The Roar
The Roar


Footy Fix: They're still a work in progress - but 'Northball' will make electric Roos the AFL's most exciting team

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16th March, 2024
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There’s something deeply compelling about a bad team that doesn’t seem to realise it is one.

You’d be hard pressed to be a North Melbourne player over the last four or five years and not struggle every day with the sinking feeling that you’re on a hiding to nothing.

Two separate coaches have taken mental health breaks in that time period – and one at least of them could be directly attributed to the job – and with a mounting loss tally year after year after year, no wonder a score of players have simply been unable to hack it anymore, and headed for greener pastures elsewhere.

But this Kangaroos team feels different. Unburdened, perhaps, by its horror recent history, infused with youth, and buzzing with an electricity this football club hasn’t had for a long time – perhaps not even this time a decade ago, when they were properly good.

An ordinary bad team would have looked at a GWS outfit that comprehensively outmatches it in every way imaginable, from structure to personnel to star power, and put stemming the bleeding and an honourable loss up the top of the priority list. That’s certainly what the Roos would have attempted under David Noble, at any rate.

Cameron Zurhaar kicks a goal.

Cameron Zurhaar kicks a goal. (Photo by Jason McCawley/AFL Photos/via Getty Images )

But in 2024, Alastair Clarkson is thinking differently. This is not a team that is content with its place in the pecking order. They have a strategy to slowly turn a wheel that has been stuck on ‘misery’ for what seems like an eternity now, and while it’s not always going to be effective, and it’s certainly not going to suddenly transform them into premiership or even finals contenders, it’s going to be compelling to watch.

The scoreboard shows that the Giants won by 39 points, and with 19 extra scoring shots, it could be argued the final margin flattered them. And it’s true.


But the way the Kangaroos played – the pace they put on the ball, their willingness to risk everything on dangerous centring balls, the courage imbued in players big and small to shrug a tackle, or burn off an opponent, or bite off the ambitious pass, was compelling to watch.

It’s been a long time since a North Melbourne team played like this. And with a little bit of luck, ‘Northball’ will take a team whose best is quite clearly ahead of them into a bright and beautiful future.

The difference a positive mindset had on the Kangaroos’ ball movement, and their skill set, was stark. One of 2023’s worst teams for turnovers across the board – only West Coast consistently kicked the ball more waywardly than North last year – the Roos’ disposal efficiency of 80.4 per cent was a huge step in the right direction.

Usually, you’ll see teams rack up a number like this by playing safe, cautious, high-marking football across half-back, making it almost irrelevant. Essendon did it a bunch of times last year in otherwise hefty losses. But with 89 marks for the match – only slightly more than their season average of 87 in 2023 – the Roos certainly earned their high efficiency.

Harry Sheezel continues to be the standard-bearer in this regard – of his 32 disposals, 29 of them were regarded as effective, while his 755 metres gained is proof of how damaging he was attempting to be.


Sheezel 2.0 seems to be Colby McKercher, who in the second half slotted into a similar role to where last year’s Rising Star winner won so much of the ball, and proved every inch capable of replicating it. His 22 disposals went at 86 per cent efficiency, with 18 of them kicks – and notably, with eight marks, second-most for the Roos behind Sheezel’s nine, his teammates already want the footy in his hands as much as possible.

Bailey Scott, another outside player loping from half-back to the wing, had 23 at 91 per cent efficiency. Zac Fisher? 21 at 76 per cent. Suddenly, the Roos are full of players with lovely skills waiting on the outside of packs – it’s not quite Clarkson’s band of left-foot master kickers at Hawthorn of yesteryear, but it’s fast getting there.

But it’s not just the outside players succeeding in this regard: North’s best two clearance players against the Giants, Luke Davies-Uniacke (eight) and Tom Powell (six), went at 79 and 84 per cent efficiency as well, while both gaining north of 300 metres for their team.

Davies-Uniacke in particular was fascinating to watch: at times last year, his explosiveness from stoppages outpaced his mind, resulting in the sort of mindless bombs long to an outmatched forward line that gets Patrick Dangerfield about 90 per cent of the flak he cops (not that it’s done his legacy much harm, mind you).

Against the Giants, he seemed to use that second of extra time his power to burst from contests affords him to carefully think his next play through, whether it’s a handball to a running teammate or taking the responsibility himself to distribute inside 50. With five of the latter, second-most on the ground behind Finn Callaghan, he wasn’t afraid to bite off that crucial last pass either.


All up, only four Roos – Nick Larkey, Jaidyn Stephenson, Cam Zurhaar and Charlie Lazzaro – went at less than 70 per efficiency. The Giants, a team with skills to burn, had six – and one of them, at a ghastly 42 per cent, was no less a player than Toby Greene.

Yes, it’s a flawed stat, but the results were profound: the Roos earned an inside 50 from 30 per cent of their defensive 50 possession chains, comfortably above the AFL average last year, while scoring seven goals from them.

Last year, a bad clanger, or a dropped mark, or a lack of ambition at the crucial stage, stymied these plays again and again; in 2024, it seems the Roos are universally on the same page.

It’s footy’s version of Bazball: attack, keep attacking, be brave, and don’t worry about the consequences.

The Roos scored a goal on Saturday afternoon once for every 3.5 inside 50s. Not only is that leaps and bounds ahead of last year’s mark of 4.4, but a mile ahead of last year’s leader in that regard, Adelaide, whose embarrassment of riches in attack netted them a goal every 3.94 inside 50s.

Is it sustainable? No, almost certainly not. A scoreline of 13.4 will revert to the mean at some point, even though the Roos were hardly kicking them from the cheap seats or anything major like that.


But teams will take into account what North throw at them, and make it harder to score quite so fluently from half back – be it putting further numbers deeper behind the ball, or even greater pressure on the ball carrier immediately exiting D50, as Sydney did to Collingwood on Friday night, there will be problems for Clarkson to solve.

If it were the point of the exercise to point out the flaws, then yes, North have a whole bunch of them.

In defence, in particular, they are young and inexperienced to the point of being raw, and their aggression up the field tends to throw the backs to the wolves a bit. Without the ball, they are still a major work in progress.

Given the job on Jesse Hogan, sixth-gamer Kallan Dawson didn’t have a prayer; nor did Toby Pink, Josh Goater or Aidan Corr, whose attempts to help out were clumsy enough to gift the Giants spearhead four free kicks near goal.

Hogan finished with six, while Jake Riccardi, given far too much space by Corr in particular in the first term, had three by quarter time, as the Giants scored almost every time they went inside 50. By match’s end, they’d mustered 36 scoring shots from 60 inside 50s, with 25 marks in the arc.

Pressure on the ball-carrier to deny this, and a backline structure to present more obstacles to teams entering the danger space, remains a clear work in progress.


Aerially, the Roos were thoroughly outmatched by a bigger, stronger and more experienced outfit; with Sam Taylor comfortably outpointing Nick Larkey at most turns, despite conceding three goals, few other Roos seemed capable of changing the game with a strong contested mark.

The Giants finished with a whopping 21 contested marks to seven, just the third time since the start of 2023 that a 20-plus tally has been attained in a match. Hogan and Taylor had five each; Jack Buckley and Callum Brown three; Riccardi two. That’s some serious power at either end of the ground.

Having been so strong at scoring from defensive 50 chains, running the ball through the Giants and daring to take them on at their own game, the Roos were still hurt far more going the other way. Locking the ball inside 50 remains a struggle for a team with no crumbing forwards, and which still feels like Larkey or bust every time they head inside.

By three quarter time, a staggering 54 per cent of the Giants’ disposal chains starting from their back 50 led to an inside 50, with nearly a third ending in a score – the former nearly three times 2023’s league average, the latter almost four times higher.

They’d scored 10 of their goals via this method, and all five in the third quarter – the ‘Orange Tsunami’ at its most potent. The Kangaroos won’t be the only team they cut to ribbons in this manner, but it might be the least resistance offered against it.

And yet… that’s sort of the point, isn’t it? The Roos knew the risks of ‘Northball’ going in, especially against a team like the Giants with the skills and strategy to throw exactly the same thing back at them… and yet there was no question of playing more conservatively.


The progress was in every slicing Harry Sheezel pass into the corridor; in every time Luke Davies-Uniacke was empowered to bust a tackle and drive the ball inside 50 himself rather than dishing off; in Colby McKercher, one game into his AFL career, running his guts out to provide an overlap up the field to gain territory, even if it left him outpositioned should a turnover be inflicted.

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There was simply no way North Melbourne, barring an outrageous run of fortune, were ever going to knock over GWS in this match. No game plan could turn a side that won three games last season, one with just four 100-game players – one of them, Zac Fisher, playing his first at the Roos and another, Cam Zurhaar, playing exactly his 100th – into one capable of challenging the current premiership favourites.

But the fact the Roos refused to play it safe, stuck to their attacking guns, and showed just how damaging they can be against even stern opposition, was commendable.

This is a young team that is going places – it’s not going to be a smooth ride, North fans, but it’s going to be compelling viewing all the same. Win, lose, or draw.