The Roar
The Roar

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North Melbourne's end game is upon us

17th August, 2016
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The Kangaroos are cursed with above average ability. (AAP Image/Julian Smith)
Expert
17th August, 2016
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You can find fault in many things at any AFL club. Poor drafting, lax development, weak tactics, deplorable administration, and bad attitudes. In the weeks ahead, many will seek to find the flaws in North Melbourne; one charge that cannot be levelled against them is committing to a path that took them close to the promised land.

The Roos aren’t going to win this year’s flag.

Looking ahead, you would be brave to predict a finish in the finals next season from here, such is the calibre of teams banging at the front door of the eight.

The sheer volume of teams a few metres away from that threshold, shouting their intent, should have us all excited for 2017.

So, likely ends a run where the North Melbourne Football Club was found to be short of the mark of a premiership side.

Their 2016 season hasn’t been a disaster by any stretch, and they will still finish with a positive win-loss record for the third straight season (and fourth in the past five years). Indeed, in their current iteration, they have finished ninth, ninth, eighth, tenth, sixth, eighth and eighth (this year) in the home-and-away season.

As Jay Croucher put it a couple of week’s ago, North Melbourne have been afflicted by the curse of Slightly Above Average.

Indeed, Port Adelaide may have also caught the fever, and until Luke Shuey took the form of a unicorn, and Nic Naitanui forgot he was a right-footed, two-metre tall guy contesting a ruck contest, there were signs West Coast were ambling blissfully towards that reality.

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Forgive the cliché, but they say football is a results business, and if North are to fall short again, which they will, then they have failed.

Some 17 years after their 1999 flag, a period of adjustment looks in prospect for a team with the most veterans and fewest prime age players in the competition.

Petering out
North hit the turn at 10-1, which at the time was put down to a mostly weak draw. In retrospect though, there were many a meritorious victory: Adelaide, Melbourne, the Western Bulldogs and St Kilda have all turned out to be good-to-great sides, and although the combined margin of victory was 38 points, wins are wins.

There were also six wins against what has emerged as the bottom six, by an average of 42 points. At the time a near-unbeaten start looked too good to be true, and so it has proven, with the Roos now sitting on a 12-8 record. Where they played a schedule with a combined Pythagorean winning percentage of 40 per cent in their first 11 games, they have played a schedule with a winning percentage of just shy of 70 per cent in their final 11.

The ramp up has been immense, and it shows.

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OER DER I50 Diff
North (R1-11) +12.5 (ranked 4th) +12.8 (4th) +3.4 (6th)
North (R12-20) -11.3 (15th) 0.2 (11th) -3.8 (12th)

North have been the fourth-worst scoring side in the competition since Round 11 on my Offensive Efficiency Rating (OER), ahead of just Fremantle, Essendon and Carlton. Their defence has remained stoic, but moved from being very good to just average.

The offence is clearly the problem here, and much of North’s woes can be pinned on lack of player availability. We talked about this a few weeks ago – the Roos have been missing their first-choice forward line for most of this stretch, and boy it shows.

Since this article went up, Ben Brown has gone down with a knee injury, Jarrad Waite has had pre-finals surgery, and Shaun Higgins hasn’t been sighted. Mason Wood will battle to return this season, and back-up Aaron Black may be ready just in time for finals.

It has been a complete disaster for the Roos, and has meant they will limp into the finals as one of the more beaten-down teams in recent memory.

Not that it will matter. North Melbourne have won just two games against the top eight this season in nine attempts, with a percentage of 80 per cent. These are the teams North will play in their final few weeks of the season, however long it goes.

As an aside, West Coast have an almost identical record: two wins, albeit in seven games against the top-eight, not nine, and a percentage of 80. The Eagles, too, will face only the cream of the crop from here.

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At the pointy end of the season, match-ups matter more than full-season numbers. But even then, you’d be brave to back the Roos against any team that remains in the hunt for the flag.

It seems strange to talk about North’s next move, despite their being at least three games of their 2016 campaign remaining. But they find themselves in a unique position, and the administration’s decision of where to go next is a complex one.

Hindsight is 20-20
Boldened by two deep finals campaigns in 2014 and 2015, North went all-in last off-season. After bolting on Waite, Higgins, Nick Dal Santo and Robin Nahas in free agency in 2013 and 2014, they pick swapped their way to Jed Anderson and picked up Farren Ray from the rookie.

The choice was clear: North believed their core was good enough to make it all the way, save for some help up forward and another veteran head or two. It hasn’t precluded them from using early picks – they have picked six times in the top 30 since 2012, and have had another two picks just outside of that bracket. That is the beauty of free agency: clubs that are smart enough to use their salary cap effectively can have their cake and eat it too.

Adding Waite, Higgins and Dal Santo has improved the team. The addition of Higgins, in particular, should be viewed as an incredibly bold move, which has paid significant dividends, notwithstanding his current injury lay-off. Waite meant the Roos had one of the most threatening big forward combinations in the league when he, Drew Petrie and Brown were fit and firing, and he made Brown’s development path more rapid.

Dal Santo remains a very good player, and would still make the best 22 of most teams in 2017 on current form. These are all eminently defensible decisions.

But, it means the Roos are now in a delicate position, with 17 players under the age of 24 on their list, who have played a combined 65 games this year (out of a possible 340 games, should all of them been available for 100 per cent of the year). By contrast, their players aged 30 or over have suited up a combined 150 times out of 180 games available. Unsurprisingly, this is the profile of a team pushing for a flag.

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The flag will not materialise this year.

There is a line of argument that says the team was cruelled by injury, and that its veterans remain amongst the keenest contributors. Of North’s nine players aged 30 or older, only Petrie (form) and Ray (injury) would be candidates for the Arden Street pastures come the end of this season. Nahas may also find himself staring at an early retirement, if only because of his position on the rookie list.

When North Melbourne’s system was working this year, it generated results, albeit not of the planet-destroying variety that some other top eight sides have managed in 2016.

The next choice is diametric: Do the Roos run it back, hope for a much better time of it on the injury front, and have one final dip with their core group of players? They haven’t been linked to many players – buying or selling – which may hint this is where they believe their path lies (or be a sign that their head is firmly in the present).

Or, is it time to give it away, reset, and look to the next phase in their team’s development? The former is the easy choice, and the path most likely. Here is the case, and something of an action plan, for the latter.

We’re in a seller’s market
The strategic choice is to see the forest from the trees, acknowledge that their best was found wanting, and use the current period of middle-class growth to their advantage.

The hounds are baying, or more specifically, the Saints are trumpeting, the Dees are screeching and the Pies are squawking. Richmond will be gunning for a return to finals, Port Adelaide still think they’re good enough, the Suns can’t have a third-straight season of bad luck, the Dons will get their squad back, the Dockers have Nat Fyfe…

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Almost every team on the wrong side of the finals line will be gunning for spots in the bottom half of the eight next season. All of them will be looking for additional talent.

Throw in the second year of future-pick trading, a ballooning salary cap, and reduced free-agency service limits, and the Greater Western Sydney Millionaire’s Garage Sale™, and it is clear that this trade period will be a seller’s market. It is an excellent time for teams who are savvy to accumulate assets, which may result in a hit to the on-field product.

North Melbourne, with their current list position and the weight of evidence that they are ‘very good’ in a competition that demands ‘excellent’, fit the definition of a seller. All it takes is an acceptance of their reality, and a willingness to listen to offers.

Unlike Carlton, for whom I recommended a slash-and-burn approach to list management around this time last year, North have some semblance of young talent on their list. This doesn’t need to be a full-scale teardown, but there are opportunities to move players on who may be worth $1.20 on the dollar to the right team.

Indeed, the Roos have some talent coming into or smack in prime age that it might consider parting with.

Robbie Tarrant has grown into an excellent defensive player – ironic, given stopping the opposition from scoring was North’s Achilles heel last season – and would be an interesting prospect for a team looking for an extra key defender. He’s signed until 2019, and will most certainly be playing on a below-market rate by the end of that deal. The right team would offer up a high pick or a lower pick plus a young player; ‘good key defender’ is the least fungible position in the competition.

Offsetting this to a degree is the market for key defenders may be crowded this season: West Coast will most certainly shop Mitch Brown, while Eric Mackenzie may also seek new opportunities. GWS’s Caleb Marchbank is talked about every second day, while you just know someone is going to think they can turn Fremantle’s Chris Mayne into a defender. Then there’s Michael Hurley. Still, the economics of a deal for Tarrant are appealing, particularly if he can remain as good as he has been this year.

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Aaron Black’s market value was never higher, and will never be higher, than in 2013, when he knocked back an offer to join Fremantle to stick with the Roos. He hasn’t found himself spending a heap of time in the team, pushed out by form and the injection of Waite. Fremantle have approximately minus-four key forwards on their list, and would be willing to deal.

Lachie Hansen is another who finds himself out of the senior team, and his flexibility to play both back and forward opens him up to a number of teams. If Essendon think they’re going to lose Hurley, Hansen represents a decent replacement. Hansen will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of next season, and if North do sell, they face the prospect of losing him for consideration outside of their control.

Majak Daw is often ridiculed, but is a decent ruckman who will never get the opportunity to cement a spot in the North Melbourne team so long as Todd ‘Iron Man’ Goldstein is around. Jamie Macmillan has played a full season in 2016, as has Shaun Atley. They are the kinds of guys who would be welcome injections into teams pushing for finals; think Thomas Bugg to Melbourne.

There is even the prospect of the Roos dealing away one of their top tier players: guys of the ilk of Jack Ziebell, Ben Cunnington or Ben Brown. Deals for this calibre of player don’t arise very often, because guys like this are valuable to their host team. If North sell up, they might consider hoarding all of their top-tier players as an extravagance they cannot afford.

Much of North Melbourne’s capital is tied up in its veterans, who would be nigh-on unmoveable. Daniel Wells is the only member of this group who would command some value, and only to a narrow group of teams looking for a year or two of his brilliance, and that are willing to tolerate his patchy injury history. West Coast come to mind, although it’s unclear what they might give up.

Which brings us to Brent Harvey, who it has been suggested this week should simply retire to make way for younger players. This is not only illogical – he remains one of North’s best players – but it is disrespectful to one of the AFL’s greats, and ignores the impact Harvey undoubtedly has on the club and its culture.

Harvey is North Melbourne to an entire generation, and so long as he has two arms, two legs, and a desire to put in the mountains of work that have enabled him to play 429 games, he should be a North Melbourne player.

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One season ends, another begins
The past couple of weeks have seen a number of players announce their retirement from the game – particularly from sides that find themselves outside of the September reckoning. The trickle will turn into a steady stream as the weeks go by.

This off season looms large; so many teams have taken the rebuild path with an eye to contending in the post-expansion years ahead.

North Melbourne – a team that gave it all and made the best decisions they could – would be wise to think about the league’s macro settings when considering their next move. The seeds of renewal can be sowed in conditions like these.

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