This wasn’t supposed to happen. North Melbourne are rebuilding, right? But what if they’re not? What if – no, for real – the Kangaroos are going to be good next year?
I wrote about North no more than eight weeks ago with one central premise: when everyone is buying, it’s a good time to be selling.
The Roos were just about to delist four veterans, including VFL/AFL games record holder Brent Harvey, and were in the middle of a second-half skid that culminated in a 2-9 finish to the season and elimination final loss.
They were swiftly installed as third favourite for the wooden spoon, behind rebuilders Carlton and Brisbane. Their fall from the middle class was all but assured.
As Jay Croucher often likes to say, life comes at you fast.
North Melbourne have retooled meaningfully over the past fortnight, picking up some very handy pieces that get to the heart of their biggest deficiencies. Their list profile is intriguing, and there is enough talent in the right places to leave one conflicted.
The Roos are set to lose 1964 games of AFL experience between the 2016 and 2017 seasons, owing to the departures of Brent Harvey (432 games), Nick Dal Santo (322), Drew Petrie (316), Michael Firrito (275), Daniel Wells (243), Farren Ray (209), Robin Nahas (117) and Aaron Black (50). That’s a big number. How big? It’s the equivalent of four full AFL seasons for 22 players. It’s almost the same number of games experience sitting on the entire Brisbane Lions list coming into the 2016 season (1974).
That’s a meaningful cull. What’s more, Harvey, Petrie, Firrito and Dal Santo played 22 games or more last season. Wells played 19. These were key contributors on the field, and were most certainly influential off it.
Those moves alone will see the Roos drop to the middle of the pack in both age and experience next season. North will go from being the oldest and most experienced team in the league by some margin, to being pretty well average – maybe slightly above average on the age curve once everything shakes out.
It was a signal of intent: we gave it our best shot, but we weren’t good enough to win a premiership, so now it is time to reload and go again. North’s list management strategy over this cycle has been eminently defensible, for reasons we discussed a couple of months back. Pulling the pin was also the right call, no matter the pain it doubtlessly caused (although keeping a 34-year-old Jarrad Waite still smells funny).
My recommended course of action was an aggressive trade period, to stockpile a couple of extra picks at the top of the draft in an effort to get meaningfully younger. The competition is set to be intensely competitive for the next two or three years at least, so if you’re rebuilding, you should get out the dynamite rather than the sledgehammer.
Instead, the Roos have hedged; retaining their first and second round picks, sourcing a third from HQ as compensation for Wells’ departure, and bolting on three young players from other teams in Marley Williams, Nathan Hrovat and Paul Ahern.
Adding these six players as replacements for their six mature-age departures (putting Black to the side for a moment) is not quite like for like, but figuratively, it is meaningful. North Melbourne have got significantly younger very quickly, and the players they have added all address specific needs in a team with a solid core in place.
Are we sure they’re bad?
In the first 11 weeks of the 2016 season, North Melbourne were balling with the best teams. A 10-1 record overstated their abilities by just under two wins, but even then, the ‘Roos were playing at the level of an 8-3 team.
By the time the season ended, North had a Pythagorean expected win total of 12.1 wins, a fraction of a win more than they actually recorded. Their flame out was an all-timer, but it merely represented their regression to type after a very hot start to the season. They weren’t as great as a 10-1 record suggested – they never were great in their recent run – but they weren’t as terrible as a 2-9 record suggests, either.
When they were at their peak, North were scoring at a very healthy clip, ranking fourth on my Offensive Efficiency Rating in their first 11 games. Their forward line functioned incredibly well in those early days, with the three tall set of Petrie, Waite and Ben Brown making things difficult for opposition defenders. Shaun Higgins was a handful across half forward, as was Harvey. The ‘Roos were a transition-first team, content to sit back and counter punch rather than apply masses of forward pressure to win the territory game.
That works fine when you have players to kick to forward of the ball – when injuries start to mount, as they did at North, counterpunching becomes far more difficult.
The ‘Roos’ offensive potency dropped away meaningfully in the second half of the year, with their OER falling to 13th in the league. Over the full year, they were the eighth-best scoring side. They were also the eighth-best defence, powered in no small part by the emergence of Robbie Tarrant as a genuine key position defender – a position the ‘Roos had sorely lacked for years.
Again, over the full season North Melbourne weren’t a great side, but they weren’t bad either.
Offsetting this is the pivotal roles their now-departed veterans played in North’s 2016 season. A good way to view this is to look at Best and Fairest voting, which is run by the coaching staff. Wells and Harvey finished in the top five, while Dal Santo was seventh and Petrie was 13th.
Wells, Harvey and Dal Santo were key to North’s counter punching midfield system, while Petrie for all of his poor form still commanded a match up. As above, the five longest serving North veterans played a total of 109 of the 506 games available to be played in 2016. Losing these players is going to sting.
But those new recruits look mighty interesting. Yes the ‘Roos are losing some experience, but they are gaining three players who fit Brad Scott’s system well. With some better injury luck forward of the ball, it’s quite possible the ‘Roos don’t fall away in the manner we expect.
Play your role
The NBA season gets underway today. Team lists run just 15 men deep at the very most, and five players on the court at any time, meaning team construction is an incredibly important consideration when building towards a championship. It’s often said that there’s no way a team can win a title unless they have one of the best half a dozen players in the league, but equally as important are the role players – guys who fill specific needs or can play particular parts to help their team win.
We as a collective often get sucked into this mode of thinking when it comes to analysing Australian rules football. System is more important than individuals in a sport where 36 players are on the field at any time. The 2016 Western Bulldogs epitomise this; outside of a handful of key position players, the Bulldogs are all about flex and depth through the middle and up forward.
North Melbourne are not this; the ‘Roos have players who all have very useful characteristics, but they all have their flaws. When it all works, the ‘Roos can hang with anyone, but when it doesn’t, North Melbourne become very vulnerable.
That’s what has me so intrigued about their new additions. Each of Ahern, Hrovat and Williams possess important attributes that Scott can put to good use.
Ahern is a pacey outside midfielder, and will join a midfield sorely lacking wheels. The ‘Roos have one of the deepest inside midfield groups in the game, and a ruckman in Todd Goldstein who helps make the most of this strength. But outside of the departed Wells, there’s little flare. Ahern, who spent the year on the sidelines with a knee injury, will make an impact instantly. He and Jed Anderson, who was figuratively sidelined by North’s veterans last season, are a perfect, if unproven, pair.
Hrovat is Boomer-lite; a forward-midfielder with a strong nose for goal and a willingness to work both inside and outside through the middle. He was a victim of the Dogs’ success, unable to crack the senior team consistently in 2016 after an early season injury. The former Dog will pair nicely with Shaun Higgins at half forward, and with Kane Turner help build a forward-midfield group that adds flexibility.
Williams had an awful end to his time at Collingwood, culminating in a disastrous Round 23 outing against the Hawks where he quite literally was the difference (and then some) in a one point loss. A year prior, he finished in the top ten in Collingwood’s best and fairest, and looked set to join the swelling ranks of under-rated small defenders.
In 2015 Williams averaged 6.5 intercepts and 360 metres gained per game, both very good marks for a small back pocket. The ‘Roos will be hoping he can capture that form and become a mop up player to their hard working tall defensive set. Williams’ presence should also free up the likes of Jamie Macmillan and Shaun Atley (Macmillan in particular) to play more attacking roles.
Critically, the additions of Ahern, Hrovat and Williams line up well with the rest of North Melbourne’s demographics. All are below prime age – Ahern significantly so – and have time to grow with the rest of the sub-24-year-old group that North have been quietly assembling in recent years.
Even if these guys don’t work out, North Melbourne gave up a half eaten sandwich each for them: future third and fourth round picks which will end up somewhere in the 50s and 60s, and this year’s seventh round pick which, as we discussed on Monday, is nigh on useless these days. North’s recruiting staff know their list, know its weaknesses, and have gone about filling them astutely. They will also add three talented youngsters with high picks in the draft.
There’s plenty of water to travel under the bridge, but from the haze of October North fans should feel good about their team’s trade period – at the very worst it has been deliberate and tidy. The anguish of losing a cluster of respected and loved veterans will still sting. But the beauty of this time of year is hope springs eternal.
North Melbourne are going to go backwards next year, but perhaps not as far as we thought a fortnight ago. They might even be good.