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Opinion

North Melbourne can rebuild without trading Ben Brown

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Expert
6th August, 2020
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A change of philosophy has arrived at North Melbourne – after seemingly endless years of top-up trades and mid-table madness, the Roos are rebuilding.

That’s the news as reported by Jake Niall at The Age, who writes that North have made a decision backed by the board to focus on the draft for at least the next two years rather than target mature recruits.

That might not seem strange or surprising for a side that currently finds itself in the AFL’s bottom four, but it represents a significant change of direction compared to how the club has recruited in recent history.

For a team that hasn’t spent a lot of time at the pointy end of the season over the last decade, North haven’t been sighted much in the early portion of the draft either.

They’ve take only one pick inside the top five – Luke Davies-Uniacke in 2017 – in the last ten years, and only three total since 1991. In the last ten years, they’ve had just two more picks inside the top ten.

Instead they’ve made a splash in the pursuit of big fish, launching brazen and invariably unsuccessful attempts to lure prominent players to the club. If you threw a cocktail party for footballers who’ve rejected North Melbourne, it’d have an A-grade guest list.

How often can a team hope to acquire elite talent without taking early draft picks or landing premium players at the trade table, then? Not very, and North’s list is a testament to this.

This isn’t to say the Kangaroos haven’t plucked the occasional brilliant player for a bargain price – All-Australian Shaun Higgins via free agency and Ben Brown with 287 goals and 130 games from pick 47 are great examples.

But just as you don’t win a football game by only taking low-percentage shots from the boundary, neither can you build a great AFL list by only finding diamonds in the rough. A few shots right in front of goal and some picks very early in the order go a long way towards getting results.

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That is exactly what the Roos appear set to take into this year’s draft with both their own first-round pick and Melbourne’s in hand. On present ladder positions, they would be selections No.4 and No.7.

The Dees may well fire up in the latter half of the season, but even if they do it seems certain North will be going into the 2020 draft with their best hand of picks since 2002, when they took both Daniel Wells and Hamish McIntosh in the top ten.

But like any club embarking on a rebuild, the Roos will undoubtedly seek out every possible avenue of improving their draft position – and trading Ben Brown is the topic that has been raised by many.

Brown’s form in 2020 has been the topic of much conversation. After averaging just shy of three goals per game in recent years, he has booted only eight from nine appearances so far this season and is now set to spend some time on the sidelines with a knee injury.

The 27-year-old is out of contract at the end of this season but is not a free agent, with 2020 his seventh season on the Kangaroos’ list after arriving as a mature-age draftee.

Ben Brown

(Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

It’s understandable that pundits could see cause for a parting of the ways between Brown and North Melbourne – but to put it in purely economic terms, selling your assets at their lowest value is rarely a good idea.

Realistically, one would assume the only clubs likely to put in an offer for Brown would be those that feel they’re contending for the premiership – and therefore likely only have a pick arriving late in the first-round to offer.

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In a heavily compromised 2020 draft, a pick in the middle or late teens is a good chance to get blown out into the 20s, in a year where as much as half the draft pool may miss the season entirely due to the impacts of COVID-19.

That would be an underwhelming return for a player who has arguably been North’s best and most consistent over the last three years.

I would suggest that, while North should always have an ear open to offers, this compromised and unpredictable 2020 draft is not the one to be selling star players to get into.

Instead, the Roos would be wise to put some time into identifying those clubs most likely to place a premium on early picks this year and see what opportunties may exist to maximise the value of their draft hand.

We saw the likes of GWS and Fremantle pay over the odds last year to move up the order ahead of academy bids, and with so many pre-aligned prospects in this year’s pool there’s bound to be clubs interested in doing the same again.

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The modern introductions of future pick trading and father-son and academy bidding have created plenty of situations where clubs can improve their positions simply through wise wheeling and dealing, without necessarily needing to move players on.

North have picked up five Rising Star nominations since the start of 2019 – the equal-most of any club in the league, tied with star-studded Gold Coast.

That suggests to me that there’s platform enough to build on without a pressing need to sell the farm – especially if those in the market are only bidding under the asking price.

Nothing is certain when it comes to rebuilding through the draft – but history suggests that, like kicking from straight in front of goal, if you take enough shots you’ll get a few through the sticks.

It’s going to be a new era at North Melbourne, and one that – if the club makes patient and prudent decisions – will offer plenty of excitement in the years to come.