There may be medium and long-term questions still to be resolved around the list structure, but today we focus on an undeniable truth through eight rounds of 2018:
The way North Melbourne is set up to play works.
It doesn’t necessarily mean ‘premiership material’, or even ‘top six material’, but more importantly this:
Players are being placed in the best possible position to accentuate their strengths, while keeping up with the trends of modern football.
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It all starts around the ball, with the revamped midfield mix. For regular readers of The Shinboner, you’ll remember the discussions after the Round 1 and 3 losses to Gold Coast and Melbourne respectively.
Even early on, it was clear the goal in 2018 was, to repeat the term, ‘modernise’ the midfield mix – partly so Jack Ziebell could play more forward – and partly so it could apply the type of pressure you have to have when you don’t win the ball.
Ben Jacobs, Jed Anderson and Jy Simpkin are essentially all new midfielders into the rotation this year, and the difference they’ve made has been immense.
All three of them are dynamic in ways previous midfield rotations haven’t had. You can see a burst through the stoppage from Anderson, fancy footwork from Simpkin, all while Jacobs wins ball and makes his opponent disappear into thin air like a David Copperfield magic trick.
This gives more room for Ben Cunnington and Shaun Higgins to work, with the former turning in one of the most immense inside games any North player has produced in recent memory. 38 disposals, 32 contested, 14 clearances, seven tackles, six marks and two A+ fend offs? Those aren’t real numbers.
Based on what we’ve seen so far this season, that’s a perfectly serviceable first-line which should only get better as Jacobs, Anderson and Simpkin continue to have uninterrupted football.
Then for your second line you can add in Ziebell and Trent Dumont. Hopefully Ryan Clarke earns short stints in there, and Taylor Garner who doesn’t appear too far away from full fitness. That’s nine players who you can mix and match with, and a blend of players outside (Luke McDonald, Jamie Macmillan, Billy Hartung) providing the balance.
It’s a good starting point to build from, and it’s a big reason why the first eight weeks have been a surprise.
But back to the game itself, and in particular the last quarter. When Alex Rance ran 60 metres off his man to spoil a North kick-in with 14 minutes remaining, it triggered a Richmond surge of momentum – its only one in the entire second half.
It was seven minutes (of game time) of wave after wave from Richmond, and it’s the sort of late spell which has broke other teams and led to the flood of goals.
But North kept itself in the game, where every other side in the last month has buckled under that same weight.
When Todd Goldstein had a very good minute – first a hit-out to Higgins’ advantage, then a smart short option to Anderson via foot – North was able to steady and create scoring chances. Again, very few sides
Taking those chances are the difference between a close win and frustrating loss. Of course Ben Brown should have kicked both his set shots, but considering he’s practically carried the forward line for 18 months, he’s built up more than enough credits in the bank. I often wonder how Brown still has the ability to stand on his own two feet by the end of the game with the workload he takes on.
In his last 16 games – excluding his concussion against Collingwood and the swamp in Cairns – he’s played 100% game time on 12 occasions. Excuse the caps, but TWELVE. His physical capabilities are enormous, and a big reason why he’s one of the best key forwards in the competition.
Onto next week, and GWS in Hobart. If ever there was a good time to play the Giants, it’s now. And it’s also the game which will tell us a lot about how North’s season will play out.
How often do you see a side unable to summon the same ferocity the week after an honourable loss to a top-tier team? While GWS would usually be a lock to be placed in the same echelon, it’s currently missing a string of best 22 players and at its lowest point of form in a couple of years.
A lot has changed since the first two to three weeks of the season, and suddenly this game is right there for the taking if North can bring the same level it’s had for most of the last month.