? In a team lacking polish, he’s shown poise, timing and the ability to find the ball that few players manage to achieve in their whole career.

Time and again, he’d be the vital link in possession chains from half back, often multiple times. He rarely misses his targets by hand or foot and his teammates know they can lead to a spot and expect the ball to be delivered lace out.

Clarko may have said that a big part of the reason he came back to coaching was to be involved in the development of George Wardlaw, but being able to have a hand in seeing Harry’s rise is no small cherry on that cake either.


Ruck battle

This was one of the more interesting ruck battles I can remember watching. You had the old hand Goldstein, a ruck who has been near the top of the talent pool for a long time, and hasn’t dropped off all that much in the twilight of his career, supported by a hungry youngster in Tristian Xerri, trying his hardest to succeed in unseating the 315-gamer.

On the other side of the bounce, we had Jarrod Witts in the prime of his career, blending the power of his big frame with keen disposal by hand and foot to his running mids.

When a ruck is in the form of Witts, you let him take the majority of the taps, and that’s exactly what happened here.

Interestingly, it was Xerri who was his direct opponent for a majority of the match, though they did split duties fairly evenly, with Xerri attending 47 ruck contests to Goldy’s 38. Witts was less egalitarian with his duties, taking 77 taps while Chol and Burgess gave him a chop out on 19 of them.

Right off the bat, Witts had more hitouts and hitouts to advantage than Xerri, but, considering that he had 30 more ruck contests, the 32-24 advantage isn’t as big as it probably should be. Xerri also matched him in clearances and only lagged behind by one in score launches and score involvements.

Still, when a big man attends that many rucks, you can forgive him if he’s slightly less efficient. As a pair, Xerri and Goldy won the day, but as an individual ruck, you have to give credit to Witts for taking on the old master and the young pup without conceding an inch.

Goldy’s future will be decided this offseason, as he seems keen to play on. He’s definitely still a contributor, so I hope he has another go-around.


The stats that matter

Twenty-Two contested possessions for Matty Rowell. Twenty-Two.

That’s a Ben Cunnington-level number from the lad. He was also one of the few to show a bit of spark as he took on every North player within arm’s reach, and openly targeted Simpkin with a bit of strong, contested footy. Nothing wrong with making a physical statement, and it seemed to frustrate Simpkin as well.

Bailey Scott capped off his career-best season with 33 touches and locked down his flank to complement Sheezel on the other. Most of North’s possession chains and score launches went through the hands of those two, and if North are to move up the ladder next year, that will have to continue.

North won the important marks inside 50 stat 22-8, reflecting a frankly astronomical improvement in their forward 50 delivery, aided by Larkey’s ability to coordinate his leading patterns with his other forwards to ensure they didn’t spoil each other, while still being close enough to support if the ball spilled to the ground.

North also won the tackles inside 50 count 12-6, spearheaded by Tarryn Thomas, who had an excellent game in front of his home crowd.


What now?

Both teams will be eagerly awaiting the draft, with Gold Coast set to welcome multiple academy picks, topped by one of the best young talls I can remember seeing in Jed Walter. Big players tend to take a few years to mature, but Walter looks like someone in their physical prime already. He moves well and loves a bit of a physical contest. It won’t take much to prep him for AFL, and he has the mobility to play further up the ground in bursts as well.

To complement him, the other academy players are fellow young guns Ethan Read (Ruck) and Jake Rogers (small forward). Gold Coast will likely have to trade in some draft points to get them, especially if they have to match Walter’s bid if it comes in the top 3 as expected.

North will start with pick two in their hand, but will potentially add pick three as free agency compensation if McKay leaves for greener pastures. How North use these picks will define the draft for the rest of the competition. West Coast seem very keen on WA boy Daniel Curtin, and KPPs are in very short supply this year. There is absolutely no chance he’s still on the board for West Coast’s second pick (currently 19, but likely to sit around 25 once other free agency compensation picks, academy and father-son bids are brought in), so if they want him, they may be willing to trade down the order. Would they accept pick 3 and pick 16 from North and forgo the highly-rated Harley Reid to pick up multiple players? Or will they roll the dice and add Reid to their side, knowing there has been some noise about him wanting to pull a JHF and head back to Victoria?

Getting that call right will be something that will take up a lot of time between now and draft night, and North will be looking to be involved in trades wherever they can to strengthen their hand—especially if they receive the controversial assistance package that has been touted).

There have also been rumours that Tarryn Thomas may be forced out due to his off-field behaviour, but that makes little sense to me. North have already eaten the reputational hit of his actions, letting him go after the price has been paid and he’s in career-best form doesn’t seem likely.

What does seem likely is that despite North winning the match and forgoing the top draft pick, there is still a chance they may pick up Reid if West Coast decides to play it safe.

In any case, draft night will be extremely interesting for both Gold Coast and North in 2023.