Games at the MCG always feel like a bigger occasion compared to ones at other venues, and that’s before you add any stakes.
If North Melbourne beats Collingwood today, there’ll only be a game difference between the sides with five rounds to play.
However, a loss – combined with other results – could leave North three games behind fifth by the end of the weekend, significantly reducing the teams it can finish above to earn a finals berth.
For any new readers on The Shinboner, the game day preview pieces are a primer for the action. It’s a series of questions and potential storylines to ponder as you head into the ground today.
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Will North use a defensive onballer?
In Adam Treloar’s absence, Collingwood’s midfield is obviously skinnier, with more responsibilities placed on fewer players.
It was illustrated by West Coast at the MCG last week. Mark Hutchings was able to shut Steele Sidebottom out (18 disposals, no marks for the first time since Round 3, 2013), which left too much to do for the remaining midfielders.
Whether North, in Ben Jacobs’ absence, has the right player for a similar role on either Sidebottom or perhaps even Scott Pendlebury – although that would be a massive stretch – remains to be seen.
How does North stop Collingwood’s run and carry?
The inclusion of Sam Murray reveals Collingwood’s hand to a large extent. His plan is clearly to run, run and then run some more off half back and bank on no North forward getting close enough to stop him.
Add the former Swan to winger Tom Phillips – possibly the most underrated player in the competition – and they’re two types of players which have given North plenty of grief in the past.
Assuming Kayne Turner isn’t a late withdrawal due to last week’s concussion, he’ll likely have the lion’s share of responsibility for Murray, with the remaining smaller forwards looking to the remainder of Collingwood’s half backs.
Trent Dumont has spent large parts of the year playing as a defensive winger – those two terms really aren’t suited to be used next to each other – which indicates he may get first crack at Phillips.
However, as it always boils down to, winning the ball at the source will go a long way towards minimising any influence from Phillips, Murray, Jack Crisp and company.
Who wins the ruck battle?
Strangely enough, Todd Goldstein and Brodie Grundy haven’t really gone mano-a-mano since 2014; much too long ago to read anything into their respective performances. But that will change today, in the matchup I’m most looking forward to.
Goldstein has been superb for most of the season after a slow-ish start. However, I’ve got Max Gawn and Grundy as the best two ruckman in 2018. We saw what happened in Round 3 against Melbourne, when Gawn had approximately all the hit-outs which led to approximately all the scores from clearances.
Grundy then convincingly beat Gawn, and was the lynchpin for Collingwood’s belting of Melbourne on Queen’s Birthday, preventing Gawn from establishing any contest dominance (which is how you beat the Demons, but that’s another story for another time).
If Goldstein is truly back to the elite level, he’ll battle Grundy evenly all afternoon in an enthralling contest. If not, there may be some reshuffling done with Majak Daw and the general forward structure.
Does Daw playing forward affect the defenders?
Training photos indicate Daw will again be playing forward this week after his wildly successful outing against the Swans.
As good as he was last week, you could see the hole left in the back half by his absence, which shows how important he’s become to the team’s setup in such a short period of time.
Given Sydney had two genuine talls (Lance Franklin and Tom McCartin) compared to Collingwood’s one today (Mason Cox), Daw playing forward may not imbalance the defenders as much – but it’s definitely something to keep an eye on.
When will Ben Jacobs play next?
It’s not exactly related to today’s game – except for a likely lament on Sunday morning about how valuable he would have been – but nevertheless something I wanted to touch on.
If it takes one week, two weeks, four weeks, the rest of the season; I hope there’s zero rush to get him ready to play.
He’s been listed as ‘concussion/neck’ on the official injury report – maybe it ends up being primarily neck and in actuality there’s very little concussion element to it. That would be the best-case scenario.
But if there’s one thing in sport you can’t afford to mess around with, it’s anything involving the head. I’d much rather have Jacobs sit out now to be ok long-term; there are much more important things than a few games of football.