The Roar
The Roar


North Melbourne's last stand

9th February, 2016
North Melbourne's Brent Harvey is around 400 years old but seems to be doing fine. (Photo: Greg Ford)
9th February, 2016
2081 Reads

No one was a bigger North Melbourne booster than me in 2015. At their best, the Roos are an irresistible offensive force. At their worst they can be blown out by bottom-four finishers.

Which North Melbourne should we expect in 2016?

Brent Harvey is so old that he should be an established AFL commentator by now. But here he is, in 2016, ready to play a critical role in the third year of North’s push to their first flag this side of the new millennium.

If Harvey plays in the first Saturday in October – I told you we were going to have to get used to calling it that – he will become the eighth oldest player in the 100-plus year history of top level Australian rules football. Harvey is already second on the all-time games played tally, and if all goes well he will equal Michael Tuck’s record of 426 games played in Round 17 against Port Adelaide.

Just quietly, the AFL appear to have done North Melbourne a solid. Harvey could miss one, two, three, four or six games and still equal Tuck’s record in a game played in his native Victoria. There will be no whining about the game being played in Brisbane to be had this year.

The diminutive running machine remains an influential player. Harvey was one goal away from making it seven straight seasons with 20 disposals and a maximum per game, a feat just six other players completed in one season across the entire league in 2015. The 20/1 line is a marker that, for better or worse, is seen as important for attacking midfielders. That goal column was a black mark on Chris Judd’s middle and later years. Though that Harvey has done it in six of his eight seasons since turning 30 speaks volumes.

Last season’s AFL top 50 had him inside the top 30 players – I had him inside the top 20, which may have been a bit high in retrospect. Also, he is old enough to have plied his trade at the same time that the fathers of this year’s father-son crop of draftees were running around.

His team have made it to the second-last week of the season two years in a row despite finishing sixth and eighth in those years, respectively. The Roos, more than any other team, are built to win here and now, a fact that should suit the 400-game veteran nicely in his 21st year as a top-level professional footballer.


Age disgracefully
In the past few years, North Melbourne have hit the free agency market more than any other team. Their best 22 from 2015 contained no fewer than four players that have joined via the fancy new system: Nick Dal Santo, Jarrad Waite, Shaun Higgins and Robin Nahas (perhaps he’s a fringe player, but he suited up in 18 games including a final). That’s four free agents – one per year – which is behind Melbourne for the most free agents hoovered up since 2012 (yes, Melbourne).

All of these players, by the nature of their free agency status, are veterans of the game. They’re the key reason North enter the season as both the oldest and most experienced list in the competition. Before the year is out, the Roos will have nine players aged 30 years or over. Some of this is to do with Harvey’s longevity – if he’s excluded, they drop to third on the age ladder, but remain number one on experience – but a lot of it isn’t.

On the 30-plus list are Harvey, Dal Santo, Drew Petrie, Michael Firrito, Daniel Wells, Waite, Farren Ray, Scott Thompson and Sam Gibson.

The Roos have four important 29-year-olds, too: Andrew Swallow, Lindsay Thomas, Higgins and Nahas.

For the most part, these players are in the best 22, and play important roles individually. That’s fine for this year, but in the years ahead it will be a problem. If Hawthorn’s middle tier of players is as good as it gets in the AFL, then North Melbourne’s is, well, it’s something.

As a reminder, I call the ‘middle’ part of the list players aged 24-28 who have played fewer than 200 games:

Todd Goldstein
Lachlan Hansen
Jack Ziebell
Ben Cunnington
Sam Wright
Jamie Macmillan
Ben Jacobs
Robbie Tarrant
Aaron Mullett
Aaron Black
Majak Daw
Joel Tippett


There’s some honest footballers in that list. There’s also some outright duds. There is also Todd Goldstein, who moonlights as an AFL footballer on the days and nights he’s not fighting crime and saving kittens with his bare hands.

North have been in the premiership frame for the past two seasons, even if they slipped out of it at various points. 2016 could be their best shot yet, now the free agent additions have been with the club for some time, Goldstein has emerged as a planet destroyer, and the schemes of Brad Scott have had some time to marinade.

It could also be their last chance.

The good, the bad and the ugly
North Melbourne were one of three top-eight teams that suffered two blowout losses last season, the other two being Fremantle and the Western Bulldogs. Those two losses came early in the year, with a 77-point capitulation against Adelaide in Round 1, and a poleaxing at the hands of Fremantle in Round 8.

Those were in addition to an even ten-goal loss to Hawthorn in Round 5, and a perplexing 55-point loss to Gold Coast in Round 14.

When North were off, they looked ugly – perhaps the ugliest of the sides that played finals last year. There was one key reason for that in the early part of the season – they lacked any genuine stopping power, both by virtue of talent and scheme. They look a one-on-one defender short, and still do coming into this year.

When I checked in on North’s prospects after ten rounds, I still felt as though they had enough by way of attacking talent to make up for their defensive deficiencies.


And so it proved. Defensively, the Roos made up for their lack of genuine stoppers by stacking the back line, and using Drew Petrie – one of the more underrated Swiss army knives in the game – as a spare defender in a pinch. It saw North’s opponent scoring rate per inside 50 drop from just shy of 50 per cent – i.e. the opposition would score every second inside 50 entry – to 45 per cent between the first and second half of the year.

But it wasn’t all about improved defensive prowess. North’s second-half strength was much more to do with their ability to score and score well.

From Round 11 onwards, and excluding the Restapalooza Round 23, North were the league’s fourth-best offence, putting up an Offensive Efficiency Rating of +18.9 in a line up of games played against the middling sides of last season. When they were good, the Roos were very good, pummelling sides into submission with brute force at the clinches and pushing the ball forward with the lethality of Ben Brown’s curling iron.

Their forward line – made up of free agents, uber-veterans and a couple of rough diamonds – projects as one of the best in the league. At its peak, the Roos forward group are among the best in the competition, perhaps on par with the emerging group at Adelaide, who sit a notch below the amorphous beast at Hawthorn and more traditional West Coast Eagles unit.

The Roos put up nine scores in triple digits last season, the equal fourth-most in the league. However, the manner they did so was unique when compared against the other offensive powerhouses.

Most sides tend to score on the basis of territory; more inside 50s equals more scoring opportunities, equals higher scores. Not North Melbourne. The average inside 50 count of teams that scored 100 points or more was 56.5 – North averaged 54, second lowest in the competition behind Port Adelaide. The Roos only cracked 60 inside 50s in two games last season, and still managed to be as potent as Adelaide (eight times), Hawthorn (seven) and West Coast (seven). More on that in a moment.

Much of the attention paid, though, centres on their midfield. The Roos have a reputation of being tough, workmanlike, hard to play against. But herein lies the rub for the win-now team. They have the forward line, and at face value have built a scheme on defence that will hold up against all but the most attacking sides.


North’s prospects might just come down to one question: can their elite inside midfield group make it happen on a more sustained basis?

Inside strength
The starting six midfielders will probably look like this:

Higgins, Swallow, Dal Santo
Goldstein, Cunnington, Ziebell

That’s a very good core, capable of winning the ball in the clinches with aplomb. The Roos were +1.9 in clearances over the course of the 2015 season, ranked fourth, and were +3.1 in contested possessions, ranked sixth. It’s a clear strength. But if there was a sure-fire way to beat them in 2015, it was to take this inside dominance away from them.

North won the clearances in ten games last season, and went on to win nine of those games, the lone loss coming against the inside meat grinder known as the Sydney Swans. In those 12 games were the Roos lost the clearance battle, they won just four and lost the remaining eight.

Their winning percentage when winning the clearance battle of 90 per cent was the highest in the AFL, while their winning percentage when losing the clearance battle of 33 per cent was ranked 11th. However, the gap between the two, -57 percentage points, was clearly the largest for North – the next largest gap on the clearance win tally was West Coast at -35 percentage points.

This makes a ton of sense. It helps explain their efficiency forward of the ball, as well as their relative deficiency behind it. Simply, North need the ball to win – they can’t expect to make the most of their excellent forward line set, and their defence can’t survive if the opposition is getting first use.


A concern on this front is who the Roos won, and lost, the clearance battle against last year. Losses came against sides that were around the same finishing mark: Fremantle twice, Richmond twice, Adelaide, Collingwood, the Western Bulldogs and Port Adelaide (among others). Victories were, strangely, against Hawthorn (well, that was a break even), West Coast and Sydney, in addition to most of the bottom part of the ladder.

Outside concerns
Despite their ability to win the ball on the inside – until they don’t – North Melbourne are very much around the middle of the pack on the outside. A full season uncontested possession differential of just +2.5 puts them at 11th on the ladder, and they only took 75 field marks per game, ranked 14th. Hawthorn, the outside kings, took 88 per game.

That’s a measure of the skill deficiency which has emerged at North as the team built their premiership list. They are a fantastic inside midfield team, but the role of spread offence is concentrated in the hands of a few elite kickers.

Champion Data’s 2016 AFL Prospectus pegs North as the sixth-best kicking team in the league, but I don’t buy it. That’s a measure of the cream at the top, rather than the side as a whole: Higgins, Harvey, Dal Santo and Daniel Wells (when he plays, which hopefully he will this year) are elite kicks, but outside of that the quality through the middle drops away quickly.

North instead prefers to attack with abandon, content to use pace and space; more often than not, this comes in the form of slingshots from half back. Harvey, and his 37-year-old legs, and more specifically his right leg, are central to this. It’s a risky strategy, but when it comes off the Roos project as a contender.

When it doesn’t, though, North can be made to look second rate. For much of 2015, that looked like it was this team’s destiny: not quite good enough to make it to the top. Is that the ceiling? With a very agreeable first half of the year, we’ll know if they are premiership material by June.

The Roos are a contender in 2016. But right now, that’s about the level of confidence we can hold with this group.