North Melbourne v West Coast - The Good, Bad and Ugly

North Melbourne reignited their finals hopes with a solid outing against the West Coast Eagles in Hobart, winning by 40 points to move to within one game of eighth position.

Here’s The Mongrel’s good, bad and ugly.

THE GOOD

Paul Ahern

Check out these numbers. 37 disposals, 22 contested disposals and 12 clearances. Six score involvements and a direct goal assist. Are these Patrick Cripps’ numbers from yesterday? Maybe Tom Mitchell? How about his running mate, Ben Cunnington? Nope, they belonged to a young man who has made a name for himself the hard way.

Paul Ahern was taken at #7 in the 2014 draft and has had a terrible run with injuries, but this season, in his eight games, he has demonstrated the perseverance and determination to come back and play at the highest level. This kind of hardship, and the ability to rebound from two knee reconstructions will hopefully see him become a force for the Kangaroos.

He cost the Roos pick 69 after three years injured and unable to break into the Giants’ side. The Roos took a gamble and it is paying off. He is a strong body, has good hands and displayed excellent vision to farm the ball out to teammates today.

He will use the rest of this season to improve, get another pre-season under his belt, and he could be a monster next season if he can continue getting a clear run at it. Astute recruiting by the Roos. They say fortune favours the brave, and in the recruiting of Paul Ahern, the Footy Gods are smiling on North Melbourne. I’d love to see them play finals, and I’d love to see Ahern have an impact when they get there.

Ben Cunnington

So the numbers for Ahern were great, but he is still the apprentice. Cunnington is the master in royal blue and white.

The North Melbourne workhorse gathered 39 touches and counted 22 contested touches amongst them. He added 10 tackles and seven clearances as well to provide North with the drive that they expect from him.

I wrote a few weeks back that Cunnington has the kind of hands that could squeeze the air out of the ball if he tried. Once he gets his hands on the footy, it does not get dislodged. He either chooses to release it, or it stays locked in his hands. It’s the same with his tackling – if he wraps you up, you stay wrapped up. You don’t take on the Cunnington tackle. He takes the punishment that comes with being an inside mid, and does it with aplomb, often bouncing off an intended tackle, keeping his arms free and releasing to a teammate in better position.

Higgins might be the class on the outside, but having Cunnington on inside allows him to flourish. What a great pair they’re proving to be.

Ziebell v McGovern

McGovern drifted a bit today, playing on a combination of Mason Wood, Ben Brown and Jack Ziebell, but I loved watching best when he was head-to-head with the North Captain.

Ziebell is a ripping player – hard at it, good footy brain and never, ever shirks an issue. His will initiate contact and have the strength to stand his ground and pluck a mark, but doing it against a mountain with legs like McGovern is something else entirely.

On the opposite side, McGovern is the kind of player that just makes the ball his when it’s in the air. When he was matched up against Ziebell today, he didn’t have the luxury of doing that – the North Captain is too dangerous.

With Ziebell playing deep forward in the first quarter, I was rapt to see McGovern line up on him. The recently re-signed Eagles defender took a nice contested mark against Ziebell early, but Jack turned the tables and caught him holding the ball minutes later.

We didn’t get to see them in a true one-on-one contest again until the second quarter, where Ziebell was able to move McGovern off his line and mark cleanly to kick a goal. Minutes later, a spearing pass through the middle to Ziebell looked as though he’d swallow it, but a diving fist from Gov spoiled it at the last possible moment.

Ziebell moved around the ground, and Gov zoned off after that, picking up different opponents, but for a period in the first half, these two provided some genuine man-on-man highlights. Good to see in the modern game.

Proving the experts wrong

I pointed this out earlier in the year when North started winning a bit, but it really hits home now. I saved it at the time, as I thought these guys were way off the mark about North.

The following “experts” tipped North to win the wooden spoon in their SEN pre-season tips

Andy Maher

Adam Cooney

Liam Pickering

Dermott Brereton

Sam Edmund

Garry Lyon

Tim Watson

Dr Turf

So, on behalf of North Melbourne supporters, may I extend all of you the middle finger. All except Dermott… I like Dermott. Seriously though, many in the media and in the footy public in general really missed the boat on North this year. The improvement has been exceptional, with guys like Anderson, Simpkin, Dumont and Turner coming along nicely. The return of Ben Jacobs this year was very welcome by everyone other than his opponents, and the sheer will of the resolute defenders in Tarrant and Thompson was underrated.

There are quite a few that would like to have those predictions over again, and I really hope North hits the finals in a big way to make them further regret writing off a team with a huge heart.

Tarrant and Thompson

We’ll get to Jack Darling in a minute, but these two were excellent, working in tandem all day to cut off and/or destroy any long ball into the Eagles’ forward line.

The stats don’t tell the story. They had one contested mark between them, but they are not your Jeremy McGovern-type of defenders. These two are contest killers. They leave the big high marks to the flying Majak Daw, instead opting to bring the ball to ground for the small defenders to clean up.

They had 23 combined touches and 10 marks but were pillars of strength, easily repelling the long ball into the North defence.

Higgins v Hutchings

Some people hate watching a classy mid being stifled by a tagger, but not me – I love it.

Hutchings really put the clamps on the 200-gamer today in the first half, and Higgins was starting to feel it. He’s been targeted all year and it looked like it finally got to the reigning North best and fairest today, as he dragged Hutchings to the ground behind play.

It would be hypocritical of a North supporter to criticize the tactics of Hutchings, particularly as North have a player on their list named Ben Jacobs, so I expect that’ll be reflected in any comments, right North fans? Right!?!?!

What is most enjoyable about these duels is that you get to see just how deep a player will dig to overcome the attention he’s getting.

After Higgins was restricted to two touches in the first quarter, he had seven in the second, six in the pivotal third and six more in the last to finish with 21 for the game, but it was his late goal in the third quarter, and early goal in the last that hurt the Eagles.

I am sure Higgins would like to have played better in his 200th game, but sometimes there is immense satisfaction to be had in overcoming obstacles than there is in getting free reign. Today, Higgins overcame the obstacle that was Mark Hutchings, but it wasn’t easy, and the Eagles stopper had plenty of wins along the way as well. He finished with 18 touches and six tackles, but didn’t hit the scoreboard

Tom Barrass

For a while it looked as though Tom Barrass may have been pivotal in defensive half for the Eagles. He is very solid overhead and reads the play well. With McGovern looking to zone off at times, Barrass’ role becomes vital to the West Coast defence.

He had only 14 touches for the game, but took a few very important marks and offered nice protection for others as they backed into contests. His four contested marks were an equal game high, and whilst players like Daw and McGovern look more spectacular in the air, the result is the same for Barrass – he doesn’t get the credit he deserves.

THE BAD

Jack Darling misses his mate

That injury really derailed the Jack Darling train, and for the Eagles to make some September noise he will need to be a lot better than he was today.

The Hobart conditions are not really conducive to big forwards dominating, as evidenced by the low output from Ben Brown, but Darling didn’t look like it today. He did lay a few nice tackles, and was probably completely robbed on a tackle in the last quarter when he caught Jamie Macmillan red handed 30 metres out and it was called a stoppage – it was a terrible call.

On the positive side, he did have two direct goal assists on the night – one to Rioli out the back, and one on the handball to Elliot Yeo. He is much better when he gets a clean run at it, but the twin defenders of Tarrant and Thompson prevented that in a stellar defensive performance. He may have been more effective with his partner-in-crime present to aid him and take a bit of the attention.

THE UGLY

Ben Jacobs still missing

This is becoming a real concern now. North are a much better team, and their midfield operates much better with Ben Jacobs in there.

He’s now been absent from the senior side for several weeks, and has played just one game since Round 12 due to the lingering effects of concussion. We’ve already seen Liam Picken miss basically the whole season due to a similar issue, and Saint, Kobe Stevens announced his retirement during the week for the same.

Check this out. Jacobs’ last full season was 2015. Since the start of that season, North have a record of 29 wins and 14 losses with Jacobs in the side. And without him they’re 14-29.

It’s a stretch to put those opposite records down to Jacobs’ presence, but it is hard to ignore. Fingers crossed that he can recover and get back in time for the finals should North make it. I’d love to see him standing next to a Joel Selwood, Josh Kelly or Scott Pendlebury as the siren sounds to start the 2018 finals series.

OTHER BITS

Forget Joel Selwood… Willie Rioli’s ducking was out of control in the third quarter. He tried it once and everyone stopped, expecting him to draw a free kick. It was really well-umpired to call play on, and then ping him for holding the ball.

Undaunted, Willie tried it again minutes later. He was caught again but this time there was no free kick for holding the ball. As far as I am concerned, if you duck into a tackle, you should lose your prior opportunity and be adjudged holding the ball immediately. Want to stop players ducking? Punish them!

Majak Daw looked great when he got a clean run at it again today. He had three intercept marks early in the game before the Eagles started waking up to it.

North really let the Eagles off the hook early with poor kicking for goal. How was it that they could not make the distance from just inside the 50 metre arc (says the guy who can barely kick over a jam jar these days), but when Jamie Cripps had his first shot from 50 in the second quarter it sailed through? I thought North knew how to play Tassie?

If you’re a West Coast supporter, how nice was it to see Jack Darling crash into Sam Wright when he decided to sit under the ball in the first quarter? Need a bit more of that from the big fella.

Not much in the late contact against Ben Brown on Mark LeCras. He got the 50 metre penalty and that was about right, particularly with his kick sailing through for a goal from 55m. what a kick!

Already mentioned Ahern up top, but just had a thought – he reminds me a fair bit of Michael Barlow. Let’s hope he gets a better run with injuries than Barlow’s had late in his career.

I hate seeing blokes not take responsibility for a shot at goal, and that’s what I saw with the Eagles in the second quarter around the 50 metre mark. Eventually they were brought undone without getting a shot away. Frustrating.

Riolis know where the goals are, huh? Willie’s goal from the pocket to beat the lunging Macmillan was so nonchalant.

Wrote about Ziebell before too, but wanted to highlight that when he gets the chance to spoil in the air, he does it with venom. His fist and body on Gaff on the outer wing was a spoil with intent!

As good as Majak has been recently, there is an aspect of his game that worries me. His delivery by hand, whether at close quarters, or when there is some pressure on him, can be quite erratic. What that does is transfers pressure from him to a teammate… no one likes that. He has to hit targets and not make it more difficult for his fellow defenders.

If you don’t hit Ben Brown on the lead, he doesn’t really look like getting it at the moment. Is he carrying a niggle? He has virtually no elevation currently. Maybe it’s always been that way and I just never noticed?

The value of Jed Anderson was on display in the second quarter as he was involved three times in the North chain of disposals down the outer wing. How was he rewarded? A few moments later he got a pair of knees in the back as he was on the ground and was penalised for contact below the knees. I hate that rule…

Liked the game of Goldstein today. He had 22 touches and 44 hit outs, and his feed by hand whilst on his knees to get Shaun Higgins running was indicative as to how hard he was working. Higgins went forward and slammed home the goal. Great work Goldy.

Speaking of Goldy, his mark, basically uncontested 25 metres out, from a free kick outside 50 on the boundary would have Adam Simpson tearing his hair out. These are the sorts of contests that McGovern should come in and destroy.

At this point, David king offered this pearl of wisdom. “For the Eagles to get back into this game…” as they trailed by three points. They were in the bloody game, Kingy! They were down by three points!

Great work by Kane Turner to compete in the air against both LeCras and Petruccelle in the third quarter and force it out of bounds. It looked like a goal coming up to West Coast but for his efforts.

Ben Brown had a bit of a down day and his handball at half back to Higgins almost sold him into huge trouble. Higgins breaking the tackle and hitting Marley Williams on the wing.

Old mate David King then suggested that McGovern be moved forward. He’s had five goals for the year and his last move forward probably cost him All-Australian squad consideration.

Wonderful balance by Paul Ahern to thread the needle to Mason Wood at 30 metres out. He is a good driver in heavy traffic.

Loved Marley Williams showing poise and faking out three Eagles with a sell of the candy on half back. He bought himself enough time to assess properly and deliver, rather than throw the ball on his boot, which has been guilty of plenty of times this season.

Scotty Thompson’s eyes got a little wide when he found himself with the footy 50 metres out. Not sure I’ve seen someone miss the entire goals by 30 metres from that range in a while.

The umps were a little quick on the whistle on a couple of occasions late. The free kick to Gaff that was called a “trip… holding the legs” despite him being in mid-air probably should’ve been let go. Same for Wood running into Duggan minutes before, which was called for tunnelling. It just looked like good body work to me.

The Rioli brilliance was on display again in the fourth, as he knew if he took possession of the ball on the wing, he’d be tackled. Instead, a deft tap saw the Eagles retain possession and go forward, where Venables found Cripps for a shot and a miss.

Overall, this was the win the Roos needed. Their pressure around the ball was good and had been missing for a few weeks, and if not missing, it was matched and surpassed by their opposition. They have Brisbane next week in what looms as a danger game given the Lions’ recent form.

For the Eagles, they need to get out of Tassie, get home and prepare for the second derby of the year. They should win this – they really should, but it’s a derby, and anything can happen in these games. I never miss them.

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