Few people expected North to come through these last five weeks with three wins, and most importantly a string of truly mature performances.
Now with a 5-4 record and nine of the remaining 13 matches against teams outside the top eight, it may be time to reassess what North is capable of in 2018.
As is custom for longer pieces on The Shinboner, if you enjoy this you can find similar deep dives on North’s centre bounce strategy against Hawthorn here, why Blundstone Arena is a fortress here and The Richmond Files here.
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It all starts with player availability, and the injury bug disappearing for the first time in close to two years.
North has only used 26 players through nine rounds. It’s the least in the league, and one of only two teams under 30.
Everything starts from being able to roll out close to the best 22 every week because once a few soldiers go down, everything starts to stretch.
When injuries hit, there isn’t the luxury of keeping Jack Ziebell forward, of allowing Majak Daw to play as the third tall down back, of resting Jarrad Waite a fortnight ago in Sydney.
Almost half the list had played less than 20 games at the start of 2018, which meant it was important to have the opportunity to phase those players in gently.
Already in the first nine rounds we’ve seen Luke Davies-Uniacke (five games), Jy Simpkin (nine games), Ryan Clarke (nine games), Ed Vickers-Willis (seven games, which was on the way to being 22) and Cam Zurhaar (three games) get valuable exposure at AFL level. There’ll be a handful more throughout the year, able to be protected by the senior core if all goes to plan.
No-one has had a sudden change of role to cover for unavailability elsewhere, and it’s this consistency in knowing what your job is which has been so important.
A regenerated midfield
Once the team has been selected, on-field it all starts around the ball and at contests. A common theme on The Shinboner in 2018 has been discussion centred around how new midfield rotations have freshened up the mix.
One of the most important things for any team is to prevent clean opposition possession coming out of contests. In Jed Anderson, Jy Simpkin and of course Ben Jacobs, North has more tools at its disposal to apply the pressure needed in today’s game.
When a team looks ‘easy to play against’, to use the cliché, it’s often because it doesn’t have the tools available to apply pressure in the midfield. It’s not a coincidence North is suddenly much better defensively with this current midfield setup.
No doubt the midfield depth is still an area to improve, as we saw the struggle offensively and defensively against Port Adelaide in Round 6 when Shaun Higgins was unavailable.
But in Ben Cunnington, Higgins, Anderson, Simpkin and Jacobs, plus the winger roles from Trent Dumont and Billy Hartung, and reinforcements still to come, the mix is improving.
And much like how the availability list creates positives in other areas, the rejuvenated midfield is helping North both up forward and down back.
Midfield benefits up forward
The much talked about move has been Ziebell forward. Add Ziebell to Ben Brown, Waite and Mason Wood and suddenly there are four legitimate threats to kick a bag of goals. How many teams can boast that?
However, there’s another benefit which is hard to accurately capture. Generally, the midfielders take up most of North’s interchange rotations. Therefore while Ziebell plays forward, he spends more time on field.
Having your captain on field for longer must help from on-field structures to stemming opposition momentum and everything in between. Here’s the thing though, it’s not a slight increase in on-field time for Ziebell. It’s an enormous leap.
Being able to stay on field longer – with a consistent role – has allowed the forward line setup to work in tandem and develop an understanding with each other. If it’s not Brown commanding attention, Waite can pop up and kick a bag ala his four against the Giants. Wood has won a game already against Sydney, and once Ziebell straightens out some uncharacteristic inaccuracy, he’ll join the list.
Midfield benefits down back
Your backline is only as good as the pressure the midfielders and forwards put on the ball further up the field.
We saw this on Sunday in Perth, when Richmond conceded 30 scoring shots from 45 inside 50’s – a scary level of efficiency from the Eagles – because the home side was able to repeatedly breach the first layer of the Tigers’ defence with ease.
(For those who missed it, I discussed how Richmond defends and the ways to play against it recently in The Richmond Files)
Because North’s current setup further up the field is applying plenty of pressure and forcing the opposition into static inside 50’s, it can afford to play a tall backline and control the skies.
While there was a caveat on North’s defensive numbers earlier in the season stemming from the season opener played in a swimming pool, it’s been eight weeks since that night. To top the league in fewest points conceded indicates the structure is working.
Robbie Tarrant and Scott Thompson playing as the two fulcrums has allowed Majak Daw to settle into his role as the third tall, and will help even further with Vickers-Willis sidelined for the rest of the season.
An aside on how numbers don’t always tell the whole story. If you’ve watched Thompson this season it’s apparent he’s avoided the frustrating cheap frees which have popped up from time to time during his career. Yet he’s conceding his highest free kick per game ratio of his entire career in 2018. Funny how that works.
As a whole, there is plenty of flexibility in the defensive setup. Thompson can play tall and small, Tarrant can play on medium forwards, Sam Wright has slotted in like he hasn’t missed a beat, Jamie Macmillan is consistently playing his role, Ryan Clarke is settling into life off half back, and based on value for outlay, Marley Williams is the trade of the millennium after North picked him up for pick 3,492.
With Ben McKay and Sam Durdin showing promising signs in the VFL, the succession planning also appears strong, albeit untested, from a key position point of view.
Is it sustainable?
When we’re talking about this season, the wildcard is the injury list. The performance for the rest of the season depends on how it looks. If it remains in its current miniscule state, North will contend for finals. There’s a prediction which seemed outlandish at the start of the year yet feels perfectly normal at this moment.
Let’s talk bigger picture. If this form continues, there’ll be comments talking about how North isn’t even rebuilding and stuck in no-man’s land. And to be fair, it appears that way on the surface – until you dig deeper.
Through 2015 and 2016, when the standard line was around how North had mortgaged its future, a common refrain from Brad Scott was about the club always ‘planning for the short, medium and long term.’
What we’re seeing now is the medium-term part of that plan. It was hardly a team of pensioners on the weekend in Hobart, with only five players over the age of 27.
Because the conventional definition of rebuilding is to tear a team down and load it with teenagers, there’ll naturally be some scepticism around North’s approach. It happens with anything different from the norm in sport; look at the thousands of think pieces Philadelphia’s process spawned in the NBA.
Does it really matter if Anderson is 24 years old instead of 20? That Jacobs is 26 years old instead of 22 and Billy Hartung is 23 instead of 19? The club culture is never to punt seasons when there’s a belief you can compete now, and those three are playing vital roles to the team’s performances.
Long-term, the ideal plan would likely be for all of Tarryn Thomas, Bailey Scott and Joel Crocker to arrive through this year’s National Draft. Add the trio to the young list profile currently at Arden Street and the hope is for a selection of those players to grow into a core through the first half of next decade. With Josh Kelly too, hopefully.
Of course it’s much easier said than done. But even if 2018 drops away, remember these first nine rounds: the club knows what it’s doing, it’s run well, and there are plans in place for everything imaginable.