Round 16: In the laboratory

It was an afternoon of experimentation at Etihad Stadium on Sunday.

Never in a million years did I think I’d see Cameron Zurhaar taking a ruck contest at a centre bounce in a team which had a healthy Todd Goldstein and Majak Daw, while an outrageously small forward line – by North standards – was examined for the first two and a half quarters.

The match itself was nothing to write home about, so instead we’ll focus on how these trials fared and whether they’re worth sticking with.

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The beauty of experimentation is it opens up all sort of discussion over what is possible. Whether you agreed with the decisions made at team selection, the fact something different was tried basically eliminates standard criticism of ‘where is Plan B?’

That tired line makes much more sense when you extend it to its true meaning; ‘Where is the Plan B I agree with?’

But regardless, the thought I kept coming back to on Sunday was marvelling at how well Richmond plays most weeks with one true key forward, and how predictable North’s ball movement was when under Gold Coast pressure.

Indeed, North’s forward setup was eerily similar to Richmond’s forward six for much of the last two years. Consider the following, purely in terms of player type – and not ability – before people start shouting at me:

  • Ben Brown = Jack Riewoldt
  • Jack Ziebell = Josh Caddy
  • Lots of smalls = Lots of smalls

What makes Richmond’s forward line deadly is the small forwards – whether permanent ones or rotating midfielders – being able to apply pressure and hit the scoreboard regularly.

All of Dustin Martin (19 goals), Jason Castagna (19 goals) and Dan Butler (18 goals) average more than a goal a game, while Kane Lambert and Shane Edwards combine to average approximately 1.5 goals a game.

Meanwhile, no Kangaroo small forward or midfielder is averaging more than a goal a game, and it’s this lack of goal threat which makes North’s ball movement so crucial when attempting to play with just one true tall forward.

If you can move the ball quickly with hands and short kicks down the field, there’ll be plenty of space in which to run and carry towards a dangerous position. This is why there was so much handball in the first three quarters as the players attempted to play in the best possible way to fit personnel.

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North would have known that if it wasn’t able to move the ball quickly away from stoppages and contests, it would struggle to move the ball at all. Part of the reason for this is because with a smaller forward line, you have fewer options further up the field.

The Suns knew if North was forced into long pressured kicking, it’d almost definitely be in the direction of Ben Brown. Who else could you possibly look for? At various points yesterday, there were three defenders surrounding Brown in a perfect triangle and it’s a shame we didn’t have access to behind the goals vision to see it in action.

On multiple occasions all four players – Brown and the three defenders – knew the ball was coming because of good Gold Coast pressure up the field and sure enough, in came the kick and the Suns were able to bring it to ground and clear out of danger. The big man is capable of herculean efforts, but consistently out-marking three defenders is a bit too much to ask.

Which brings me to the natural follow up question: Is this current group of players suited to playing with a small forward line given the ball use has to be quick and/or short?

Take into account Sunday’s problems being magnified against upcoming opposition; Sydney, Collingwood and West Coast will all defend better than Gold Coast and also have the tools to exploit North going the other way. Then you’d imagine North won’t be able to improve its short ball movement to match the increased calibre of competition.

But even if the group isn’t suited to playing in this manner, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. To try something different and get close to a definitive answer – while still winning by six goals – is ideal. You add another page into what the list can and can’t do and move onto the next challenge.

Besides, the brief sighting of Rucking Cam Zurhaar had me enthralled and genuinely intrigued.

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Zurhaar’s hit-out – just quietly, it felt like he got more than the one he was credited for – was the first to come from a non-key-position Kangaroo since the introduction of the no third man up rule.

While his first quarter stint in there wasn’t too promising, the genuine ‘wait, what is happening?’ murmur which spread around the ground as people watched each stoppage was hilarious in its own way.

And then in the second quarter, Zurhaar actually looked promising at several boundary throw ins. There was the quality hit-out to advantage as shown above, and Brayden Crossley (who I refuse to believe is only 18 years old) wasn’t able to have everything his own way, which was a victory in itself for North.

Unfortunately, Zurhaar’s ankle injury may prevent him from continuing in the role against Sydney, which is where it could have actually proved influential. It would have allowed Todd Goldstein to go step for step against Callum Sinclair, and then Zurhaar would have been able to soak up the minutes against Dean Towers, and you’d take the Roo over the Swan at ground level there.

So while Sunday’s action on-field didn’t exactly light the world on fire, in the end North was able to learn plenty from it.

New methods were trialed – some worked, some didn’t – the end result was still a 37-point victory, and the season is still alive heading into a three-game stretch where North has to win at least one.

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