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What I want to see in North Melbourne's next senior coach

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Expert
17th June, 2019
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It’s something of a novel position to be in for me to follow a club that doesn’t know who its senior coach will be next year.

Since falling back in love with footy earlier this decade, the North Melbourne coach has alway been Brad Scott, and now for the first time in my serious following of the sport, the Kangaroos have a big decision to make.

It is my view that any discussion of who should be the next senior coach of the football club should start not with naming names, but considering what impact we want them to have on the club and its playing list, then working backwards from there to identify the best person for the job.

This where North Melbourne immediately finds itself in something of a pickle, torn between comitting to a genuine rebuild, or looking to see how high it could rise with the talent of its current playing list – and this isn’t a position unfamiliar to the club and its fans.

In the lead up to Brad Scott’s sacking the Roos were in poor form and all the talk was of potentially moving senior players on for draft currency and willingly sliding down the ladder with the intention of creating a new generation of young talent.

That was before North won three in a row against the Bulldogs, Tigers and Suns. Should that change the club’s perspective? Probably not – while the team’s performance has undoubtedly lifted, it was clear on Sunday that the level of talent on the list is still significantly behind that of the league’s best.

I am sceptical whether moving on senior players is the right path to go down. St Kilda and Carlton both aggressively went down this path and neither has returned from the doldrums in a meaningful way just yet. Still, it’s a topic for another day.

However if we assume the next North Melbourne coach will be tasked with developing a generation of young talent, we can make a few assumptions from that about the characteristics of that person.

We want someone who will bring traits to the club that are not just relevant now, but will be holding the playing list in good stead in five or ten years time, and we want someone who we believe will do an effective job of connecting with and nurturing young talent.

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It’s for this reason that I lean towards a younger and untried option as our next senior coach – someone with a relatively fresh experience of playing at AFL level, and someone perhaps more likely to connect with the younger players on the list.

This person should be someone who displays the traits that we want to see from our team. Personally, I believe the bedrock of the club’s gameplan, whether it ultimately has an offensive or defensive slant, should be a strong, physical, team defence.

While a team like Hawthorn during their threepeat were lauded for their long and accurate kicking style, the reality is that when they won grand finals they did so because they offered their opponents no quarter. In the 2014 and ’15 deciders particularly, the Hawks bullied their opponents so badly on the field that just about any gamestyle would’ve gotten them over the line.

This is a style of footy that I think North Melbourne’s list has the capacity to play (though this is not true of every player on it). Often accused of being too ‘blue-collar’, the team has a lot of hard nuts who know how to make life difficult for opposition players.

I’m not arguing for anyone to cross the line – looking at you, Stratton – but I believe there’s room to play hard, uncompromising football while still being a fair and respectable team, and hopefully developing the offensive skills to be enjoyable to watch also.

To put it simply, if everyone in our 22 plays tackles like Jed Anderson or Cam Zurhaar, I’ll be bloody happy. And we’ll win plenty of games, too.

So if we’re looking for an untried senior coach to bring that hard edge, who is on the market? My first thought was Sam Mitchell – while inexperienced, it’s widely agreed he has the capacity to become a senior coach, and he very much brings the traits I’m looking for.

That won’t be happening though. Mitchell has already ruled himself out of pursuing a senior coaching job for 2020 – probably wisely, given how much we’ve seen those less-experienced choices struggle when taking on the top job in recent years.

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Instead, I’d argue that maybe the best person for the job at North Melbourne is the one already in it: Rhyce Shaw. In the three weeks he has coached the club, I’ve learned two things in particular, both of which I like.

The first is that his perception of which traits he’d like to instill in the playing list are pretty much exactly the same as mine. After defeating Richmond in his first game in charge, he said:

“We went in with the mindset that we wanted to attack our opponents. That’s what we’re about. We’re a physical football team, we’ve got physical players.

“Jack Ziebell, Ben Cunnington, Cameron Zurhaar, Jed Anderson — these guys are big bodies. They attack the man… I wanted to encourage that in those players.”

Music to my ears. Shaw did of course play primarily in defence during his 237-game AFL career, which included Sydney’s 2012 premiership, and was North’s backline coach before being elevated to the interim senior job.

The second is that he’s a great relationship-builder. Since he took on the interim role this has been said by all and sundry at North Melbourne – and the fact he was given this position after only being at the club a few months speaks volumes to the truth of it.

Oh, and I suppose a bonus third: he really likes milk bottles. More of a musk stick man myself, but I respect it.

Benefitting Shaw is that the club now has a first-hand chance to see him in action over a period of three months, something which can inform an ultimate decision as to whether he’s the best choice for the job.

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It’s too early to give him the thumbs up off the back of three games, certainly, but we have seen a definite lift in North’s defensive intensity. Keep that up for the rest of the season and I will find it hard to say no.

Rhyce Shaw

(Photo by Michael Dodge/Getty Images)

If for whatever reason Shaw turns out not to be an appealing choice, the other names that jump out to me as worthy of the most investigation are Justin Longmuir, who coaches Collingwood’s backline, and Blake Caracella, who coaches Richmond’s forwards – a unit well known for their hard-working pressure.

All the latest rumours however suggest that North intends to go down a very different direction to the one I’ve proposed here, with the club reportedly to make an offer to John Longmire worth $6 million over five years to defect from the Swans and return home to Arden Street.

It’s a proposition that has obvious appeal: there’s the romantic element of one of the club’s premierships players coming back to the club, and then of course there’s Longmire’s obviously lengthy record of success coaching the Swans. However, I’m not on board.

My first concern is that I don’t understand what signing Longmire would say about the direction we intend to take the club in. Are we trying to get the most out of our current list? Because that’s probably something Longmire has been accused of not doing in his time at the Swans. Are we trying to develop a generation of youth? Because, while he’s probably capable, that’s not a task we’ve seen Longmire fully complete yet at the Swans, certainly not to the extent where we could justify making him the AFL’s highest-paid coach to do it.

The second is that, well, money doesn’t grow on trees. More to the point, AFL clubs can only spend so much of it – there’s a cap on football department spending in the league now beyond which clubs must pay a heavy tax if they exceed it.

Every dollar paid to Longmire is a dollar that can’t be spent elsewhere. What’s likely to be more effective – $1.2 million on him, or half that on a rookie senior coach and the rest devoted to beefing up our recruiting staff to make sure we get the best possible talent through the door?

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Overall, I’m concerned the Longmire approach is driven more by premiership nostalgia and appeal to the fanbase – the kind of thinking that led to disastrous appointments like Justin Lepptisch and James Hird – than it is a genuine consideration of what impact we want our next senior coach to have on the job. It’s never going to be the 1990s again. We have to look to the future, not the past.

Still, the idea of an experienced coach isn’t without merit – and perhaps that should be considered in a part-time mentoring role, rather than in the senior position.

Paul Roos has made positive comments about the club on a few occasions since Brad Scott left, and could be worth sounding out for a more casual position to offer guidance to the coaching team – perhaps a particular appealing avenue to go down if indeed Shaw gets the job.

There’s still ten rounds (and nine games) to play out in North Melbourne’s home-and-away season before a decision needs to be made on who will coach the club in 2020 and beyond – and the results we see between now and then will do a lot to inform us on the best direction to go in.

But at this early vantage point, an untried rookie with a passion for team defence – be that Shaw, Longmuir, Caracella, or any other suitable name the might bob up – possibly backed up by an experienced part-time mentor in the Paul Roos mould? That sounds alright to me.