2012 AFL season preview: North Melbourne
North Melbourne captain Andrew Swallow (Slattery Images)
Is it finally time for North Melbourne to step up and play finals football? Let’s find out.
Last year: 10-12, 9th
Best and fairest: Daniel Wells, Andrew Swallow
Leading goal kicker: Drew Petrie (48)
Key additions: Will Sierakowski (Hawthorn)
Key losses: Brady Rawlings, Daniel Pratt
Brad Scott has one goal for 2012: put an end to Ninth Melbourne.
The Roos have finished one spot short of finals action the past two years, with a combination of injuries and a truly horrible record against the competition’s better teams largely to blame.
On the injury front, things are looking considerably better than this time last year. Only Daniel Wells and Sam Wright were unavailable for NAB Cup selection last weekend.
On the beating-good-teams front, time will tell. But if the results don’t start to turn – Essendon were the only finalist beaten by the Roos in 2011 – then expect a bit more heat on Scott, who has yet to spend even one week of his senior coaching career inside the top eight.
It must be stressed that a lot did go right last year. The team’s percentage lifted from 87 to 101, which needed to happen. Drew Petrie and Wells began to really live up to their potential. Seven debutants were introduced.
What ruined the whole year was that injury-inflicted start to the season. Ten rounds into the season North’s only wins had come against Port Adelaide and Melbourne. You doubt we’ll see anything like that again.
With that in mind, the prospect of the Kangaroos actually making it to September doesn’t sound too farfetched. The question mark is whether this team is “finals-ready”.
Is the back line finals-ready? On previous form, no. The points against column still sat over 2000 last year, a problem considering the worst record of top eight teams bar Essendon was 1735. (The Bombers amazingly got in conceding 2217 points, obviously the exception rather than the rule.)
North, to be fair, were missing the important Nathan Grima for a chunk of the season and when he came back his output wasn’t what it used to be. But Grima returned to the injury list over the weekend, so we’ll have to be cautious about expecting him and Scott Thompson to form a strong partnership.
Among the rest, Brady Rawlings is no longer around which doesn’t help. Scott McMahon does a good job of shutting down small forwards, Michael Firrito has experience, plus Will Sierakowski from Hawthorn could be a nice acquisition. Just who that rebounding loose man in defence player is, and whether they’re any good at it, are questions that need to be answered.
At this stage, whether the back line can have a better year remains up in the air.
There’s no question that North have a finals-ready midfield, however. New captain Andrew Swallow will lead by example, and Wells and Jack Ziebell are right up there.
Plus, Scott’s youth focus over the past two years has created valuable depth: Levi Greenwood, Ryan Bastinac, Ben Cunnington, Shaun Atley et al. Over the weekend, a mature-age recruit by the name of Sam Gibson put his hand up too.
North ranked seventh for contested possessions, seventh for inside 50s and sixth for clearances last season. In all categories, the only teams above them were teams that made the finals.
What completes this crop is what could be a fantastic one-two punch in the ruck. Todd Goldstein was huge last year and is set to be reunited with Hamish McIntosh, who returns from injury.
The only real worry is Wells’ lack of a preseason. He is an important player and the Roos are a lesser team without him.
If North’s forward line isn’t already finals-ready, this might well be the year. Petrie, who kicked 48 goals last year, has told the media that North will have a new-look attack that will take it to the next level.
He spoke glowingly of adding an injury-free Robbie Tarrant into the mix and having McIntosh rest inside 50. If these changes have the desired effect, watch out.
If you look at the stocks for small and medium-sized forwards, Aaron Edwards, Leigh Adams and Harvey are all good players who will deliver. Lindsay Thomas seems to have improved his kicking for goal as well, if the NAB Cup is anything to by. Pairing these players with a lethal combination of two-to-three talls would create a formidable attack.
The Roos averaged almost 14 goals a game last year, three behind Geelong and Collingwood but ahead of finalists St Kilda and Sydney. Not bad, but obviously it’s something you can improve on.
Ultimately though, the crucial area that needs to be addressed, aside from finally beating finals-bound teams on a somewhat regular basis, would be defence. Conceding less points would put the Roos well and truly closer to finals action.
Grima’s injury presents a worry on this front, but with a young list and the sheer number of players coming off injury-spoiled years you get the sense North are set to improve.
When you also factor in the Roos’ draw – which sees them play both Gold Coast and GWS twice – you start to get the point: there aren’t any excuses this year.
Another Ninth Melbourne year and serious questions will need to be asked.
m0nty’s Fantasy Picks
FanFooty.com.au‘s Paul Montgomery gives us his AFL fantasy picks for each team for 2012, including a keeper (the one you must have), cash cow (good prospects for healthy trading), and fool’s gold (avoid at all costs).
Keeper: You’d probably have to be a Roo fan to pick him, but Andrew Swallow didn’t join in the party last year with No. 1 inside mids like Mitchell, Judd and Selwood gaining 10 points a week in the tag-free forward press. Swallow has to suck it up if North is to improve.
Cash cow: Mature-aged Will Sierakowski will be tried in the same halfback rebound role where Cameron Richardson failed so miserably last season. With no Brady Rawlings or Daniel Pratt, the Roos desperately want someone to provide dash from defence.
Fool’s gold: The ruck situation with Hamish McIntosh returning to tandem with Todd Goldstein could lead to a timeshare that will limit the scoring of both. Hard to commit to either for fantasy, with Majak Daw adding further uncertainty.
North Melbourne photo gallery
First five fixtures
Round 1 vs. Essendon, Etihad
Round 2 vs. GWS Giants, Blundstone
Round 3 vs. Geelong, Etihad
Round 4 vs. Sydney, SCG
Round 5 vs. Gold Coast, Etihad
Michael DiFabrizio is completing his journalism degree. As an AFL writer, he has been an expert columnist at The Roar since 2009, and appeared in The Age and on ABC television and radio. Follow Michael on twitter @mdifabrizio