When was the last time North Melbourne won one of those games?
You know the ones I’m talking about. Not when a big lead evaporates, or when North is the better side all day but somehow snatches defeat from the jaws of victory.
It’s the days where North is second best for large portions while up against a team playing quality football. Yet somehow, someway, they find a way over the line and you leave the ground grinning from ear to ear while wondering how on earth you’re celebrating a victory.
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A common theme on The Shinboner throughout 2018 has been the struggle to find a quality team performance when the midfield is either slightly off or missing any key piece. Combine the two, add in some elite Western Bulldogs pressure, and the end result is the first half on Saturday night.
Ben Jacobs’ absence meant defensive responsibilities had to be shared out amongst the remaining midfielders. Judging by the amount of finger pointing and scrambling which happened in between a whistle and the restart, it took longer than you’d like for everything to be sorted out.
The Bulldogs’ game plan against North has been much the same throughout Luke Beveridge’s tenure. In simple terms, it’s based on applying pressure around the ball with numbers, which then allows the remaining players to drop back behind the ball to neutralise any threat from North’s marking players. Then control possession moving up the field in safe areas where possible, therefore minimising any danger of being scored on after turnovers.
It usually results in a slower style of play, which is why games between the two sides have tended to be low scoring, barring last year’s outlier.
Nevertheless, the Bulldogs’ pressure – both real and perceived – definitely spooked North in the first half. At one stage in the first half the Bulldogs had a pressure rating of 313. Even if I had Adrian Wojnarowski’s entire thesaurus in front of me, I still wouldn’t be able to find the word to accurately describe just how far off the charts that number is. Dwayne Russell’s thesaurus would describe it as ‘crazy good’.
Anything over 200 is considered outstanding and the numbers don’t increase at a rapid rate after that, so you can understand how high 313 is in that context.
Although it may not be visually appealing football to play in that fashion, it’s still incredibly effective when it clicks, which explains why North struggled so much. The midfielders didn’t know when to handball or kick, when there was enough time to size up a target, if there were free teammates close by or when they were about to be set upon. Keep it in mind when you’re thinking about the negatives from the first half. It was largely forced on North by the Bulldogs.
And yet – here’s the negative of the Bulldogs playing in this fashion – their lead was only 18 points at half time when an accurate reflection of general play would have been at least double.
The third quarter started with Jack Ziebell in the middle, and it provided a spark to the midfield unit which North sorely needed. While the captain’s trademark spin-and-slam-it-on-the-boot clearances may not work in all situations, it was perfect for patches on Saturday night.
Sometimes all it takes is one passage of play to act as the circuit breaker, which in this case was Ziebell’s early clearance off half back. It led to forward pressure, a turnover and ultimately a Jed Anderson goal. From that point on North was the better side for the next 40-45 minutes.
The efforts of two men in the second half deserve to be highlighted – Shaun Higgins and Majak Daw.
Higgins was under a fierce tag all night from Josh Dunkley, and he responded to losing the battle in the first half by winning the war after the break. 23 of his 32 disposals came in the second half, including his two goals.
Daw’s last quarter was his best quarter for the club by far. A handful of intercept marks plus two crucial wins in one-on-one contests in the last 90 seconds kept North in proceedings; a loss in either of those contests and it undoubtedly would have been game over.
North had earned a 10-point lead past the halfway point of the last quarter, and it really felt like the game was there for the taking with just one more goal.
But the game just meandered along for minutes at a time with neither team looking like scoring. When it’s only a 10-point lead, all it takes is one opposition goal for the game to spark back to life, and that was what happened with five minutes remaining when Ed Richards crumbed and snapped truly.
From there it became preservation mode – somewhat understandably – but with too much time on the clock the Bulldogs were always going to get one more opportunity to score. And even after Gowers put them in front, they still had another couple of chances to seal the game if it wasn’t for Daw’s intervention.
The last minute of these types of games are decided by one lucky moment, one bounce of the ball. Which is why I’m reluctant to apportion too much blame to Mitch Wallis. Yes, his kick went out on the full. But North was still left with the ball in its back pocket with 46 seconds left, needing to go coast to coast and goal to win. In a game where open space had been rarer than a successful score review.
Mason Wood’s scrambled kick out of the pack could have gone anywhere. Higgins’ handball to Luke McDonald could have bounced anywhere. Todd Goldstein’s kick to Higgins could have bounced sideways. Higgins’ floating handball to Ben Brown could have done anything, and all of this is before you consider Brown’s toe poke to Ziebell for the game winner.
Glorious, glorious luck, all of it. And isn’t it so sweet after those two close losses last year.