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The Good, Bad and Ugly - North Melbourne v Richmond

I’ve often wondered about leadership changes and what they actually mean.

North Melbourne had been borderline horrible this season up until last week. Beltings at the hands of Fremantle and Essendon were polar opposites of their win over Carlton, and whilst they lost narrowly to Sydney, the a over-arching feeling was that the Kangaroos over-reached last season and had fallen back to the position many thought they’d be in 2018.

Then came the inevitable fallout from that supposed regression, and we saw Brad Scott leave the club, and Rhyce Shaw take up the mantle of coach. That transition has been bookended by two impressive wins. Their game against the Bulldogs gave Scott the farewell North fans wanted him to have, but the welcome for Rhyce Shaw this week has overshadowed it.

It was beautifully brutal.

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

 

THE GOOD

 

TACKLING TO HURT

Ahhhhh, I’ve been waiting to see a team play like this all damn season. I love seeing a bit of mongrel in players, but when a whole team brings that attitude… it’s bliss.

And North brought it tonight. Whether it was Cam Zurhaar (see below), Ben Cunnington, Jack Ziebell or Trent Dumont, when a Richmond player was tackled tonight, he felt it, and North relished the opportunity to inflict the punishment.

I was always taught to tackle to hurt. I know it seems archaic now, and there’ll be kids on reddit lamenting this old bloke wanting to see people injured, but tackling isn’t meant to be fun. If an opponent is wide open and you have the chance to drive your shoulder into the ribs, or drive them into the ground (not sling them, heaven forbid), then you take it. If you knock the wind out of them – great! It means they’re a player down for a couple of minutes, and if there’s no illegality in the tackle, all’s fair.

North won the tackle count 68-55 but what I’d really love to see is how many tackles resulted in a Richmond player dragged to ground as opposed to how many times it happened to a North player. I reckon the numbers would be very lopsided.

Tackling is an effort stat, and is often the barometer for sides. You could see North were on early in this game by the ferocity in their tackling, and that ferocity set them up for a great win. Four of the top five tacklers on the ground wore blue and white. It should not have come as a surprise.

 

CAM ZURHAAR – THE YOUNG BULL

It’s not often you’ll see a bloke get 11 touches for the game and receive three votes. Chances are you won’t see it reflected in the Brownlow, or media awards either, but I thought Cam Zurhaar was far and away the most damaging player on the ground when the game was there to be won.

He chased, he punished, he used the ball beautifully, and he played the sort of game that Rhyce Shaw would be absolutely thrilled with.

Zurhaar finished with an outstanding 11 tackles playing in the forward line, and was a disruptive presence across half forward whenever the Tigers were looking for a quick exit. He didn’t hit the scoreboard himself, but four direct goal assists speak volumes about his influence on the contest.

Earlier in the year I was wondering about how North would fill a void they had in their forward line. Many have written about Jarrad Waite’s retirement and the hole it left. Not only that, people questioned where the help would come for Ben Brown, and whether or not someone could command the attention of defences for long enough to allow Brown the time and space to work.

I think they may have found part of their answer. I expect Zurhaar to be up and down in terms of offensive output, but if he can bring this kind of effort on the defensive end week to week, North have found the player they need inside 50. They’ve found the player that will have defenders looking over their shoulder, and if he can lay tackles like he did tonight, the sense of calm many teams have in their back six becomes a panicked rush very quickly.

He may not be the high, clunking mark, but he doesn’t have to be. Nick Larkey will do that in time, and Mason Wood is starting to show more than just signs of being a capable senior player. Zurhaar can be an x-factor, and one of the best at it in the league. His five goals against the Blues turned heads. This performance should make people sit up and take notice.

 

BEN CUNNINGTON – THE OLD BULL

I love the story of the old bull and the young bull. I’ve written it a few times on this page, but the night is young and my daughter hasn’t really cried as yet, summoning me to her cot to stand there for what seems like hours, so let’s roll it out again.

Two bulls are standing on a hill overlooking a herd of cows. Let’s call them Ben – the old bull, and Cam - the young bull. Cam is an excitable bull, full of youthful exuberance. He looks over to Ben and says “Hey Ben, let’s run down there and have sex with one of those cows!”

Ben looks over to Cam and gives him a half-smile.

“Nah Cam… let’s walk down there… and have sex with them all.”

Ben Cunnington… the old bull, is never in a hurry. He sees the ball, he gets it on his terms, and inevitably, he releases the ball to a teammate in a better position than him. He went at 87% disposal efficiency tonight, which is absolutely ridiculous, considering 20 of his 31 disposals came in the contest.

No panicking, no rushing it forward, no youthful exuberance. He just walked through the traffic like an old bull with all the time in the world, and did what the old bull does. When the tackles came, he wore them as he always does. He’s big enough and ugly enough to take what’s dished out to him, and get back up to do it all again.

At the coalface he was a monster, collecting nine clearances to be equal leader on the night. Before this game, he sat at number 28 in the Mongrel’s Player Power Rankings, but with tonight’s performance, he will undoubtedly vault up toward the top when we next compile it.

 

THE CAPTAIN

Something happened when Jack Ziebell went and stood next to Patrick Cripps in Round Seven. It was a sign to the North Melbourne faithful that their captain had seen enough this season, and was going to take it upon himself to enact on-field change.

It was wonderful to see, and with Ziebell now heading back into the midfield more often, we’ve been treated to some of the hard-at-it footy he’s been renowned for. He had 35 touches against the Swans a couple of weeks after his job on Cripps, and even though he had nine less touches in this game, his attack on the ball and player was excellent.

At one point I heard one of the commentators state that there was no way Ziebell was going to get three votes, and I though… hang on – who says? He was throwing his body in with reckless abandon all night, and whilst Zurhaar will get the attention for his defensive efforts, Ziebell laid seven tackles of his own in a real captain’s effort. He also belted the Kangaroos inside 50 on nine occasions for the game.

A couple of his efforts opposed to Trent Cotchin the second quarter not only earned him a free kick, but probably should’ve got him a 50 metre penalty as well after Cotchin pushed him to the ground in frustration. He has been a forgotten man over the last couple of years as a midfielder. He looked great as the third forward option last year, but his move back into the midfield has been an excellent one.

Ziebell is about as underrated a captain as you’ll find in the league. That’s a bit of a strange statement in a league that has captains like Jarryn Geary and David Swallow, but Ziebell showed tonight, and several times over the last four or five weeks that he is a man that will lead from the front.

And it seems North players are very willing to follow him.

 

FIVE MINUTES OF DUSTY

He threatened to tear the game apart in the second quarter, and it’s not often I agree with Brian Taylor, but when you have a bloke kick two goals in 30 seconds, why take him off for a rest when there are only three minutes left in the half?

Martin was looking ominous, and though he got away with a push in the back against Scott Thompson, his second goal of the term, gathering and snapping truly, was wonderful. Next thing you know, Dusty is on the bench, Richmond goes into attack, and the ball comes back out easily.

I’m not saying that if Dustin Martin was still plonked at full forward that he would have been the difference between Richmond gathering and scoring, or North collecting and exiting 50, but in a situation like that, with a player obviously feeling it, why remove him from a situation when he’s going to get an elongated rest in three minutes anyway?

Workloads… recovery times… rotations… don’t give me that crap. When you have someone with the hot hand, you go to them, and when a bloke kicks two goals in 30 seconds, I’d be looking for him the next time I got my hands on the footy.

It’s pretty hard to find him when he’s sitting on the bench.

 

THE IMPORT

It’s taken a little while, but Jared Polec seems to have started to find his groove at North Melbourne.

You can tell there are still a few teething problems, as he seems to be fed the ball running onto his non-preferred right foot a few too many times, but overall, he is finding the footy, running hard, and making space.

He got better as the game went on this evening, and after a very quiet first quarter (three disposals), he collected 23 over the next three.

Once North work out how to get him loose on the wing, Polec is going to be become a weapon. You could see earlier in the season that he looked a little lost at times out there – he was a stranger in a strange land, trying to adjust. In truth, that adjustment may not truly be complete until next season, but in the meantime, if he can have games like this, I reckon the Kangaroos will take them.

 

THE STACK

He’s been a revelation for the Tigers as a rebounding, intercepting, bumping, tackling and harassing defender, and he is one of the few that can truly hold his head high after his performance in this one.

Stack had nine intercept possessions and stood firm in the face of adversity in this one, including one time when the North Melbourne captain was bearing down on him with destruction on his mind. Trust me, I’m a mind reader (you’re a bullshit artist, I hear you think) – Ziebell wanted to crunch Stack, but the defender didn’t flinch.

I guess that’s why he’s a cult hero already at Punt Road.

 

BACHAR HOULI

I “ummed” and “ahhhed” a little about including Houli in here, as I thought he was a little wasteful with the ball early on, and after copping a knock in a tackle, had a couple of defensive half turnovers, one of which led directly to a goal for Mason Wood.

But following that, Houli continued his possession-gathering exploits of the previous four weeks, notching a career-high 38 disposals.

It was a bit of a weird night, with his partner in crime, Nick Vlastuin, starting in the middle, and even getting himself two early clearances before drifting right out of the game. This left the defensive rebounding and creating to Houli. He had seven intercepts and seven rebound 50s to go with it as he was able to find space, and despite copping a whack to the ribs to go along with his head-knock, was able to compose himself and run the game out well.

Ranked number 11 in our Power Rankings before this round, he probably didn’t do himself any harm with this performance… though we do factor in efficiency.

 

THE BAD

 

JACK HIGGINS

I really like this guy, but I actually don’t know what’s happening with him at the moment. He’s gone from livewire small forward to surprising, pinch-hitting midfielder, to… this.

He had just 11 disposals tonight – his second lowest total of the year, but it is low returns in tackles (2) that indicates something is up. He’s not finding the ball, and he’s not pressuring the opposition either.

His last five games are a cluster of average results. He is at 15 touches per game and has just 2.4 tackles per contest. He has just three goals from those five games as well.

I expected Higgins to make a significant jump this season. We heard all about how smart he is as a footballer, if not an interviewee, but from what I’m watching this season, he doesn’t seem to be as enthused about proceedings. Has Liam Baker usurped a role that was originally his? Has the absence of Jack Riewoldt ruined the system he had in place and he’s having trouble replicating it with Tom Lynch in the square?

I’m at a bit of a loss. I thought it’d be organic improvement from players like Higgins that catapulted the Tigers back into contention, but maybe I’m wrong. He’d best be careful – another performance like this and either Daniel Rioli comes back into the side at his expense, or he joins him in the VFL.

 

THE UGLY

 

THE TIGER FORWARDS

I touched on Higgins above…well, more than touched on him – I dedicated a whole section to him, but he had plenty of mates that hardly gave a yelp, and the worst of them seemed to be the small forwards that were so good for Richmond last year.

Dan Butler was gifted a goal after a 50 metre penalty and got his second goal due to a downfield free kick that he didn’t earn. At least the first one was from an initial mark inside 50, but finishing with five disposals for the game is a horrid return. He’ll hang his hat on the two goals but anyone watching knows that they were as much due to the work of others as the work of Butler.

Jason Castagna looked lively early, and took a fine mark in the third quarter to give the Tigers a bit of hope, but other than that, he was a non-entity. He did a bit of work up the ground but didn’t really look dangerous at many stages at all.

Shai Bolton had ten touches and one tackle for the game, and as those stats suggest had zero impact on the contest.

And then there was the big fella – Tom Lynch. Gifted a goal in the first quarter, that’s the only time he hit the scoreboard, finishing the game with just five disposals and three marks, well-defended by the duo of Scott Thompson and Robbie Tarrant.

The knock on Lynch is that he hasn’t added much in any other aspect than kicking goals, but when you’re kicking goals, that’s fine, right? How about when you’re not?

Five disposals is the sort of return that would have defenders smiling when the review comes around. I thought he attacked the contest relatively well, but any big body is capable of doing that. Lynch is capable of so much more.

 

QUICK BITS

I’m not sure anyone gets two hands to the footy in the air as much as Ben Brown. He finished with six grabs, but another four or five were a definite possibility if there was just a little more sticko on his fingers. He could have really got hold of the Tigers in this one, with the next fella finally becoming the forward presence North have been waiting for him to be.

Mason Wood has been a long time coming, but hopefully this performance heralds his arrival – finally. He has threatened this season, with a few games seeing him work hard across half forward to total over 20 touches, but North have needed him to be a presence inside 50, and that’s what he was tonight.

In addition, he kicked relatively straight and finished with four goals. I sincerely hope this isn’t a tease from Wood, as this sort of effort (not the goal tally… he’s not going to kick four a week) is exactly what the Roos need to a) help Ben Brown, and b) win consistently.

Loved the start by Cotchin, sending a message that he was not going to be holding back despite a loooong absence with that hamstring. He seems to have got through, and with a major game against the Cats next week, and the Crows the following week, we will be seeing exactly where the Tigers are at this season.

Speaking of which, as the ladder stands right now, Richmond’s wins have come against 18th, 10th, 15th, 16th, 8th, 9th and 12th. Fremantle is their highest-placed win. Is this a concern? It certainly adds a little intrigue as they head into their clash against Geelong. Could they start to wear the same tag Melbourne did last season? Able to beat up on teams below them, but unable to compete with those above?

Tackling lessons for Dion Prestia this week, it seems. In the third quarter, Shaun Higgins managed to duck away from three Richmond tackles before feeding Jared Polec for a great goal. It was amazing work by Higgins, but what was Dion Prestia thinking? Two of those tackle attempts were from him, and Higgins shrugged him using his patented move – ducking and retreating. He also wriggled out of an Ivan Soldo tackle attempt with that move as well.

As a matter of fact, Higgins used that move later in the game too, and though it is nowhere near as spectacular or attractive as Dustin Martin or Ben Cunnington fending off an opponent with a stiff arm, it’s just as effective. Opposition coaches should take note of this tactic.

As should Dion Prestia.

Loved the evasive work, or at least the attempted evasive work from Luke Davies-Uniacke in this game. His nice little sidestep and change of direction bought him a bit of time, and that is simply something you either have, or you don’t. It’s extremely difficult to teach.

There are quite a few aspects to LDU’s  game that will improve, but this season we’re seeing him grow into the kind of footballer that will be classy with the ball in hand – a couple of his moves were… dare I say it – Pendlebury-like. He’s still getting caught a bit, but you can see that confidence growing, and that little shuffle he has before bursting in the other direction… that has the potential to be special.

How did we read the ruck contest? I thought Goldstein had an “almost” kind of game. Hands to a lot of footy, but just couldn’t take possession. Of course, he didn’t have to in order to be more effective than Soldo, who didn’t get a possession in the first half.

Interestingly, Soldo split the ruck wins with Goldstein 28-28 and I reckon he worked into the game after half time nicely. He worked harder than Goldy both at ground level, and defensively (seven tackles to one). I’d say that’s a disappointing result for Goldstein, particularly given his game last week.

Quieter game for Nick Larkey, but I have to say, I love his attack on the ball in the air. He had two contested grabs in the first half, but was unable to add to that total in the second half.

Loved the overhead work of Tarryn Thomas. A mid who is strong overhead is a real weapon floating forward, and though Thomas will be a vastly different player to someone like Marcus Bontempelli, he may be able to hit the scoreboard when North need him to at times.

I’m not sure there’s a footy supporter alive who didn’t have a little smile when Razor Ray wore that hacked hick out of defence right in the nuts. I’ll say this though – he took it like a trooper, and his reaction was first class.

Couldn’t believe Cameron Ling questioning whether Zurhaar’s run down tackle on Nathan Broad was legit because Broad can’t bounce the ball properly. Lingy, you had one original thought all night, and it was a shit one. Just stick to saying “breeyant” whenever someone does something good.

Some really solid one-on-one contests between Trent Cotchin and Jed Anderson in this one. Anderson’s never-say-die attitude caused a stoppage late in the second quarter as he held up Cotchin and took him to ground. This was a ball that looked to belong to Cotchin, but Anderson refused to give in.

From the ensuing stoppage, Ben Brown won the tap to Higgins, who fed Mason Wood for a goal. I really hope they all got to Anderson after that goal. It is those sorts of little efforts that inspire a team.

Things Eddie McGuire says – “Higgins is usually a great kick for goal” just after watching Shaun Higgins miss a shot at goal on replay at half time. Can someone please tell Ed that Higgins has been horrible in front of goal this season? He is travelling at 27% accuracy. They had a whole half of footy to feed him that info.

I’ve already got two messages asking me whether I will be adding how much the umpires screwed Richmond. So, why not address it?

I didn’t think the umpiring impacted the game. The non-free kick to Dusty when he caught Jamie Macmillan cold in the first quarter was moot, as Martin received from Caddy at the subsequent stoppage and goaled anyway. The other contentious one saw Jy Simkpin get a holding free against Cotchin. That one was soft.

And according to my notes, that’s it for iffy free kicks, other than the one that handed Tom Lynch his only goal of the game. Not sure how Richmond was screwed, but anyway… some people think they were.

Pet peeve – Jack Ziebell took a really nice mark as a player ran back with the flight of the ball. He held the mark, and should’ve been paid the mark, but the umpire paid “front on contact” instead. When you played, did you want a mark, or a free kick? If the ball is knocked away, then fine… pay the free, but if the player marks it… pay the damn mark!

And that’ll about do me.

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