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The "Ifs", "Buts" and Other Stuff - North Melbourne

Talk about an eventful off-season… the Kangaroos are in the midst of one. Buckle in, because I think this might be the longest of our team previews. There’s just so much to get through with North – good and bad. There’ll be those who screw their noses up, those who nod in agreement, and there’ll be those who get genuinely upset at me, but hey… when I started this venture, I wanted to be able to be honest, and that’s exactly what I’ll do here.

The tragic events surrounding the injury to Majak Daw have put a dampener on what should have been a time of hope and anticipation for the Roos. New recruits, a list that played some brilliant football in 2018, and the promise of big things to come were enough to have any North fan smiling.

But Majak Daw leaves a huge hole in a team that started to rely on him in defence. We’ll get into that a little later, as respectfully as possible when discussing what his absence will mean to the team.

As a neutral fan, I can’t help but respect the North Melbourne Football Club. Written off by the “experts” of the footy world, they thumbed their nose at predictions and put together the kind of season I really wanted to see rewarded. They ran hard, took the game on, and played an exciting brand of football. They were involved in games that ranked amongst the best of the season. Clashes against the Swans x 2, Essendon and the Western Bulldogs placed AFL footy in the spotlight as the spectacle it is. The way North plays the game is the way it should be played (sorry Cats fans).

But overcoming the odds once is one thing – what level do they get to next? Let’s see if we can provide some answers with our “ifs” and “buts” of the Kangaroos in 2019.

 

IF…

… history tells us anything, it’s that teams that top up go through an adjustment period.

Not to start out on a negative, but I worry that the strategy of topping up might be a risky one for a team that finished outside the top eight in 2018. I’m a bit believer in organic growth supplemented by recruiting – not the other way around.

Andrew Gaff may have declined the very attractive offer from the Roos (and aren’t some people pretty pissed about it!) but North managed to secure the valuable services of Jared Polec, Aaron Hall, and Jasper Pittard. In addition, they picked up Dom Tyson for next to nothing.

Looking at those additions, the Roos did very well on paper. They lost Ryan Clarke to Sydney, but on the whole, their additions are huge positives. On face value, they win the off-season, but I keep wondering whether they will they gel as a team quickly, or will it be more of a process?

In 2018, both Essendon and Port Adelaide added several players from other teams. Both sides failed miserably on the back of those additions. Now, in Essendon’s case, it wasn’t the additions that failed – more the team as a whole. It got me wondering how this could happen? You’re injecting talent. You’ve gotten better in the off-season. Surely a better result beckoned?

Nope. Teams take time to start knitting together. Look at places vacant in a team as though, combined, they are a wound on a body. The more players missing, the larger the wound. You can stitch the wound, and cover it up, but the area around the wound is still susceptible once you’ve addressed it. It’s not yet healed, and not yet as strong as it once was. It takes time to knit together and get back to full strength.

The same case can be made for a team. Places in the side have been filled, but they’re yet to knit together. They don’t know each other intrinsically. As good as Devon Smith was for the Bombers, were there missed opportunities because he was just a little unfamiliar with the preferred leading patterns of Jake Stringer? Did Adam Saad grab the ball and run into trouble because he expected Zach Merrett to shepherd for him instead of run into space for the handball receive?

There’s muscle-memory that teams need to develop, and that takes time.

I have little doubt that Jared Polec will get plenty of the ball off half back – he knows how to find it. I expect that Dom Tyson will be in and under when he gets the opportunity – it’s his nature. But will they find the right option in early games? Will they know where their teammates are, what foot they’re going to prefer to kick with, or where they’re looking to double back after the initial lead? And will they know it without having to think about it first?

Essendon took a long while to start to get it together. Port Adelaide were still trying to put it together as they limped toward the end of the season. If North can get these new faces all on the same page quickly, they’ll be a force through the midfield. If they can’t…

… well, sometimes seasons depend heavily on the way you start. North can’t afford to start poorly whilst waiting for everyone to get on the same page.

 

… Ben Jacobs is fit, North are a better side.

I love watching this bloke play. He’s not dirty. He’s not a scragger. He is just one of the most accountable midfielders in the game, and when he is in the side, you know that you’re going to get at least one winner in the midfield.

Ben Jacobs does not lay down.

I’ve thrown this stat out there before, and I’ll do it again, because I love it. North’s record since the beginning of the 2014 sits at 47 wins and 41 losses. With Jacobs on the park for North, they are 38-19 for a win percentage of 66.6%. With him sitting out, they are 9-22 to sit at a measly 29%.

That’s the difference Ben Jacobs makes to the North Melbourne Footy Club. The team walks taller with the knowledge that Jacobs is going out there and will limit the effectiveness of the team’s best midfielder.

There are now some challengers to his throne. Half way through the 2018 season, Jacobs was far and away the best tagging player in the game, but after he was injured, others stepped to the fore. Jack Steele at St Kilda, George Hewett in Sydney, Levi Greenwood at Collingwood and James Harmes at Melbourne all leapt into the conversation as to who is the best stopper in the game.

And then there was Mark Hutchings, who as the season progressed, made a real name for himself.

So where does Jacobs now sit amongst these defensive mids? What does he have to do to sit right at the top; a place he occupied alone prior to his concussion?

The answer comes in Round One, when he will stand next to Nat Fyfe at the first bounce of North’s clash against Fremantle, and attempt to deny one of the most prolific clearance players in the game from having a huge impact. We’ll get into North’s draw later on, but a fast start to 2019 is imperative if they want to play finals, and Jacobs’ job on Fyfe will be a crucial part in how this game plays out.

No pressure, Ben… but with the win percentage North has with you in the team, and with Nat Fyfe as your direct opponent in the season opener, whether North sinks or swims might be on your shoulders.

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…Jed Anderson makes the next step, the North midfield looks elite.

Forget the recruits for a minute – the continued improvement of Jed Anderson is where the Roos will make big inroads in 2019. He made a huge leap in 2018, largely due to the fact he was able to get on, and stay on the park, but with a solid year under his belt, his improvement will make the North midfield an absolute nightmare to deal with.

Think about – Cunnington is a bull. He is a hard man to move whether he is burrowing in to get the ball, or flying for a mark overhead and is complemented perfectly by the silky Shaun Higgins. Ben Jacobs does the stopping, Trent Dumont on the rise, and then there’s Anderson – who does a bit of everything.

Anderson was +8.47 in disposals in 2018, making a huge leap to post career-best numbers. He was also +3.17 clearances and +4.26 contested possessions. If you want to see one of the primary reasons for North’s improvement last season, look no further than Anderson. He became the player North expected when they traded for him at the conclusion of 2015.

So, does he have it in him to add another few disposals per game to his game? Could he push into the 20s and start making teams have to decide whether or not he warrants the attention of one of their preferred stoppers? Or will he be one of the players forced to adapt to a new role as both new recruits start hitting the park (Hall), or younger players start commanding more midfield time (Dumont, Ahern and Simpkin)?

If 2018 was Anderson’s break out season, then 2019 becomes the season he either skyrockets or plummets. Pass mark, for mine, would be 22 touches per game (that’d take another +2.33) and if he can get that goal average up around the two goals every three games mark (0.66 per game up from 0.33), he’d go a long way to ensuring North remains in contention.

 

… Shaun Higgins has another level, we could see something special.

Look, I’m not sure he can top his 2018 performance, particularly given where he’s come from.

I remember watching Higgins at the Bulldogs and thinking he could be a great player… but he just couldn’t stay on the park. His 2008, 2013, and 2016 seasons saw him play a collective 19 games, which was horrible at the time, but in the long run, may have helped preserve his body for this latter stage of his career. It seems funny to say latter stages about Higgins, doesn’t it? It feels as though he is just kicking into gear, huh?

Well, he’s 30 years old, and was taken in the same draft as Scott Pendlebury, who is seeing other Magpie mids start to go past him in terms of accumulating stats, and running power. You could be forgiven for thinking that Higgins has a couple of years on Pendles in age, but it’s not the case. It just seems that way because whilst Higgins was out injured, Pendlebury was right in the mix year after year.

Though he fought injuries such as a navicular issue in 2013, the time spent away from the footy field may have allowed the rest of his body to avoid the wear and tear that comes with the constant AFL grind. Maybe it’s part of the reason he’s able to excel now, as he enters his 30s? Or maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about – it wouldn’t be the first time.

But what I do know is that making a significant leap in stats in your 12th and 13th years is pretty rare. In 2017, Higgins was +6.81 in possessions. He backed that up with another+3.92 in 2018. Can he push to a new level? If he goes +2.6 in 2019, Higgins will slot in at 30 touches per game. There are not many people who would have bet on Higgins reaching the 30-touch per game mark at any stage in his career. What sort of odds do you think you could’ve got three years ago? And what would the odds be now?

Shaun Higgins at 30 touches a game… I can hear opposition coaches quaking in their boots already.

 

 

BUT IF…

… Todd Goldstein goes down, what do North do in the ruck?

And here’s where the loss of Majak Daw will sting.

Every ruckman needs a rest. We saw a perfect example last season. Nathan Buckley and Damien Hardwick had a staring contest in the second of their three encounters for the year. With Toby Nankervis sitting on the bench, resting, Buckley went all out, and unleashed Brodie Grundy on the Tigers. It was an awesome display, with Grundy having one of the best 15-minute patches I’ve seen from a ruckman.

And Nankervis sat.

The scores got closer as Grundy won clearances, took marks and won taps. The scores got closer as the commentators questioned whether the Richmond ruckman was injured.

Still, Nankervis sat.

At the end of the quarter, the Pies were within four points of the reigning premiers and the stage was set. But where was Brodie Grundy in the last quarter? Where was that dominance? Grundy had spent all his petrol tickets in the third, and hardly got a touch in the last quarter. It was Nankervis’ time to shine. The Tigers ran away with a 28 point win as Damien Hardwick won the battle of wills. He rested his ruckman because he knew he had to.

What happens when Goldstein needs the rest in 2019?

With the departure of Brayden Preuss, the ruck stocks at the Kangaroos were a little thinner, but with Daw splitting time between half back and second ruck, North had it covered. Sadly, they no longer do.

I have a few fears for North, that should Goldstein suffer an injury, that they’ll be completely monstered by dominant rucks. They’ll go all right against the lesser lights of the game, but what happens when they run into a Gawn-Preuss combination? Or the Grundy-Cox-Roughead trilogy?

The Roos now look thin in the ruck. They’re reliant upon one 31 year old bloke to carry the load for the whole year. Through no real fault of their own, the Goldy-Daw combination, which was a winner, has been sliced in half.

The recruitment of Tom Campbell could provide a godsend, both for the player and club. He has played 16 games in the past three years for the Bulldogs and is desperate for a chance at redemption. In the most horrible of circumstances, perhaps he is the silver lining?

At 198 centimetres, Sam Durdin is another option to consider as a relief ruck, but between Ben McKay and him, they have played just 10 games. It’s a big ask.

North will be hoping like hell that Goldstein is able to stay healthy in 2019. Always a vital player to their success, this season he becomes THE vital player to their success. Simply put, losing him would be a disaster.

 

… Shaun Atley doesn’t have a career year, maybe he should look elsewhere.

I’ve become tired of waiting for Shaun Atley. I feel like a bloke you see sitting at the shopping centre as his missus is in a clothing store.

“I’ll only be five minutes,” she said half an hour ago.

Yet, still he waits.

Now, I am not having fantasies of going clothes shopping with Atley, but if there was one player on the North Melbourne team who has not lived up to his potential, it’d be him. This is his ninth year in the system (can you believe that?) and as a run and carry player, he has gone over 25 touches in a game just twice.

He has averaged over 18 touches per game twice in his career, but has seemed rather comfortable slotting in at just below that level for the majority of his time in the game. Whilst North have gone out and recruited Jared Polec, had Atley raised his game, an acquisition of that nature would’ve been completely unnecessary.

This might ruffle a few feathers, but screw it. He doesn't do anywhere near enough. And when the chips are down, he's nowhere to be seen. I don't think he can be relied upon when North need someone to stand up. If he were an Olympic skier, I don't think he'd be in the cross country event. There, I said it. Though the numbers aren’t too damning (17.1 touches in wins compared to 15.6 in losses), he is the sort of player that just seems to be happy to be along for the ride. North don’t need players who are happy to be nominated. They need winners. They need players that will go for the jugular. They need Shinboners, and it’s time Atley either became one, or wandered out.

 

… Mason Wood can’t provide a viable option, the forward set up will flounder.

I’ve banged on about this before, so I won’t do it again for too long. My thoughts haven’t changed - the growth of Mason Wood, and his emergence as a viable forward marking option are imperative to North making the next step.

He’s forever either not performing, or having excuses made for him. Well, it’s time to put paid to the need for excuses. Mason Wood needs to deliver, and deliver now. He needs to provide the sort of option that can draw a defender, and thereby open up space for Ben Brown.

Last season, when Jarrad Waite went down hurt, the Roos lost a fair bit. He was dangerous, and if you failed to give him the proper respect, he’d hurt you on the scoreboard. You couldn’t concentrate solely on Brown with Waite in the vicinity. Can Wood provide a similar presence?

If we’re looking at form to date, no he can’t, but stranger things have happened, and some people just need a push in the right direction. That’s what Waite’s retirement does for Wood. My fear is that he won’t grasp the opportunity. As a matter of fact, when I heard he’d had a pre-season ‘setback’, I thought “Oh, here we go...”

But I’m not giving up yet. Word is it was a minor setback. Anyway, North might have something else up their sleeve. Maybe someone jumps out of the pack to help Big Bad Ben and Jack Ziebell?

Brown’s delayed start to the pre-season is also a potential issue. I would not be rushing him back at all. Sadly, that means North may have to rely further on Wood. And that'd have to scare some North fans. Having him in the side with an in-form Brown is one thing, but if Big Ben takes a while to get back to his best, Wood will be required to step into the void.

I read with interest that North trialled Cunnington at full forward without Brown available for a practice match. But what do you lose in the guts in that trade off?  

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OTHER STUFF

I feel like I’ve glossed over Ben Cunnington, and I feel pretty bad about it, especially considering he was glossed over when it came to All-Australian selection last season. Oh yeah, he couldn’t even make the damn squad of 40! The bloke went out, smashed the record for contested touches in a game (32 – so many players never get 32 touches in total in a game) and had career-high numbers in both disposals (25.59 – 37th overall) as well as contested touches (15.41 – good for fifth in the league) yet he couldn’t get a look in. He must be wondering what he has to do?

Cunnington’s snub was a huge F-U from selectors, and if he was the sort of guy who actually needed a little more motivation, I reckon he found it when that squad was announced.

I'm interested as to where Pittard fits in. Does he usurp the spot occupied by Luke McDonald? How does this play out, and how does McDonald respond? 

I’m a huge fan of Jack Ziebell, and I liked his role as third forward last season. He was a bit of an x-factor, and it was great to see him get through a whole season without the AFL suspending him for something they wouldn’t even look at if it was another player doing it. Ziebell is strong in the contest, and gave North another dimension up forward. The opposition has had time to study and work out what he’s up to, but if the captain registers another 35+ goal season in 2019, his move forward will be an undoubted success.

Ed Vickers-Willis… sounds a bit like a character from a bad British comedy, but he could be the man to step up and fill the Majak Daw void down back. He’s got 14 games under his belt now, and might take a while to find his rhythm, but the Roos are in a situation where the old firm of Thompson and Tarrant will both be north of 30 during the season and their plan B is out indefinitely. EVW might be just what the doctor ordered down back… but North can’t be impatient with him.

Is it fair to say that Luke Davies-Uniacke had a bit of an underwhelming first year? Maybe it’s harsh, because his year is being compared to that of Stephenson at Collingwood. He knocked over seven games last season, and the Roos would be looking for a marked improvement this season. It looked to me as though he was struggling to find the speed of the game at times when I watched him in 2018. I hope he finds it in 2019.

I loved the way that some at North started talking down the value of Tarryn Thomas prior to the draft. It made me smile because he should be a star for them. I’m really looking forward to seeing how he a) breaks into the side, and b) what role he plays. Half forward seems to be the spot most see him occupying. I can't wait to see him in action.

So how does North’s draw look? Of last year’s top four, they only play the Hawks twice, which is a great result as North have Hawthorn's number. They get the Lions, Bombers, Cats and Power twice as well. Their first two weeks are both winnable, but the travel to WA against Freo in the first week could take a toll on their second week match up against Brisbane. As easily as they could be 2-0, the Roos could fall to 0-2.

The Good Friday fixture against Essendon has the potential to be a blockbuster. The teams had a blinder of a game last year and even one ¾ as good as that one would be a huge success.

Where do we see the Kangaroos finishing in 2019? Well, their start will dictate so much. The pieces they have, health-permitting, are good enough to play September footy, but a fair bit has to go right.

Of all teams in the league, North have the most variables.

I’m not sold on the acquisitions of Aaron Hall and Jasper Pittard. I am sold on the recruitment of Polec, however, and think he will be a huge asset with his run and carry. I’m worried about the health of Ben Brown and the lack of genuine marking support, and I am worried about the options if Todd Goldstein goes down.

What I’m not worried about is the midfield depth, the attacking game style and the self-belief that they can mix it with the best in the league and win. Anywhere from 6th to 12th is a possibility, with the former likely if injuries go the way they planned.

But how often do things go as perfectly as planned?

 

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