There is a lot to be said for organic growth of a list in the AFL. Sure it can be complemented by the addition of players to bolster the ranks, but the best teams of the modern age have a nucleus they’ve grown from the draft, perservered with, and turned into club champions.
Geelong did it with their core of stars from the 2001 draft – Gary Ablett, Jimmy Bartel, Steve Johnson and James Kelly. Hawthorn did it with players from multiple drafts – Luke Hodge, Sam Mitchell, Jordan Lewis, Cyril Rioli and of course, Buddy and Rough. More recent premiers have built their lists internally to rise to the top of the league – the Tigers in 2017 adding a couple of players to bolster to the core of Cotchin, Martin, Rance and Riewoldt, and the Bulldogs coming from nowhere with ostensibly the same list as 2015, with a couple of minor additions (I say minor because except for one game, Tom Boyd’s contribution has been minor) to take the flag.
The West Coast Eagles retained a strong playing list after the 2017 season. That stability lead to a flag heading west. They added only players they obtained through the draft in the last couple of years, providing a solid grounding for their youngsters to come into a settled program.
As the rumours continue to circulate and slowly morph into fact, North Melbourne appears to be in a powerful off-season position.
Whilst there is no word as of writing on where Andrew Gaff will play in 2019, the Kangaroos have already received word that Aaron Hall, Nic Newman and Jared Polec will be joining the club for next season.
It is reason to celebrate for North and their fans. They’ve been the bridesmaids in free agency dealings over the past few years, most recently throwing the kitchen sink at both Josh Kelly and Dustin Martin, both to no avail.
The vaunted North Melbourne “war chest” was bound to snare some top quality players eventually, but with the possibility of three experienced new faces at Arden Street (at the very least) for the start of pre-season, the Roos may be well-served looking at recent history in order to assess whether this tactic of big spending is the right way to go about building a winner.
The 2018 version of the Kangaroos surprised almost all media pundits. In fact, many “experts” predicted North would not only have a poor season, but finish stone cold, motherless last. The first half of their season was excellent. After 11 rounds, they had a 7-4 record, and a September berth seemed to be a distinct possibility. With Ben Jacobs returning to the line-up and practicing his negating tactics as well as he ever has, the progression of Jed Anderson as a bull at stoppages, and the midfield combination of Shaun Higgins and Ben Cunnington playing perfectly complementary roles to each other’s styles, the Roos were able to feed a forward line set up of Ben Brown, Jarrad Waite and Jack Ziebell perfectly.
And they did it without landing a big name free agent.
Though the Kangaroos finished ninth, their overall achievements are rightfully rated above both Port Adelaide and Essendon, not only due to ladder position, but largely due to the fact that no one expected anything like the season they produced from them. They improved organically – a team building together, and growing together.
It’s why their splurge on free agents has me worried. The players they’re chasing are not (in two regards at least) complementary players. Gaff and Polec (to a lesser extent) are stars.
The Bombers went on a recruiting spree at the conclusion of 2017, adding Adam Saad, Jake Stringer and Devon Smith to their line up, but losing Joe Daniher so early in the season, combined with some deplorable form early in the season, saw them miss the finals. You can’t deny the impact those three had on the club. Smith led the team (and the league) in tackles en route to winning the Crichton Medal in his first year with the club, Saad led the team (and the league) in running bounces off half back, and Stringer led the team in goals.
Yet they missed the finals. In essence, despite these big name additions, they got worse. Then what was the problem? We’ll get to that.
Port Adelaide had their share of big name recruits as well. Jack Watts, Steven Motlop and Tom Rockliff joined a team that had made the finals a year before. Port finished the season terribly, dropping their final four games of the year to go from contending for a top two spot to finishing tenth.
Jack Watts continued to disappoint at a new club on a regular basis, being dropped mid-season to find form. He followed Tom Rockliff, who looked like he’d forgotten how to play footy on the trip down from Brisbane, averaging four less touches per game than his 2017 form, and nine touches per game less than his 2016 output. In his first four games for Port, Rocky averaged just 12 touches. He simply could not find the footy.
Then there was Steven Motlop, who won games off his own boot and then went missing for stretches way too long for a player of his talent – meanwhile, people at Geelong smiled knowingly.
It was a disastrous pair of results for both the Power and the Bombers, both teams with so much potential on paper, yet so little in terms of results.
In contrast, it was the settled West Coast Eagles prevailing in the Grand Final over Collingwood. A settled bunch, with kids coming through alongside an established cast of veterans, it propelled them to a flag.
Similarly, Collingwood were not huge players in the recent free agency stakes, adding Chris Mayne and Daniel Wells to begin 2017 after adding classy kids like Taylor Adams and Adam Treloar in the preceeding years. However, they added little in the way of stars in 2018. They acquired Jaidyn Stephenson in the draft, whilst Brayden Sier joined the senior side after a couple of years developing his game. There was no magic spell in the form of top-notch recruits to send them into the last day in September. It was a slow build; a journey they made together, and it was a long time coming.
With the addition of high quality talent, both Essendon and Port Adelaide still failed to function. Both actually got worse. There is a lot to be said for team harmony. The addition of these players may have upset a balance created by the playing group prior to their arrival. It may not have, but when the results of the two teams who recruited heavily in one off-season point in the same direction, it can’t be easily dismissed.
With North Melbourne looking to follow suit, can they realistically expect anything more than a year of adaption and possibly, pain?
Whilst you can look at the additional quality of those looking to join the Shinboners and draw the logical conclusion that they'll simply be better again, how much of the 2018 form can be attributed to a group growing and learning to play together? Improvement from Majak Daw and Trent Dumont came at the right time. Daw grew into his defensive post beautifully as the year wore on. Dumont played all games and had the two strongest games of his young career in the final two rounds, topping 30 touches in both outings. Add to that the renaissance of Todd Goldstein in the ruck, and North found the improvement from within they needed.
The Roos are set to lose Ryan Clarke in what appears will be a straight swap for Nic Newman, but as a whole, the Kangaroos list appears to retain its integrity despite adding talent. In all areas but one, and they’re seemingly not recruiting to fill that void.
The real question for me, is how do the Roos replace the departing Jarrad Waite? I was quite surprised when Waite announced his retirement, particularly when his presence in the North Melbourne team appeared to benefit their full forward so much.
In 2018, Ben Brown averaged 3.07 goals per game with Waite in the side. That dropped to 2.33 goals per game with Waite sidelined. Brown had more of the ball without Waite in the team, but was forced to lead further away from goal to get his hands on it. It was not uncommon to see Brown searching up to the half back line at times to get his hands on the ball in Waite’s absence, which fed right into the hands of opposition defences. It’s no coincidence that after starting 7-4, the Roos lost four of the next seven with Waite out.
Ben Brown in 2018
The key to the forward line functioning well in 2019, and thus the Kangaroos’ success, could once again not be about who they’re bringing in, but who demonstrates that organic improvement. As much as it may send shudders up the spines of North supporters, the Kangaroos require that improvement to come from Mason Wood. I know, Shinboners… it seems as though you’ve been waiting forever for him to step up.
Drafted in 2012, Wood played a career-high 13 games in 2018. As a talent, he is a tease. He would be the sort of date that would wink at you during dinner, rub your leg under the table, take you by the hand and lead you home. You are waiting for the fireworks, but then you get sent off to sleep in the spare room. He needs to seal the deal this year. Six dates (years) is too long to wait without much payoff.
If Wood can fill the void left by Waite, the Kangaroos could be on the right track, however if he can’t, this may lead to an unexpected tumble down the ladder as defences collapse on Brown and other avenues simply don’t present. Ziebell as a third forward is perfect. Ziebell as a clear second option… not so great.
The other thing to factor in here is the health of Ben Jacobs. Criminally underrated at the half way point of the season, he was the competition’s preeminent run-with player. In the games he played in 2018, the Kangaroos were 8-5. Since 2014, their record with Jacobs in the team is an outstanding 43-19. Simply put, when he is in the side, the Kangaroos are a better team. The lingering effects of his concussion became more of a concern for the club as the year rolled on, but with those issues reportedly behind him, he should provide balance to the offensively gifted Roos midfield (a midfield even more offensively gifted if Gaff joins the fray).
It would be a fool’s errand to rely solely on the additions of Polec, Hall, Newman and Gaff to provide the extra kick to get North into the finals. Port and Essendon are the examples that speak of what not to do - they both shoe-horned the new arrivals into a team that was already starting to gel. Team chemistry takes time to develop. There is no quick fix, and no magic recruit to turn it all around. Teams have to develop, and players need to learn their place. For some it’ll be a quick turnaround to find where they sit not only in the team structure, but with their teammates. For others, it may take half the season.
There is also the elephant in the room of a couple of new players making substantially more than established stars of the team. It's not often written about, but once things go awry, questions are quickly asked internally about value for money.
The performance of the North Melbourne Football Club will be one of the most intriguing aspects of the 2019 season. Did they simply over perform in 2018? Or are they the real deal? Amazingly, the answers will not come in the form of those they bring into the club, but in the strength and growth of those already there.
Have they opened up their war chest, or Pandora’s Box?
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