Round 20: In the nick of time

Can you be very lucky and still deserve to win at the same time?

That’s the question I had after watching North Melbourne’s three-point win against Brisbane at the Gabba on Saturday.

On a hot day, coming off a six-day break and without two key midfielders, none of it seemed to matter in the first half.

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Let’s be honest, the game should have been over by half time after the second quarter dominance. It was almost a repeat of the first half at Etihad Stadium earlier in the year, when Brisbane was committing numbers around the ball, but North was able to bypass those quickly and find acres of clean grass.

When the opposition has those types of numbers around the ball, you’re left with one of three options:

  1. Send the same quantity of players around the ball and play it man-on-man
  2. Send even more players around the ball and attempt to outnumber
  3. Send fewer players around the ball and bet on your ability to extract contested ball

If the personnel you have favours option three, you might as well use it. It’ll mean you have a significant advantage everywhere else on the ground once you’ve won the ball, and you can control the tempo at which the game is played.

For almost the entire 34 and a half minutes of the second term, option three had North completely dominating every facet of the game. One screenshot to illustrate the trend:

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Somewhere in that pile of Lions is Trent Dumont, with ball in hand. Note his teammates hanging slightly back on the offensive side, away from the first layer of Brisbane defence.

Dumont is able to scramble it forwards towards his teammates, a kick inside 50 ensues and North eventually goals through Jack Ziebell.

Similar situations even happened when Brisbane had possession under pressure. See the numbers Brisbane has in the immediate vicinity here as Nathan Hrovat tackles Nick Robertson. In this case, Hrovat stuck the tackle, won the free for holding the ball and kicked a goal following a 50-metre penalty.

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What kept Brisbane in the game was a couple of goals cobbled together against the run of play. There was an advantage call as the seas parted for Mitch Robinson. Later in the term Hugh McCluggage kicked an outrageous goal from the boundary and Dayne Zorko stabbed one home under extreme pressure.

The latter two goals were while being tackled by Luke McDonald, the poor bloke. When it’s not going for you, it’s really not going for you.

Nevertheless, it meant despite North’s highest scoring second quarter in more than three seasons, the lead was only 22 points at half time.

And Brisbane came out after the break with a more concerted effort to play keepings-off football. At first it made me wonder why the Lions were focused on slowing things down, moving the ball from side to side before going forward.

Initially I was guessing it was because North was defending well, and to some extent it was holding on well despite not being able to get its hands on the ball – the Roos were -28 in disposals for the quarter shortly before they kicked both their goals.

It was actually a post-game quote from Dayne Zorko which provided the ‘a-ha!’ moment for me. This was what he told Josh Gibson:

“We knew they were coming off a six-day break and a double travel, so we knew we just had to be within something at three quarter time to give ourselves the best chance.”

Brisbane was more than content to simply stay within reach until the last break, and then go to work in the final stanza. For Zorko to come out with the above quote so soon after a heartbreaking loss indicated Chris Fagan and the coaching group had been drilling the message into the players all week.

If the playing group is receptive to coaching tools like this, it can be an incredibly powerful form of mental conditioning. The Zorko quote reminded me of the North players a few years ago when it overran Port Adelaide in the final term.

If you can recall, all the talk leading in had been about the Power’s fitness base and ability to finish games strongly. Yet North kicked five of the last six goals to win by seven points, and there were a few pointed comments in post-match interviews.

So the Lions would have had genuine confidence at three quarter time, being only 11 points back. They likely would have walked out of the huddle with those words about how they’ll overrun North ringing in their ears.

Then when the ball barely got out of North’s forward half for the first seven to eight minutes it looked as if the game was moments away from being broken. It was a 24-point lead about 10 minutes into the final term.

North took a deep breath … and promptly stopped in its tracks.

It was almost as if you’re cruising down the freeway with the petrol tank half full, and then you hear a beep. You look down, see the orange light on, only a handful of kilometres left and the painful realisation there’s still a long, long way to go until the next petrol station.

Everything hit the side at once. Short break, consecutive travel, a couple of midfielders light and an opposition which sensed a chance for the kill. I can’t recall the last time I saw a side so exhausted while desperately clinging to a lead.

How North held on, I have no idea. The last few minutes were spectacular. Ben Brown with the soccer-style clearance just so the defence could push up and reset. Robbie Tarrant managing to spoil a kick delivered almost perfectly to Eric Hipwood. Scott Thompson spoiling Jarrod Berry before giving away a questionable free kick.

Somehow Cam Rayner misses the shot, but I won’t spend any time on it; he’ll single-handedly beat North a couple of times over the journey so he’ll more than make it up.

But then the capper, right on the siren. How on earth does Kayne Turner manage to:

  1. Slip, but still keep some semblance of footing
  2. Get back up and spoil
  3. Apply a desperation tackle on a man 23 centimetres taller and 15 kilograms heavier than him
  4. All while not giving away a free kick

It’s not going to lead any conventional highlight reels, but I’ll bet anything it’ll be on heavy rotation inside the four walls at Arden Street this week.

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Look at Dumont dive bomb Turner while he’s laying exhausted on the ground. Those Turner efforts could have gone wrong in so many different ways, but he nailed all of them dead on. Spectacular.

While North will likely finish the weekend in exactly the same position as Round 19 – one game plus percentage outside the eight – it’s in a much better situation now.

Round 21 sees three matchups between teams above North. There’s Hawthorn v Geelong and Port Adelaide v West Coast on Saturday afternoon, along with Melbourne v Sydney on Sunday afternoon.

At worst North will have the opportunity to gain a win on the losers of Hawthorn v Geelong and Melbourne v Sydney, while if the Eagles win on the road … North could overtake the Power.

The games and stakes keep getting bigger. Fun times ahead.

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