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Opinion

Why North Melbourne will not win the 2021 wooden spoon

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1st April, 2021
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The Kangaroos are the consensus pick to finish last this year after a woeful opening two rounds to the season featuring a 52-point loss to Port Adelaide and a 59-point loss to Gold Coast.

The marquee Good Friday clash should heap more misery on the team if the Bulldogs decide to play four quarters, with a triple-figure margin not out of the question.

Why then would the club not finish at the bottom of the ladder for the first time since 1972?

A shambolic start to the season is far from ideal; however, a little leeway can be afforded to a new coach trying to create a sense of unity within a young group missing experienced players.

David Noble oversaw the Brisbane revolution as the club’s general manager of football, working closely with Chris Fagan and enjoying great success in the Lions’ meteoric rise.

Noble has been a part of success at the Bulldogs’ reserves in the late 1990s and oversaw some of the Crows’ better years in different capacities at the club.

His time as head coach of Glenelg in 2003 and 2004 isn’t remembered overly fondly, although there were signs towards the end of his reign of an ability to rally a rabble and get them playing coherent football.

Crucially, however, Noble brings in a level of calmness and confidence in his own ability that should not only reassure North Melbourne fans but leave them excited for a bright future.

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A press conference can be a wonderful albeit small insight into the persona of a coach and their expectations going forward. Noble has been articulate, decisive and not afraid to highlight both the negatives and the positives emerging from the on-field performances.

He is the ideal mix of methodical, unflappable and innovative, which can help nurture a young group towards a brighter destination in a myriad of ways.

Noble has been clear in his expectation that the Kangaroos should win games and produce lasting efforts that can be a consistent baseline for what to expect from the football club, and part of his education won’t involve falsely pumping up the group post-game if they fail to deliver.

For a football club that has struggled to maintain a genuine identity for an extended period of time, Noble’s first point of call is clearly looking to place an emphasis on how the team approaches the game and placing value on unity.

The past couple of seasons have been difficult and volatile for North Melbourne, but the newfound sense of stability and clarity the new coach exudes is extremely valuable.

North fans only need to look at Greater Western Sydney to see the effect a mediocre coach can have on a playing group.

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And this playing group at Arden Street is relatively capable even without some key personnel.

The midfield has held up okay. It is clearly lacking some depth but is proving to be competitive in the opening two rounds. Luke Davies-Uniacke and Jy Simpkin are the duo that is due to take North Melbourne forward into the future.

Davies-Uniacke has perhaps been the epitome of what we’ve seen from the club in the opening two rounds, with stretches of brilliance mixed with periods of non-existence, but his average of 20.5 disposals, 5.5 inside 50s and 4.5 tackles a game has been good, along with his three scoring shots.

Simpkin has averaged 24.5 disposals, 13 contested possessions and 4.5 clearances and is looking like he’s becoming a more well-rounded midfielder as he continues his development.

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With Jed Anderson having returned against the Suns and earning the praise of his coach for a ferocious and relentless attack on the ball, the core midfield brigade has been far from the issue and should only improve with Ben Cunnington’s return.

It is as we push further outside and into the rotation between the wings and respective flanks that things really start to become an issue.

At the moment it really feels as though North Melbourne play in three distinctive zones, and while players rotate through different positions, there isn’t that two-way running and blending of lines that we see from the most successful teams.

Jared Polec was out of the best 22 last season, and the early signs aren’t promising in 2021. He’s committing errors unbecoming of a senior player and playing in a fairly robotic manner. Jack Mahony and Dom Tyson have struggled to fit in at AFL level, while Shaun Atley has been the same player off halfback for ten years, for better or worse.

The excitement around Jaidyn Stephenson and Tarryn Thomas has likely saved the team from failing further, as has the opening fortnight from Bailey Scott, but the positive out of all this is that inconsistent effort is fixable.

Trent Dumont’s return will be vital to creating consistency outside the contest between the arcs, as will Luke McDonald off halfback. What these two tend to do, and it is extremely contagious among a younger group, is get the ball forward, whether it is accurate or just a way to ensure metres are gained.

Fans can be critical at times, but these players are consistent in their efforts at the very least, which catches on for the players paid to work hard on the outside.

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As simple as that notion is, getting the ball forward is the best way to blur the fictitious lines between defence, midfield and attack, as it creates a lot more space and more unpredictability that defences have to deal with.

It will make Jack Ziebell’s move to defence all the more valuable, as he can begin to focus on the intercepting part of his game rather than thinking the entire notion of a counterattack has to be built on him.

Similarly, Lachie Young has adapted well at his new club and would enjoy the freedom afforded to him by McDonald’s return and the willingness of leaders to work hard in both directions to free up space further up the field.

Ben McKay has tried his hardest in the opening fortnight and has been solid, while Aidan Corr has sharpened the defensive side of his game to be above average. Both would appreciate stronger work higher up the ground to not leave them copping relentless bombardment inside defensive 50.

Aidan Corr

Aidan Corr is one of the Roos’ most underrated players. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

It would be unfair to leave Aiden Bonar’s efforts off the list, while Kyron Hayden returning in defence or as a tagger is really important.

It seems strange to highlight the defence of North Melbourne as somewhat of a positive, but when you consider how much pressure they’ve had to withstand with periods of disinterest higher up the ground, you simply must give some credit to its potential going forward.

North Melbourne hasn’t been smashed in the first two games because of the individual defenders in the team.

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What has set them back are careless turnovers once the ball has been won and the attempt to control the ball begins.

Funnily enough, we saw similar turnover issues in 2017 when Noble and Chris Fagan commenced their roles at the Brisbane Lions, with the Lions going from competitive to disappointing to a red-hot commodity by season’s end.

The Kangaroos have been unable to retain the ball and are subsequently losing out on the possession, marking and uncontested ball numbers because they commit errors and lack the persistence to follow up after the opposition maintains control with its first couple of disposals.

These issues with turnovers can be attributed to that aforementioned tri-zone split that isn’t what the coach requested but is rather a result of work ethic issues.

If players aren’t looking to break the lines and work hard to get their marks, then North Melbourne’s players higher up the field need to overcommit just to get the ball moving forward.

Pair that with a slow start from Nick Larkey, Josh Walker and Cameron Zurhaar and this is an offensive inefficiency that hands the ball right back to the opposition.

It’s unfair to judge the aforementioned trio purely on the opening two weeks given Port Adelaide and the Suns have strong defensive structures themselves, but North has made the intercepting game for the opposition that much easier with the lack of versatility and unpredictability when sending the ball in attack.

A lot of the entries have been to outnumbered situations. The key forwards look like they’re drowning at times.

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When you consider the fact Stephenson, Thomas and Tom Powell are playing forward-midfield roles and looking to send the ball inside 50 and hit the scoreboard themselves, there should be better craft in entering attacking 50.

Perhaps if injuries hadn’t been a factor, we’d have seen Charlie Comben play early and certainly more from Curtis Taylor, who has bucketloads of potential either in the medium-marking forward role or as a high half-forward with excellent touch inside 50.

While the issues in attack might be a harder fix given personnel issues, the buy-in demanded from the head coach and the return of leaders into the team will inevitably create greater depth and ability to move around the ground, giving North Melbourne more scoring options.

We have already seen Noble’s willingness to throw the proverbial magnets around, which only serves to carry the team into a more flexible and versatile future when the team has some stars return.

New Kangaroos coach David Noble poses

(Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

Davies-Uniacke will no doubt spend time forward and look to put ten to 15 goals up on the board, while Jaidyn Stephenson will spend periods on the wing and off halfback to really maximise his penetrating kick and blistering pace.

Noble’s pride in leading a youthful charge towards greener pastures is reliant on the leadership of veterans and established players, all of whom have the respect of their peers and can help establish a strong and resilient mentality.

At the moment North Melbourne lacks star power, so it’s unity rather than individual brilliance that will separate this group from similarly placed clubs.

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Cunnington and McDonald are fantastic team-oriented players who demand a lot from their colleagues and are perfect fits for the Noble regime.

We’ve already seen the coach look to create multi-positional players, as per a Richmond or Hawthorn of yesteryear, so that North Melbourne can eventually become as unflappable as he is when their backs are against the wall.

Taking the game on out of defence has been impossible to start the season, but it becomes easier with returning players and the rotational depth in the likes of Ziebell, McDonald, Young, Atley and Corr – and at times Stephenson, Scott and Will Walker – all having a mix of pace, dare and long-range kicking.

Perhaps most vital will be meeting Noble’s demands of accountability and consistency.

North Melbourne is a bottom-four team that faces a relatively difficult run early on outside of Adelaide in Round 4, which is a huge opportunity.

By the time Round 8 hits and the Kangaroos face Collingwood, David Noble will have had a good stretch with an almost full-strength team to hammer home the importance of running in both directions and putting in relentless effort for four quarters.

All of this should help eliminate the ridiculous number of turnovers committed by the club in the season’s opening fortnight and ultimately regress to the mean – North Melbourne hasn’t ranked in the league’s top eight for clangers in a decade.

Put simply, if the Kangaroos are able to apply the same effort that has been shown by Adelaide and Hawthorn to start the season, they will be better than those two clubs as well as Essendon and perhaps even a flailing GWS or misery-stricken Carlton team.

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In the immediate short term, today’s Good Friday clash will see things get worse for North Melbourne before they get better.

But David Noble won’t be giving up on his team at any stage throughout the season, and neither should fans.

It mightn’t be apparent right now, but with a strong leader in charge and an eager young group wanting to learn from its veterans and play well for their coach, the Kangaroos will be ready to bounce skip ahead of rivals in 2021.

They will tighten up the uncharacteristically high number of errors and play with more freedom as the playing group’s relationship with the coach continues to improve.

Once it clicks, thinking North Melbourne was the consensus pick for the wooden spoon this season will be a distant memory.