In defence of doing bugger all in the AFL trade period

Josh Elliott Editor

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    Going hard at both Dustin Martin and Josh Kelly was exactly what North Melbourne needed to do this year.

    North’s list has plenty of players on it who are solid types that can be relied upon to perform their role, as well as developing youth who look capable of being the same. But there is very little in the area of top-shelf superstar talent.

    Every premiership team needs a mix of both. Richmond were the perfect example this year – a side built on the commitment of the role players to their gameplan, but they would’ve been only a grindy Ross Lyon-esque mess without the genuine A-grade talent of Martin and Alex Rance on top.

    ‘More A-grade talent’ of course is something that could be put on the shopping list for just about every club without requiring any great insight, but the question of how to obtain it is an entirely different kettle of fish.

    There is no exact science in the draft and so the most logical way to do it and get it right is to attempt to poach it from other clubs.

    That is where Martin and Kelly came into North Melbourne’s planning – but the chances of getting either of them were always more in the area of ‘hopeful’ than of ‘confident’. Even with extra dollars on offer, top players don’t generally move from clubs chasing premierships to those risking wooden spoons.

    Dustin Martin Richmond Tigers AFL Grand Final 2017

    (AAP Image/Julian Smith)

    The fact Kelly only signed a two-year deal with the GWS Giants is telling of the possibility that he will consider a move again at the end of 2019, but North cannot spend the next two years putting all of its eggs into that basket.

    So what options does that leave the Roos with? They have fun coupons to burn and there were players on the market who might have been tempted to the club, but they do not appear to have pursued them at all, leaving many to suggest North Melbourne have fallen asleep at wheel.

    However, the simple fact is that none of the players left on the market this year have been in that A-grade class that North Melbourne need. They might well have made big offers to players like Tom Rockliff or Devon Smith, but with all due respect to their respective talents, they would not be the top-line players North Melbourne need to take the step beyond mid-table mediocrity.

    Recruiting these players would have come at an opportunity cost – chewing up either salary cap or draft picks that could be used to draft, recruit or retain other players better suited to taking North Melbourne forward in years to come.

    That being the case, sitting tight, consolidating, heading to the draft and looking ahead to 2018 and 2019 for what A-grade talent might be available from other clubs is the most logical strategy, even if it also happens to be the least interesting one.

    The draft, after all, is the other way to get superstar talent, albeit with a much smaller degree of certainty. North have pick 4 this year, a selection that in recent years has delivered players like Clayton Oliver and Marcus Bontempelli – but also Jimmy Toumpas and Jarrod Pickett.

    The logical thing for North Melbourne to do this year would have been to consider trading out some of their talent in order to improve their draft position, in the way that rebuilding teams like Carlton and St Kilda have done in recent years.

    However this strategy requires a team to have talented players that are both a) good enough to attract high value in return from another club and b) not so integral to the team as to make them untradeable. This is a thinly populated area on any playing list, and the only North Melbourne player who really fits the bill is Todd Goldstein.

    Todd Goldstein North Melbourne Kangaroos AFL 2016

    (AAP Image/Julian Smith)

    Of course, even Goldstein is only debatably capable of drawing a good return in a trade – he is 29 and hasn’t been in great form over the past year and a half or so, so only a club with a specific need for a mature ruckman would likely be interested in his services.

    That is where a connection to GWS arose from. They may well have seen the last of Shane Mumford and might not consider themselves entirely ready to give Rory Lobb the keys. Bringing in Goldstein as a short-term solution would have made sense, and they have draft picks enough that parting with one wouldn’t cause too much pain. An early second-round pick, something in the 20-30 range, probably would’ve been the deal.

    However, this idea was nipped in the bud pretty quickly with reports that Goldstein was only willing to consider a move if it meant staying in Victoria. Without speculating too much on a person’s private motivations, that’s a completely reasonable stance to take.

    Andrew Swallow might also be on the move out of the club with a potential trade to Gold Coast raised in the media on Monday – but any deal done for him would be unlikely to deliver North any trade return of value, and instead only be a chance to clear a senior player out of the team providing more opportunity for developing youth.

    That being the case, North Melbourne haveno real way to improve their draft position this year that wouldn’t also be detrimental to other aspects of the club – and so we are left with an off-season that amounts to little more than delistings, re-signings, and possibly bringing in small pieces from other clubs.

    The delistings and re-signings of course have drawn controversy with many questioning why North would move on the likes of Sam Gibson and Aaron Mullett, who played a combined 40 AFL games in 2017, but retain players like Jarrad Waite and Scott Thompson.

    The answer is that Waite and Thompson are still elite players on their day, and don’t really have obvious replacements among the youth of the side just yet. Waite can do crazy stuff that only a small number of players in the AFL can, and Thompson is needed to tide North’s defense over for another year while the likes of Daniel Nielson, Sam Durdin and Ben McKay develop.

    Jarrad Waite North Melbourne Kangaroos AFL 2017

    (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

    Gibson and Mullett on the other hand, while solid citizens, are keeping out players like Declan Mountford or Mitchell Hibberd who have learned all they can in the VFL and now need to either make it or break it at AFL level.

    It’s a hard decision to make because both Gibson and Mullett are good enough to be on an AFL list, and you won’t find a North Melbourne fan on earth who would be the least bit perturbed at them getting a second opportunity elsewhere. But footy is a brutal business, and sometimes – rightly or wrongly – what’s best for the club is put ahead of what is fair for the individual players.

    As for picking up small pieces from other clubs, it looks like North is the most likely destination for Geelong’s Darcy Lang – though there’s still a bit to play out here, you’d imagine. I have no quarrel with the idea if it comes cheap, similar moves were made last year to pick up the likes of Nathan Hrovat and Marley Williams, both with positive results so far.

    What does it all add up to in the end? Pretty much bugger all, which is certainly a bitter taste for those of us who dared to dream of Dustin Martin and Josh Kelly.

    But I am glad that the club has decided to not act rashly and spend money unwisely to bring in B and C-grade players solely for the purpose of making a splash.

    Recruiting for the sake of recruiting has ruined many an AFL list – look at Collingwood who have gone hard at trade time for several years in a row signing anything that moves, and now have a salary cap too cluttered with the likes of Chris Mayne, James Aish and Levi Greenwood to rise any higher than 13th.

    It will take a bit of patience, faith, and some good luck, but in five or ten years’ time we may look back on the here and now and say that it was wise to do nothing. Slow and steady can indeed win the race, and taking the road less traveled by can make all the difference.

    Josh Elliott
    Josh Elliott

    Josh Elliott may be The Roar's Weekend Editor, but at heart he's just a rusted-on North Melbourne tragic with a penchant for pun headlines - and also abnormal alliteration, assuredly; assuming achievability. He once finished third in a hot chilli pie eating contest. You can follow him on Twitter @JoshElliott_29 and listen to him on The Roar's AFL Podcast.