There are moments, fleeting moments, when you start talking yourself into North Melbourne as a legitimate premiership threat.
Last Friday night’s first quarter against Collingwood was one of them. Daniel Wells was accelerating like it was 2008 and hitting targets lace out. Drew Petrie was engaged, throwing Collingwood’s brazen, immature physicality back at them in productive, potent ways. Jack Ziebell had his Joel Selwood costume on, and Brent Harvey was doing all the things he’d done in his previous 425 games, and doing them as well as ever.
And yet still, something was lacking. It didn’t feel like North were a devastating force – there was no sense of inevitability about them, not in the way that Hawthorn, Geelong and Sydney bring when they’re on. The Kangaroos are ‘just’ a well-oiled machine, and when Jeremy Howe is playing like he has money on the opposition, they’re clinical enough to punish.
A great team would have ended that insipid Collingwood team in the first quarter. And while the game was effectively over before the first quarter siren sounded, North fans were still forced to wait out some tense moments in the second half.
Greatness continues to elude Brad Scott’s team. They’re in the midst of one of the strangest three year runs in history – a team that finished sixth and eighth but made it to back to back preliminary finals, and then started 9-0 only to have their spot in the eight in jeopardy two months later.
Some would argue there’s no such thing as a lucky preliminary final berth, let alone two, but reality dictates otherwise. Collingwood had no business making the 2007 preliminary final, and Port Adelaide had even less of a right to go a week further the same year. Both were able to only because of the statistically insignificant chance of Chris Judd, Ben Cousins and Daniel Kerr all getting injured at the same time.
The caveat is, though, that we were one scrubbed goal away from a Collingwood-Port grand final that year, where one of them would have had to have snatched a premiership.
That’s the hope for a team like North Melbourne, a team that tops out somewhere between a B+ and an A-. Be good enough to make it to the September dance, and be clinical enough to pounce when misfortune besets the teams above them. They’re employing the Steven Bradbury strategy.
Of course, it’s not all luck, and you never get to skate an open lane to a preliminary final. North’s finals victories over Essendon and Richmond the past two seasons were two of the most stunning in recent memory, games where North defiantly and powerfully asserted its will in such a way that is typically unseen from teams that finish sixth and eighth.
But while North are capable of that force in week one of the finals, by week three it’s a different universe. Finals football is about finding new gears, and in North’s preliminary final defeats, Sydney and West Coast found a speed that the Roos had no chance of matching.
At 9-0 this season there was the hope that maybe North had transcended this existence and climbed into the elite. After 17 rounds, that hope has effectively died. They’ve been cruelled by injuries, but North are still only a paltry 2-5 against their top eight rivals, with only the loss to Hawthorn seriously competitive.
Last year against finals teams they were 2-6 in the home-and-away season (although it has to be said they were 5-3 in those games in 2014, beating three of the top four). A game and significant percentage out of the top four, with a brutal fixture to come, North have virtually no chance of snagging the double chance.
The Roos win less of the ball than every other team in the eight aside from the Eagles, and they have the worst inside 50 differential of any team set to play finals (ninth, behind the top seven and Melbourne).
They have a negative clearance differential and sit just eighth in the league in contested possession differential (admittedly we may have to adjust how importantly we view this stat, with the Hawks two games clear on top of the ladder and last by a mile in this metric, staring up at Brisbane and Essendon). They’re eighth in effective disposal percentage and marks inside 50.
In a nutshell, it’s hard to see exactly what they do that’s special, unless an uncanny ability to sit in the middle of the pack in almost every key statistical indicator should be deemed unique.
The question this begs is simple: where exactly are they going? Nick Dal Santo, 32 years old, is the team’s leading possession winner, and Daniel Wells, an old 31, is second. Michael Firrito, Drew Petrie, Scott Thompson, Jarrad Waite and Sam Gibson are all on the wrong side of 30 too. Brent Harvey is 57 years old but will likely play until he’s 70.
Andrew Swallow, Shaun Higgins, a banged-up Todd Goldstein and recently re-signed Lindsay Thomas shouldn’t be on the physical decline yet, but with all of them 28 or 29, don’t expect them to get much better. I thought Ben Cunnington would be on this list too given that he looks like a 43-year-old man, but he’s only 25, allegedly, so good for him.
The Roos have interesting but not breathtaking youth, and a number of players whose primes should last for a while yet. But their age profile is of a team built to win right now, and really, a year or two ago. But the talent hasn’t allowed for that, at least in the most meaningful sense.
The promise of the present for North is becoming muted, and the future is much more worrying. For the next five years, where do North’s prospects rank compared to the other Victorian clubs? The Saints and Bulldogs, their opponents in the next fortnight, surely have brighter futures.
The Demons and Pies have more exciting youth, and the Cats and Hawks, along with Sydney, have proven to have the most trustworthy infrastructure in the league. The Bombers are a murky haze, and the Blues, while promising, are still a lottery ticket. In effect, North are a strange corollary to Richmond, with a better coach, but with Jack Ziebell and Robbie Tarrant instead of Dustin Martin and Alex Rance.
Football, though, is not all about building for premierships, as much as the discourse might suggest it is. More often that not it’s about cherishing the intangible, the pleasure of watching a player like Dusty fight the world while his team is crumbling around him, or simply seeing Dale Thomas flirt with relevance again.
For North fans, it’s about admiring the class and polish of Nick Dal Santo and Daniel Wells, the wonderful absurdity of Ben Brown, the defiant, inconsistent struggle against father time for Drew Petrie, and the flashes of those two Geelong midfielders in Jack Ziebell.
More than anything, it’s about watching Brent Harvey, and all of his ridiculousness, and figuring out with a bemused grin how on Earth he still seems to be the fastest player on the ground, and how he’s still the surest bet in the game running into goal from 40 metres out, as he has been for two decades.
The present is something to be enjoyed for North fans, and there is something oddly powerful in knowing that, on balance across a whole season, your team has a better chance of winning than losing each week. Just don’t expect anything tangible to come from this year, or perhaps the next few years.