What an unbelievable game of football.
There are so many talking points to unpack that this is a long one, so let’s get straight into it.
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The afternoon started with a late change apiece, the absence of Ben Jacobs and Heath Grundy essentially cancelling each other out in terms of how vital they are to their respective teams.
You could say much the same for the overall unavailability list. While Sydney’s was lengthier than North’s, the Swans also have more proven depth than the Roos, so again it ends up as a nil-all draw when looking for talking points.
The call for an extra tall forward was answered by moving Majak Daw away from the backline. The Roo had Aliir as an opponent while Ben Brown had Dane Rampe for company.
What stood out to me immediately was the understanding Brown and Daw had. It would have been perfectly logical if the duo had some early teething problems with getting into each other’s space, but there was almost none of it.
The spacing was close to perfect, and while it’s hard for the TV broadcast view to pick it up like behind the goals vision would, here’s the best example of Brown and Daw working in tandem.
Brown forces Rampe to honour his dummy lead towards the ball carrier, which leaves acres of space for Daw to lead into.
All Higgins has to do is chip the ball into space and Daw takes a simple mark on the lead. It was one of many instances where the process worked – sometimes it got results, sometimes it didn’t, but for Brown and Daw to click so smoothly can only be a good thing while Jarrad Waite and Mason Wood are out of the side.
The first quarter was the best North had played since the final term against Fremantle some seven weeks ago, although on the resumption of play it was more of the same second quarter woes.
It’s now up to five consecutive second quarter losses and nine out of the last 11. Overall it’s been both North’s lowest scoring and highest conceding of the season – by some distance.
It was the Ben Ronke show in the second quarter. Two goals and providing a consistent threat at ground level was (unfortunately) just a snippet of what laid ahead. It probably reads as downplaying his talent to describe ‘football smarts’ as his best trait, but it takes immense ability to consistently be at the fall of the ball before any defender. It also illustrated one of the biggest holes currently on the North Melbourne list.
Ben Ronke provides a reminder of what the Roos don’t have in their arsenal. *Maybe* Gordon Narrier can become that player in time, but Turner and Hrovat have their limitations. #AFLNorthSwans
— Marc McGowan (@ByMarcMcGowan) July 15, 2018
It felt like the second quarter was entirely at Sydney’s tempo, which had me wondering whether the first quarter was all North had in its locker.
Clearly I should have known better, because it only took eight minutes for North to erase the 13-point half time deficit. It again illustrated the presence of Brown, Daw and Jack Ziebell as a three-headed monster.
Sydney’s defenders are elite at peeling off their opponents to intercept forward 50 entries. If there was a level above elite, that’s what they’d be. Super elite?
Anyway, the combination of no Grundy and the three Roos being on fire meant the remaining Swans refused to take any risks with leaving their direct opponents, meaning it was a one-on-one ball game any time the ball went inside forward 50 with pace.
Take the opening goal of the third quarter as an example. Of course, North entering 50 via a centre clearance helps enormously, but notice how spaced the forward line is.
The clearance goes over the head of the Swans coming in off the square. Nick Smith refuses to leave Ziebell, while Daw has Aliir all the way back on the goal line. All it needed was one handball from Brown and Nathan Hrovat was home and hosed.
While the second quarter has been North’s bugaboo, the third has been its shining light.
It’s now ten third quarter wins in a row for North. Six have been by at least double figures, with five by 15+ points.
It’s an excellent sign the playing group is responding to the coaching message during the half time break, and also that the message is being delivered in a concise and easily digestible manner.
You don’t win ten consecutive third quarters without plans being carried out successfully, which perhaps also explains some of the second quarter malaise. After the first quarter it’s often been the opposition responding to a North start, with the opposite happening at the main break.
Nevertheless, the ball use was excellent through the middle of the ground, and it resulted on the scoreboard – North’s 6.3 for the term was the second highest score Sydney had conceded in a quarter this year.
I mentioned it in the preview post, but it’s incredibly easy to forget Paul Ahern has only played six games, such is his composure with ball in hand. There’s always a question on what toll a knee reconstruction can have on a player; for Ahern to suffer through two and still immediately impact at AFL level shows the calibre of player he’s shaping up to be. Plus, that vision.
If ever there was a better test case for the benefit of having a stand-alone VFL side, Luke Davies-Uniacke showed it on Sunday. After playing five of the first six games of the year, he looked tired by the time he walked off the field against Port Adelaide.
But a stint in the VFL away from the spotlight has worked wonders, because LDU came back looking more assured; both in himself and what he was required to do. While the numbers won’t jump off the page at you (16 disposals, 5 marks), he showed glimpses again of what he’ll be capable of after another couple of pre-seasons. And that’s all he’ll need to keep his confidence high and provide a goal to work towards over those long summer months.
North entered the final quarter with an 11-point lead, most of which was wiped out in the first three minutes.
John Longmire’s coaching change of putting Harry Marsh onto Daw and gambling by making Aliir as the extra defender initially flummoxed North. Early fourth quarter inside 50 entries looked like they were directly at Aliir, such was his presence.
It took about 9-10 minutes for North to change plans with its ball movement in the forward half, realising long kicks wouldn’t work and instead lowering the eyes and looking for a teammate furthest away from Aliir.
The problem was, as soon as the Roos figured it out, they couldn’t get their hands on the ball thanks to a spell of Lance Franklin magic.
Robbie Tarrant had kept Buddy well under wraps until the Swan popped up with two cracking goals to give his team a 12-point lead. The three-minute period illustrated the benefit of having a true superstar in your team. No matter what the game state or individual performance, he can always change a game in an instant.
Luckily there was enough time for North to make one last push, and implement the ball movement they realised they had to use before the Sydney blast.
The inside 50’s which led to goals from Brown, Daw and Ziebell were quite clever. It was either a delivery out in front and away from Aliir (for Brown), a long ball to a two-on-two (for Daw’s holding the ball tackle) or in a position where North was able to bring it to ground and capitalise (for Ziebell).
Seven-point lead with 4:10 to go. It was still a seven-point lead with 2:45 to go when Sydney had a throw-in in its forward pocket.
Those who read my Bulldogs post-game spiel will be familiar with my thought process that in a close game it’s very rarely a full meltdown which causes a loss. It’s often just a series of random occurences which lead to nit-picking. Here were the four key events which turned a seven-point lead into a six-point loss in the space of 47 seconds of game time.
2:35 remaining: Morgan gets inadvertently blocked/shepherded by Franklin which provides Ronke with the split second needed to crumb and goal from a spilled ball.
2:05 remaining: Jake Lloyd has an unbelievable read of a Ben Cunnington handball, intercepting it when the majority of AFL players would have attempted to tackle Cunnington instead.
1:55 remaining: Scott Thompson gets to the contest ahead of Aliir, spoils well but stumbles to ground which causes a chain reaction that allows Aliir to put Sydney in front.
0:41 remaining: Callum Sinclair spots the set play of a Todd Goldstein tap-over-the-back from a boundary throw in and doesn’t contest the ruck, staying grounded and sharking the tap. Although he doesn’t do a lot with the ball, it forces the next North disposal to be rushed instead of streaming into space, which was the plan. Nick Smith then reads the kick better than anyone else to intercept.
It’s not hard to imagine a different result in each of those four scenarios, which would then have led to a different final result. Frustrating? Absolutely. Can you plan for an accidental shepherd, three individual pieces of brilliance and a player stumbling? Definitely not.
Normally I attempt to end these pieces with a football observation for the bigger picture. But in watching the post-match interview with Daw and Aliir, the game itself seemed so trivial.
When these two men were toddlers, they probably thought AFL was just three letters in the alphabet. Fast forward to the current day and they’re not only role models for the South Sudanese community, but also an example of what youngsters can aspire to when they grow up.
The power this sport holds is immense. And to see it being used in such an uplifting, positive way for society can only make you incredibly happy.