Games tend to move at a slower pace in Hobart.
Whether you think that’s a good thing or a bad thing depends on personal preference. But it does fundamentally change how the game is played.
If you had to name the biggest ‘flaw’ in North Melbourne’s list over the last few years, the majority would answer with some variety of midfield pace, or line-breaking ability.
Now when a game is slower, what’s the first thing to disappear? Players breaking the lines and moving the ball at speed.
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There’s an immediate benefit to North right away because it, more or less, doesn’t have to deal with defending against what it finds toughest to. It also means the game is highly dependent on who dominates at the contest; a second advantage to North.
Instantly you could tell North was relishing the conditions, and ‘on’ in general play. It’s one of those things which is hard to accurately capture through numbers in the first few minutes, but more a general sense you get while watching the game unfold.
At least until a whole quarter has unfolded and you see North has had 19 more contested possessions; a massive discrepancy. Everything started from there, and in all areas except the scoreboard it looked rosy.
The flash point came halfway through the second quarter, when West Coast had one of the more unlikely 15-point leads in recent memory. It raised an intriguing question. Do you:
- Largely stick with what’s been working in general play, despite the scoreboard? Or,
- Make changes and react to what you’re seeing on the scoreboard?
It feels easy to answer using Captain Hindsight, but in the moment the temptation is always there to react. It’s also the difference between coaches and the general public; coaches are looking at a complete different set of objectives than the fans, and it’s how there can sometimes be a disconnect between the two groups when results don’t match expectations.
Nevertheless, a strong burst to finish the half meant North entered the rooms with a slight edge and no need for conversations about wholesale changes.
Defensively, North was outstanding without the ball and gave West Coast nothing. The Eagles’ game plan is built around two things – precision kicking and using the width of the ground. Alastair Lynch mentioned during the telecast how the Eagles use the corridor less than any other side in the competition.
The problem with that is when you play at Blundstone Arena, you have to be willing to use the middle of the ground. While it’s not quite the bowling lane we see at GMHBA Stadium, Hobart is one of the narrower grounds in the league.
So, by West Coast not wanting to use the middle, and North setting up in a way which completely took away the switch of play, it was a slow death for the Eagles as they continually attempted to go around the boundary to get home.
The North defensive structure was like a boa constrictor, forcing the Eagles boundary side again and again, closing in, forcing a turnover, gaining territory and applying pressure to the visitors’ defenders.
There also wasn’t the safety blanket of the usual Hobart wind, which meant the ability to bomb 60+ metres with kicking wasn’t available to break apart zones.
Upon resumption in the third quarter, it was apparent the second half was going to play out much like the first.
When Elliott Yeo put West Coast back in front with 17:40 remaining in the third quarter, it felt like it was going to be a frustrating afternoon. Little did we know it was to be the Eagles’ last goal of the game.
It was the first time West Coast had been held goalless in a quarter away from home this season, and North did it for almost an entire half.
North tweaked its ball movement ever so slightly in the game-defining third quarter, opting to move it forward more with short disposal, either by hand or foot.
It was a luxury North could afford because it was winning contest after contest – assaulting West Coast’s midfield as Dermie said on Fox Footy – and controlling the tempo of the game.
Coupled with the North forwards staying deep wherever possible, it left the West Coast defenders with an impossible decision on whether to leave their opponents and push up towards the onrushing midfielders, or staying at home and banking on the midfielders getting back in time.
Ben Cunnington’s goal was a prime example of the plan working perfectly. He kicked it from 45, free as free can be – right over the heads of three Eagles defenders glued to their respective matchups.
The burst to give North a 20-point lead at three quarter time killed the game off as a contest, and the final term felt like it was both sides playing out the string.
Without Josh Kennedy and Luke Shuey, the Eagles had little to turn it around. But much like how I essentially wrote off North’s loss in Geelong as a product of location, I have a feeling West Coast will privately do much the same.
I still think the Eagles are the closest challenger to Richmond with the large caveat of if everyone is healthy. As I’ve discussed earlier in the season, my opinion is a kicking game being the best shout to beat the Tigers, but there’s no margin for error now without Nic Naitanui for the rest of the season.
Nevertheless, back on to North, and I feel like many would have clicked on the link expecting to read plenty of Paul Ahern love.
There’s more on that front coming mid-week. What a tease.