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AFL 2022 Radar: 'Even the downside has upside for North Melbourne'

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Expert
24th January, 2022
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North Melbourne ‘won’ their first wooden spoon in almost 50 years in 2021, finally reaching the bottom after two decades of mediocrity.

In coach David Noble’s first season at the helm, the Kangaroos lost their first eight games and only won one of their first 13 matches, before putting some respectability into their record in the back end of the season with another three wins.

A new coach taking half a season to bed in a new gameplan and produce results – it’s a song that’s been sung before: think of Adelaide in Matthew Nicks’ first season (2020 – starting the season with 13 straight losses before winning three of their last four) and Damien Hardwick’s inaugural campaign at Richmond (2010 – starting 0-9 before recovering to win six games).

The Crows followed on to rise three places on the ladder the next year, while the Tigers climbed four. It’s not a given that North will finish on the bottom again, even though the bookies see them as the favourite to do so. In fact, taking out the expansion teams, the last team to win back-to-back wooden spoon’s was Melbourne in 2008-09, and it’s only happened twice this century.

What’s new
All eyes will be on Jason Horne-Francis, as they always are on the number one draft pick from the previous year. As a ready-to-go midfielder-forward, he will avoid the fate of Jamarra Ugle-Hagan from the Western Bulldogs, who had to wait until the latter part of the season to make his debut. Big things will be expected (and probably delivered!) from Horne-Francis immediately.

Malcolm Blight presents a guernsey to number one draft pick Jason Horne-Francis.

Malcolm Blight presents a guernsey to number one draft pick Jason Horne-Francis (Photo by James Elsby/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Callum Coleman-Jones was poached from Richmond, wanting more opportunities as a ruck-forward. He will learn his ruck apprenticeship from Todd Goldstein, while proving a dangerous handful when playing in attack. He has already proven he can mark strongly and finish well.

Hugh Greenwood was prised out of the Gold Coast Suns with an artful piece of list management mastery, and will be a great fit at stoppages for the Roos. He’ll be a sneaky best and fairest chance too.

Star on the rise
Horne-Francis is the obvious pick here, and Luke Davies-Uniacke has claims, but Tarryn Thomas will have plenty watching him with interest this season. He had half a break-out year in 2021, making some great gains in the last couple of months, including 23 touches and four goals in driving North to a win over Carlton.

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There are few smoother movers on a football field than Thomas, and he’s shown glimpses that he is indeed the full package – inside, outside, ball-winning, tackling, goalkicking. Alongside the newly acquired Greenwood and Horne-Francis, the rising Davies-Uniacke and the more experienced Jy Simpkin and hopefully Ben Cunnington, Thomas can ensure the Kangaroos midfield starts to gain a lot more respect.

Tarryn Thomas of the Kangaroos handpasses

Tarryn Thomas (Photo by Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Who’s under the pump
Bailey Scott is out of contract at the end of this season, his fourth in the AFL. He was the Rising Star nominee on debut in Round 1, 2019 after 21 clean touches and two goals against Fremantle, but hasn’t quite lived up to that early promise.

He only played four games in that debut season, followed by 13 and then 17 last year. So yes, he is progressing. But he was the concussion sub twice last season, including in the final round, so is still yet to cement his spot.

Scott is an outside player, so doesn’t have the strings to his bow that others do, and the time is now for him to make one of the wings his own. There is plenty of young talent coming into the club, and the promise of more to come. He could easily be squeezed out if he doesn’t command a spot.

Best-case scenario
History says it’s too difficult to make the jump from last into the eight and that’s not the trajectory that North are on just yet. If everyone stays fit and healthy, mature recruits like Coleman-Jones and Greenwood have the desired impact, the third and fourth year players progress, and the experienced core stay on the park and have influence, it’s not unrealistic to see the Roos finishing at the top end of the bottom six.

But really, fans are just going to want to see promise and excitement from the draft class of 2021, with all of them either getting games or performing well at VFL level to knock on the door.

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Worst-case scenario
There has already been some less than ideal incidents at North over the off-season, with Jaidyn Stephenson breaking his hip and Jed Anderson’s reluctance to get a second jab of a COVID vaccine making headlines. With Ben Cunnington’s future uncertain due to a cancer scare, and seven experienced AFL players delisted at the end of 2021, the Roos could easily be left with too much left to too few if they get a spate of injuries to their best team.

But given the rebuild is on in earnest, even another bottom-placed finish will see them with another prized number one draft pick. Even the downside has upside for North.

Best 22

B: Aidan Corr Ben McKay Kayne Turner
HB: Aaron Hall Josh Walker Jack Ziebell
C: Jaidyn Stephenson Ben Cunnington Luke McDonald
HF: Tarryn Thomas Nick Larkey Jy Simpkin
F: Cameron Zurhaar Callum Coleman-Jones Jason Horne-Francis
Foll: Todd Goldstein Luke Davies-Uniacke Hugh Greenwood
Int: Jed Anderson Will Phillips Tom Powell Lachie Young
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