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AFL Saturday Study: Light at the end of the tunnel for North, and brilliant Bradley Hill finally arrives as a Saint

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21st May, 2022
18

North Melbourne were never going to beat Melbourne at Marvel Stadium on Saturday evening. But that’s not the point.

Upsets of this magnitude rarely happen in sport: teams as abjectly bad as the Roos have been to start 2022 don’t suddenly turn things around against a juggernaut on a 16-match winning tear. But in saying that, only the most miserly of North fans would have headed home not at least gladdened by their performance.

It’s not just that the margin was avoided a sixth straight defeat of over 50 points – by three points. It was the strategy, the energy, and most of all, the commitment to desperately hang to the coat tails of a superior side and end with an honourable loss after taking the fight to the Demons for two and a half quarters.

For starters, the Roos were able to deny Melbourne the bulk of the ball – an impressive effort coming up against the best midfield in the game, especially with Christian Petracca and Clayton Oliver both among the best afield.

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It’s a tactic that has brought turnovers by the barrelful under David Noble in the past, but while there were still plenty of errant kicks, they seemed better set up to deal with the Demons moving forward when they came, which has been a rarity.

Marks and kicks around the half-back line was the word go, with the Dees either unable or unwilling to close the space as they’ve done to many a side in the last 12 months. Bailey Scott, an admirable substitute for the injured Aaron Hall, Aidan Corr and Lachie Young in particular used the ball nicely, knew their limitations and seldom gave the Demons a sniff of a simple goal on the counterattack.

Teams haven’t always been patient when dealing with the Dees’ magnificent backline – think of St Kilda a few weeks ago, who repeatedly pumped the ball in to the waiting clutches of Steven May, Jake Lever and friends. The Roos knew this, instead opting for incremental gains up the field before finding targets in good scoring positions.

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Sometimes an accurate scoreline can be an indication of a lucky day at the office, but the Roos’ eventual tally spoke more to their ability to find the likes of Cam Zurhaar, Nick Larkey and ruck pair Todd Goldstein and Tristan Xerri near the big sticks. Few if any of their goals were ones you wouldn’t expect an AFL-calibre player to nail.

The Roos’ desperation was typified by winning the tackle count despite having a mountain more possession: this wasn’t a side content to sit back and be flogged. With Jason Horne-Francis, Luke Davies-Uniacke and Jed Anderson relentless at the coalface, only one Kangaroo of the starting 22 failed to lay at least one tackle.

Halfway through the third quarter, the margin was just six points, and it was very much game on. From there, though, the floodgates opened, and the Roos were shown just how far off the pace they remain.

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It might sound like small gains for North, but that’s about all they can strive for at the moment. This is a team in the bad way, and will need years to get games into their emerging talent, sort out their structure at both ends, and turn this ship around. Days like this, while not really amounting to much in the short term, are at least a step in the right direction.

It also prompted a grudging acknowledgement of respect from the Demons: in the last quarter, the Roos forced the reigning premiers to bring their best to finally kill off the contest. Frenetic, hitherto unseen forward pressure was the result, the Roos simply suffocated by the likes of Kysaiah Pickett and speedy medi-sub Toby Bedford, and beginning to leak goals. The Dees’ dominance out of the centre began to bear fruit as well, with North’s defensive structures breaking down spectacularly under a wave of inside-50s.

Having been torn apart by sides barely getting out of third gear in weeks gone by, to force the champs to bring their best is another feather in North’s cap. A small one, though.

As for the Demons, having taken all before them in the last year and a bit, it was an uncharacteristically ugly win. There’s nothing to suggest fans or Simon Goodwin should be in any way concerned – it can be hard for a powerhouse to come up against a side clearly out of their weight bracket, and they’ve proved time and again they bring their best against the best – but it at least proved that this side is human. Capable of making mistakes under pressure, capable of slipping over at inopportune times, capable of looking vulnerable in defence against quick entries.

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It’s not much for their rivals to go with, but hey, at least they’re mortal.

Clayton Oliver of the Demons and Jy Simpkin of the Kangaroos look on.

Clayton Oliver of the Demons and Jy Simpkin of the Kangaroos look on. (Photo by Graham Denholm/Getty Images)

It’s been a tough couple of seasons for Bradley Hill at St Kilda.

The whipping boy for the media and fans during the Saints’ stumbles last season, Hill’s 2022 has so far been going swimmingly. On Saturday night against Adelaide, he was the best player afield by a street.

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Hill’s mix of speed, poise and elite ball use was always going to make him a serious asset if the Saints could unlock him. It’s a credit to both the man himself, and coach Brett Ratten, that they’ve at last found a way.

Minus Jack Steele, the Saints were beaten at the coalface, losing the clearance count 36-29 and being shaded in contested possessions. But it was their ball use on the outside, such a hindrance last year, that won the day. And nobody was cleaner than Hill.

90 per cent disposal efficiency for a 30-disposal game is usually the realm of the cheap-kicking half-back these days. But Hill roamed everywhere from half-forward to the back pocket, always providing an option for an outlet kick, and using the ball immaculately. Kicks like in the video below were commonplace – in fact, that was one of his less deadly passes.

It’s part of the new role he’s played this year, moving away from the half-back position he occupied for most of 2021 to be used forward of the ball. It’s worked a treat.

Throw Jack Sinclair into that category, too: no player in the AFL has improved more in one off-season than he. A driving force in defence with stints on the ball, everything about him is pure footballing intelligence. He intercept marks, he gets in great positions to defend, and then uses his pace and kicking skills to attack.

That pair had 62 touches and led the way for another famous win for the Saints, who now seem all but guaranteed a finals spot, and quite possibly top four too.

Don’t read too much into that margin, though: the Crows fell to bits once the match was sealed in the final minutes. The Saints kicked the final five goals to steam away with the win, but the moments beforehand to stand up to an Adelaide outfit that has been formidable at home this year, defying a nine-point deficit at three quarter time, was the stuff of seriously good teams.

Spare a thought for the Crows, who were bit by the inaccuracy bug badly – something the Saints, who sprayed everything last year, can surely sympathise with. But for some wayward kicking for goal in the first three quarters, the game probably would have been over long before the Saints got on that run in the last term.

The Saints, in contrast, booted 11.2 from their set shots. It was the difference. As was Max King, who endured so much criticism over his kicking last year, who had six kicks for the night, six marks… and six goals straight. He never looked like missing, either.

You could go through the Saints’ line-up and find heroes aplenty – Brad Crouch was tireless in close without Steele to bear the main burden, Cooper Sharman nailed a massive set shot midway through the last term, and Dougal Howard, for the most part, kept Taylor Walker under wraps.

But I’ll be shocked if the 3-2-1 on Brownlow night don’t read B. Hill, J. Sinclair and M. King. In that order.

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