After last week delisting 11 players within less than 24 hours of their final match of the season, North Melbourne have in recent days taken yet more steps in what looks set to be a radical playing list shakeup, placing a trio of established players in Shaun Higgins, Jared Polec and Ben Brown on the trade table.
Polec was one of the controversies of North Melbourne’s season, dropped twice during the year despite appearing to be in relatively good form on the field. It’s now clear that North are willing to trade out Polec and even pay part of his contract if made a reasonable offer, with Melbourne understood to be interested in a deal.
Higgins had his name thrown around at the end of 2019 but re-signed with the club – but he too is clearly available this off-season if he can find a new home elsewhere, and Geelong and St Kilda have both been linked to the 32-year-old.
Those are names that North fans will be sorry to see exit the club, but most would accept that their depatures are a logical enough part of rebuidling a playing list that, in its current form, clearly lacks the potential to be anything other than a mid-table team.
Far more bold is the decision to push Ben Brown towards a new home, a move which the club confirmed it was undertaking in a public statement released on Wednesday.
Looking at it logically, the are arguments both for and against North’s decision.
One could make the point that, although he’s had a poor season, a proven key forward talent like Brown is probably North Melbourne’s most valuable, if not their only truly valuable trade asset, and that if the club wants to make a serious effort to acquire extra draft picks then they don’t have many other options.
On the other hand, it’s also true that Brown’s current value on the trade market is lower than it has ever been, and has only been tanked further by North publicly seeking to push him out of the club. Whatever interested parties come forward appear likely to kick the tires and lowball the Roos at the trade table.
Ross Lyon summed up this point of view well when responding to the news on Footy Classified: “Stategically as a club, even if that’s what you thought, why would you tell him and his manager ‘we don’t want you’ and put it to the market place? How are they going to get true value for him now?”
That’s par for the course for a club that has failed utterly at any attempt to keep its trade wheelings and dealings out of the headlines over the past five years. And maybe it’s just the Melbourne COVID lockdown anxiety talking, but it’s hard to escape the feeling of impending catastrophe.
It may well be the case that a suitor willing to pay a fair price for Brown emerges during the trade period and that could allow North Melbourne to take three first-round picks into the 2020 draft, a possibility that it is hard not to be excited by.
But there is no doubt that the club as a whole and in particular senior coach Rhyce Shaw is gambling a lot on this move proving to be a wise one.
North’s statement on Brown was released following an article by Sam McClure for The Age in which McClure stated that Shaw “believes Brown’s lead-up play is not suited to his preferred game style”.
Rhyce Shaw has played 237 games of AFL football, won a premiership as a player in 2012, won the NEAFL Coach of the Year award in 2016 and the AFLCA’s Assistant Coach of the Year award twice in 2017 and 2018. He knows a lot more about football and coaching football than I do.
But even taking that into account: it is a mighty bold thing to say that a player who has proven they can regularly kick 60+ goals in a season isn’t a good fit for your team, tactically, especially when that team averaged less than five goals per game in its last five matches of the season.
Maybe it will prove a masterstroke. Perhaps the change of setup is just what North needs to revitalise its faltering forward line, possibly the young talent acquired at the draft will more than justify the decision to part with a player North fans are very fond of.
But it’s just as easy, if not easier, to picture disaster: a 2021 season where Brown flourishes at his new home while North linger in the bottom two, regularly failing to boot more than half a dozen goals in a game, young forwards struggling to develop without a mature teammate to provide structure and draw defensive focus.
If that proves to be the case then fans’ patience with Rhyce Shaw, already tested by the confusing and uncompetitive performances of 2020, will begin to wear thin. I for one still rate the decision to appoint him as senior coach, even though the 2020 season has been a shaker of confidence.
Trading Ben Brown might prove to be Shaw’s defining moment – a bold decision that pays off, and puts North Melbourne’s rebuild on the right path and points fans in the direction of a bright future. As a fan of the club, I can only hope so.
But AFL coaching careers can end very quickly when you bugger something up. This could just as easily be his undoing.