North Melbourne were a surprise packet of season 2018, rising above doom and gloom predictions to be in the finals hunt all year.
The Kangaroos held a position in the eight for the first half of the season, dropping out after the bye rounds and never quite able to squeeze back in. After being widely seen as a bottom four certainty and even likely wooden spoon winner, it could only be hailed as a successful year.
Not satisfied with their rise, North was an active player in the trade and free agency period. They lured four 100 game players to their club, with Jarrad Waite a significant departure due to retirement, along with Ryan Clarke who shifted to Sydney.
Let’s see how these new faces fit into the side.
North Melbourne Kangaroos
B: S.Wright S.Thompson M.Daw
HB: J.Macmillan R.Tarrant M.Williams
C: T.Dumont B.Cunnington J.Polec
HF: J.Simpkin M.Wood A.Hall
F: J.Ziebell B.Brown S.Atley
Foll: T.Goldstein S.Higgins J.Anderson
Int: B.Jacobs P.Ahern J.Pittard L.McDonald
Em: D.Tyson K.Turner N.Hrovat
North Melbourne was rock solid in defence last year, at least in terms of personnel, which is an important platform for any consistent side.
Key defenders Robbie Tarrant and Scott Thompson only missed one game between them. Jamie Macmillan, Marley Williams and Luke McDonald played all 22, while Sam Wright didn’t miss a match once he was brought into the side in Round 7, almost two years after he had last played at senior level.
Tarrant and Thompson have been working in tandem for a long time, always in the second tier when conversation turns to best key backmen in the game. Tarrant, in particular, has had an outstanding three or four years.
Majak Daw found himself settled in defence by the end of 2018, but has been battling personal problems in the off-season and where his football career sits is in question. Ed Vickers-Willis and Ben McKay may get an opportunity as the third talls down back in his absence.
The Roos often weren’t a high possession team, even in wins, so the rebounding players don’t win a heap of ball. Ryan Clarke was the highest possession runner from defence, but is now in Sydney. Jasper Pittard has been procured from Port to replace him but North fans must be warned – Pittard is one of the worst decision-makers in the AFL and can cause some groans among supporters when he tries to hit a target that isn’t on, or shanks the kick due to running too fast at the point of impact.
Up forward, Ben Brown is the clear focal point, the only player in the league to kick more than 60 goals in each of the last two seasons. We know he likes to lead fast and straight, is hard to stop on the lead, and is one of the best set shots in the comp.
The second key forward role will be held by a younger player, if Brad Scott wants to partner Ben Brown in that way. Nick Larkey is now in his third year at North, and kicked over 40 goals in the VFL last year – he looked the part in the JLT hit out against St Kilda on Saturday, so will surely add to his two senior games from 2017. Some say he moves like a young Drew Petrie, and even has the honour of wearing the number 20.
If the Roos go a bit smaller, hopes are high for the ever-injured Mason Wood as a lead-up player, and one good sign is that the amount of games he plays in each season has increased in each of the last four years. Wood shows flashes of brilliance in five or ten minute periods, possibly even a quarter, but frustrates with a lack of consistency.
Jack Ziebell played as an almost permanent forward last year, and despite being medium-size is used as a marking target. He’s a poor man’s Dustin Martin inside 50, which is no knock, strong in a contested one-on-one situation. He was never a big ball-winner in the midfield, so his best position appears to have been discovered.
Moving Shaun Atley into a small forward role was a winner in 2018, and he’ll be looking to hit the scoreboard even more this time around. Jy Simpkin will continue to be there, while trying to gain more midfield time. He’s a talent.
Aaron Hall will play either half-forward or as a forward-pushing midfielder. He has great attributes – he can find the footy, carry it, use it, evade opponents, kick goals. He’s not a naturally defensive-minded player, but the Roos have others for that. Let’s focus on what he’s good at.
Ben Cunnington will lead the midfield once again and loves the contest so much it’s always a surprise to find that he wins any uncontested possessions at all. He’s one of the underrated quiet achievers of the football world.
Jed Anderson emerged as a surprise hard nut inside the contest in 2018, another tick for the North coaching staff. Paul Ahern had an impact when he finally overcame his injuries and got on the park. Ben Jacobs is still one of the best taggers in the competition when he takes the field, but has played only 20 matches in the last three years.
Shaun Higgins is the jet, one that gets better with age. All class, he has often had to carry a heavy load as the lone classy player in a midfield of workhorses.
The list management team went hard in seeking running support for Higgins, and we’ve discussed Polec and Hall already. But Jared Polec is the ace in the pack from the off-season, and will slot straight onto a wing.
Polec took his game to another level last season, registering the best returns of his career. To then take the money and run, off to his third club, does bring about its own pressure.
Trent Dumont is highly respected within Arden St, but most non-North supporters could sit next to him on a train and not know who he was. He has started to believe he belongs, and could take another step up again.
Teenager Luke Davies-Uniacke didn’t look comfortable at AFL level last year despite coming in with high hopes, but has had a massive summer on the track from all reports, and could slot straight back in. Tarryn Thomas has been dominating juniors for years down in Tasmania, and has been on North’s radar during that time. Expectations might be unrealistically high.
Todd Goldstein had another good year in the ruck, really hitting his straps in the second half of the season. With Braydon Pruess defecting to Melbourne, ex-Bulldog Tom Campbell has been brought in as back-up.
Rarely has there been a glaring list management hole that has been so decisively addressed in an off-season. More run was needed, and bang, in come Polec, Hall, Pittard. With a nice blend of experience, youth, inside and outside runners, draftees and imports, the Roos are putting together a complementary mix.
North only have 26 players on their list to have played more than 30 games, and 19 players with 15 games or less. They don’t have a lot of exposed depth to rely on.
In fact, they used only 31 players last year, the least of any club. They had a remarkable 12 players play every game, with another three playing 20 or more. This can’t be ignored as a contributing factor to their unexpected rise up the ladder. Chances are their depth will get more tested this season.
North’s best team is good enough to contend for finals, as they did last year. The question will be how they go when injuries do hit to key players, particularly if Brown, Goldstein, Tarrant or Higgins go down for any length of time.
The Kangaroos are to be applauded for their aggressive list management. They’ve given themselves a chance to be thereabouts again.