North Melbourne were one of the surprise packets of 2018, tipped almost unanimously to be a bottom-four side but ultimately falling only a win and percentage short of finals.
In the end it was a resurgence of North’s mature core and veteran players that saw them rise up the ladder, coupled with a the benefits of a mostly short injury list.
How do they take the next step? Continuing to bring in youth will be vital, but the ‘Roos are once again eyeing off mature talent from elsewhere, with West Coast’s Andrew Gaff at the top of their wishlist.
At a quick glance you can see pretty easily why North Melbourne were a popular pick for the wooden spoon at the start of 2018 – they were the second youngest list in the AFL, and the least experienced.
However while North’s overall list suggested they should be near the bottom of the ladder, their decisions at the selection table are a lot more reflective of where the club ultimately finished up.
North invested a below-average number of games in to their players 23-and-under, and the vast majority of those into players at the upper layer of that age group.
They ultimately picked up only 32 AFLCA votes from players in that group – the fourth-lowest number of any side in the league, ahead only of West Coast, Richmond and Geelong.
Luke McDonald, Trent Dumont, Kayne Turner, Ryan Clarke and Jy Simpkin were the key members of this 23-and-under group to regularly feature in the side, while Ed Vickers-Willis and Paul Ahern both showed enough to suggest they belong there in the future.
Luke Davies-Uniacke, Ben McKay, and Sam Durdin are the players North will be hoping become regulars in time – Will Walker and Nick Larkey too have shown promise.
51 per cent of North’s games went into their prime-age (24-29) group, and the Roos picked up 173 votes here, just below par.
In particular it was the players 26-27 who were the mainstays of this group – 29 per cent of North’s games went into players of this age, and they won 151 AFLCA votes from the club, nearly half of North’s total for the season.
The fab four here are Ben Cunnington, Ben Brown, Jack Ziebell and Ben Jacobs, but the prime-age group also includes names like Robbie Tarrant, Jed Anderson, Majak Daw, Jamie Macmillan, Marley Williams, Shaun Atley, Mason Wood, Taylor Garner and Nathan Hrovat.
Finally, 16 per cent of North’s games were played by players 30 and over. This is just a touch over the average – what’s more notable is that North picked up 120 AFLCA votes from the four players in this group, more than double the league average.
Shaun Higgins was responsible for more than half of these, while Jarrad Waite, Scott Thompson and Todd Goldstein all did their fair share.
Overall, a strong year on the injury front allowed North to consistently field its oldest and most experienced players rather than being forced to give games to youth.
What would they have found if they decided to invest more in the youngsters by choice? Hard to say, but certainly there was a contingent of fans who would’ve liked to see players like Davies-Uniacke and Ahern given more consistent gametime.
What’s clear is that North’s surprising rise up the ladder in 2018 should be not be considered a vote of confidence in their younger players but instead a reminder of the underrated strength of their core and veteran players, and good fortune on the injury front.
There’s a few things on their wishlist.
Outside midfield talent is at the top – North have plenty of blue-collar types who can get the job done inside the contest, but relatively few with a proven capacity to have a consistent influence outside of it.
That being the case, it’s no surprise that the two players they’re pursuing most closely this year, Andrew Gaff and Jared Polec, are both dedicated wingers.
North could also benefit from having some small forwards who are more prolific in front of goal. The likes of Turner and Hrovat were played in this role in 2018 and did well defensively but only rarely contributed goals.
Finally, North could use a damaging player to move the ball of half-back.
There isn’t a side in the league who had a great disparity between the demographic of their list overall and that of the 22 they actually put on the field each week.
North’s list may have been the second youngest this year, but they fielded the fifth-oldest team on average, fielding an older team than four of the final eight – Richmond, Sydney, GWS and Geelong.
While they had the least experienced list overall, they fielded a side that has 2194 games of experience on average, the seventh-most in the league.
Ultimately they finished ninth with 12 wins and a percentage of 108.9.
Verdict: Hard to believe we’re saying it given what the pre-season predictions were, but to not make finals was underperforming given North were firmly in the top eight for both age and experience in 2018.
The ‘Roos have some players out of contract that they’ll want to sign up as soon as possible: Jed Anderson, Ryan Clarke and Ben Jacobs.
Jacobs is arguably North’s most important player but missed the end of the year due to persistent concussion symptoms.
There were some concerns that it might mean an early end to his career, but Jacobs recently said he’s working on a new deal with the club.
Anderson and Clarke were both regulars in 2018, with Anderson in particular being one of the most improved players in the competition. Both seem likely to re-sign.
Scott Thompson is a more debatable matter. His form definitely deserves another contract, and all signs point towards North giving him one.
An argument could be made that he should be let go in order to give the likes of Ben McKay or Sam Durdin a chance to take his spot – but it’s not a bad idea either to keep him around and make them really earn it.
McKay and Durdin are on North’s 2019 contract list and both face a big year. They’ve achieved relatively little so far and would want to finish the year in the best 22 or very close to.
Trent Dumont, Majak Daw and Marley Williams are three others that North will want to sign up sooner rather than later in 2019.
Out of contract
North’s top priority right now and the big domino which will lead to action on a lot of other fronts is the question of whether or not they can land West Coast free agent Andrew Gaff.
The current situation is that West Coast have reportedly offered Gaff a deal worth about $5.4 million over six years, while North are offering as much as $8.4 million over seven years.
It’s an amount of cash that would be hard to turn down, and recent news that his father underwent serious heart surgery in August might also be a motivating factor to return to Victoria.
As things stand, no one seems to sure on whether Gaff will re-sign with the Eagles or cross to North Melbourne, but it does seem as if the situation has been narrowed down to those two possibilities.
While Gaff is a restricted free agent, the good news for North is that if they do successfully land his signature then there’s essentially no chance of West Coast matching the bid for him and forcing a trade.
That would require the Eagles to be able to stump up a contract offer of the same monetary value, which really just doesn’t seem like something they could do.
That would mean adding arguably the AFL’s best winger – All Australian in that position this year – without having to compromise on their ability to invest in the draft.
A massive coup if they can pull it off – if not, it doesn’t seem like they have anyone else in the gun to target via free agency this year.
North don’t have all their eggs in the Gaff basket when it comes to looking for outside midfield talent.
In particular, it’s widely believed that Jared Polec will be at the club next year on a deal reportedly worth $3.5 million over five years.
There has been some talk that St Kilda have tabled Polec a better financial offer – of course, there’s also been conflicting reports claiming that this is untrue.
Either way it still seems the most likely result is that Polec will join North via trade, which means the ‘Roos will need to work out a deal with Port Adelaide.
Port have their eyes on North’s first draft selection, currently pick 10, and for a while it seemed likely that this would be the deal.
The ‘Roos would have been planning to match an early bid for draft prospect Tarryn Thomas, and figured that moving on their first pick meant they could instead match him more cheaply later in the draft.
This was the impetus behind North first targetting Jordan de Goey and now Polec this year.
However recent developments suggest things might not be going in that direction, as Thomas’ form has declined as the year has gone on.
A bid now might not come in the top ten for him, and North would instead be hoping that they can use this pick to draft from the open pool, then probably match a bid for Thomas later.
It was reported recently that North has ‘cooled’ on Thomas as a draft prospect, which may be genuine news or may be an attempt to make opposition clubs think twice before bidding.
Either way it seems like North may now be looking to get a deal for Polec done without giving up their first pick, which will be harder to do.
The fact that promising ruckman Braydon Preuss has been in the trade rumours a bit suggests that North is looking for ways to get this deal done.
He might have been a good fit to go straight to Port Adelaide, but news that they are virtual certainties to secure Scott Lycett suggests they won’t be interested.
Instead, Melbourne have emerged as a potential suitor for him, and it wouldn’t surprise me if a club like Brisbane in his native Queensland also came to the table.
A deal like that could land North another second-round draft pick, potentially helpful in trying to seal a deal for Polec.
There’s definitely a lot left to play out here, but Port Adelaide would do well to remember they’ve tried to play trade table chicken with the ‘Roos before (regarding Ben Jacobs), and North didn’t blink.
North are also reportedly in the market for Gold Coast’s Aaron Hall and while he has some other suitors in Carlton and St Kilda, it seems that he’s most likely to end up at Arden street.
Gold Coast don’t seem to have much interest in trying to retain Hall, so you’d expect the deal will probably get done for a token pick.
The likes of Gaff, Polec and Hall all satisfy North’s need for outside midfield talent, but what else can we do at the trade table to adress the other items on their wishlist?
When it comes to small forwards, I’d say North would do well to have a good honest look at Jack Lonie and Jamie Elliott.
Lonie has a number of interest suitors after a strong finish to the year, and St Kilda haven’t yet confirmed whether or not they’ll offer him a contract extension.
Elliott, meanwhile, hasn’t been seen at AFL level much lately, but North could take a punt on him with hopes of relieving his injury woes, as they have with Shaun Higgins and Paul Ahern in recent years.
If North wants an option at half-back, then Kade Kolodjashnij at Gold Coast would be one to look at – he’s out of contract and his future at the Suns seems unclear.
North’s big longer-term project at the trade table however will be an attempt to land Josh Kelly at the end of 2019.
The Kangaroos famously made a multi-million dollar bid for him in 2017 only to see Kelly sign a two-year extension with the Giants.
However, there’s a number of pundits out there who believe Kelly and the ‘Roos had a handshake under the table to agree he’d become a North Melbourne player after that.
Jay Clark said in June this year that he believes Kelly will be a North Melbourne player at some point in his career, and certainly ‘Roos fans would like to believe he’s on the money.
It would cost North a pretty penny at the end of 2019 – probably their first pick that year and next – but Kelly being the talent he is, it would be absolutely worth it.
We won’t see any action on this front in 2018, but it’s one to watch next year.
North’s draft will be shaped by what happens in the trade period, and when a bid ultimately comes for next-generation academy prospect Tarryn Thomas.
Thomas is 189cm utility player who qualifies for North’s academy by virtue of being an indigenous player in Tasmania.
He’s been compared to Shaun Burgoyne by his coach and starred early in the year at the level two national championships.
Thomas was a bit less impressive at the top level, though still solid, but that – combined with reported concerns about his professionalism – have seen him potentially slide down the pecking order.
It’s now not clear whether or not he’ll be bidded on before North’s current first selection, and this uncertainty has a large role to play in the Jared Polec deal, as discussed above.
If North were to keep the pick and a bid for Thomas doesn’t come until after, it’ll give North a chance to draft another highly-rated youngster.
Conor Rozee would be a perfect fit for North here, but one would expect that with Adelaide and Port Adelaide holding picks beforehand, the native South Australian will already be gone.
Instead Curtis Taylor or Ian Hill would probably be the most likely candidates if North wants to add some talent forward of centre.
The ‘Roos should also look at picking up a small forward later in the draft – Ned McHenry is a name that could appeal.
“How North Melbourne progresses from here is going to depend greatly on whether they get the thumbs up or the thumbs down from Dustin Martin and Josh Kelly.
“If neither opt to come, then things do potentially look a little bleak – North will likely spend a few years near the bottom of the ladder, and will have to hope they pick up a generational player or three with their draft picks while there.”
Missing out on Dustin Martin and Josh Kelly last year was a disappointing result for North, but 12 months on their position looks better than seemed likely.
They certainly had a better season in 2018 than both neutral pundits and fans of the club would have expected, although the age and experience profile of their average team on the park suggests that if anything they should have been capable of more.
They ultimately played less youth than would’ve been expected at the start of the year, and whether or not there is talent to be unearthed here is one of the great unknowns on North’s list.
Jarrad Waite’s presence will be missed, but will also see North’s average age in particular drop, given that he was set to turn 36 before Round 1, 2019.
Scott Thompson is nearing retirement, but North will hope to get a few more good years out of Shaun Higgins, Todd Goldstein and Robbie Tarrant, and beyond them most of their key talent is 27 or younger.
Thompson and Tarrant will ideally be replaced by Ben McKay and Sam Durdin in time, and Goldstein by Braydon Preuss, while the ‘Roos will find the class of Shaun Higgins much harder to cover for when the time comes.
At the moment it’s a solid AFL team, but not one that seems likely to significantly improve – and that’s why the avid pursuit of top-tier talent makes a lot of sense.
Like 17 other AFL clubs, North Melbourne’s best 22 looks a hell of a lot more impressive if you’re able to add Andrew Gaff and Josh Kelly to it over the next 12 months.
Factor in the expected additions of Jared Polec and perhaps Aaron Hall alongside Tarryn Thomas and maybe another top young prospect at the draft as well the improvement to come from last year’s No.4 pick Luke Davies-Uniacke, and North fans have good reason to get excited.
If that all goes to plan then there’s no reason why North Melbourne couldn’t enter 2019 firmly in the finals race, and 2020 with their eyes on a top-four spot and premiership contention.
Of course, nothing is certain – there’s a lot of water to go under the bridge before North fans should start buying their Gaff and Kelly guernseys.
If they ultimately turn the club down then it’s hard to see North rising above mid-table until they’ve got a clearer idea of just how talented their younger players are.