Let’s get this one out of the way first: This post will be an umpiring free zone because if I start on the inconsistencies – for both sides – it’ll take away from an important match for the bigger picture.
It’s interesting how people watch a match with different mindsets, and how that affects what they see.
I went into the match fully expecting North to be outplayed in stages, and – to be honest – almost wanting it to happen to see how the team would react.
A shout out to Ben Willis on Twitter, who sent a tweet through to me post-match along the lines of this group loses games it should win.
It made me re-evaluate a little, because North was 21 points up at one stage, and then was in front in the dying stages.
So perhaps that’s the majority view? I’m not sure either way, but for me I was watching with the intention of seeing how North would react to periods of being significantly outplayed, because it was what I expected going in – and much of the below is with that mindset.
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This was North’s first game under Rhyce Shaw in foreign territory against a good team, with the previous six at Marvel Stadium (three), Blundstone Arena (two) and Metricon Stadium (not hard).
My contention is the toughest thing for a team to do is play a good opponent, interstate. And while both teams had letdown game potential – Brisbane after a double road trip, North after not having a flat spot since Shaw took over – this is a post about North, so it’s from their perspective.
How would the structures hold up when outplayed, and how would the players respond in an atmosphere where everything was against them?
We’ve talked about how the game style has been simplified, and this screenshot is the perfect illustration.
Everything is set up. There’s a long option for Macmillan as the get out kick, numbers around the ball if it does spill to ground, and if North maintains possession Larkey has a favourable one-on-one matchup against Hodge.
All that’s required is a long kick down the line, so it’s not hard to execute. It’s predictable, so there’s no confusion. And it’s still tricky to defend for the opposition, because there’s an aerial and ground presence to contend with.
This held through the game, but through the middle two quarters, Brisbane defended it well – and that’s not a hanging offence for North, because the Lions at home are one of the toughest propositions in the competition.
When it was combined with the Brisbane midfield getting well on top – +19 contested possessions during this period – naturally it meant North had to do a lot of defending.
Slight segue: Being beaten by Brisbane’s midfield isn’t unexpected to me, again especially at the Gabba. Whether that should be the case is another discussion for another day, but for now it’s back to the game.
North conceded 35 inside 50’s in the middle two quarters, which is a huge amount. However, Brisbane only scored 6.8.
To only allow 14 scoring shots from 35 entries is genuinely elite defending. No doubt Brisbane missed chances, but then you look at the goals they did kick, and the majority were fluky in that they can’t be repeated.
For me, those goals balance out the missed chances to the point where 6.8 is a fair reflection of the general state of play, and that’s an excellent sign for North’s defence.
Since Shaw took the reins, North’s inside 50 defending has been much improved. And yes, I’m aware it doesn’t take much to get that title after literally being the worst in the league for the first 10 rounds, but stick with me here.
Round 1-10: 49.4% of inside 50’s conceded from: 18th in the AFL
Round 11-18: 39.2% of inside 50’s conceded from: 5th in the AFL (dependent on other results to finish the weekend)
We’re at seven matches now, which is enough to move away from small sample size theatre.
It’s allowed North to stay in games where the opposition midfield has got on top – particularly the last two weeks, but also the Giants game in Hobart as well.
There have been two key aspects to it – pressure and positioning.
Without behind the goals vision – because we can’t go a week without lamenting the lack of access to it – it’s hard to show the positioning part of things, and we’re all aware of the pressure.
Even when opposition sides are winning the ball, pressure means the contested possessions aren’t clean. For example:
Robbie Tarrant should be an All-Australian lock at this point, and his presence alone alters how sides go inside 50.
Combine the pressure, the positioning, and one of the best tall defenders in the game – all working in harmony with a game style they’re well drilled in – and that’s why you have the much-improved results of the last seven matches.
The midfield will keep improving with another off-season of recruitment, development and movement, but in the meantime the important thing is there’s a game style and structure which is holding up and not breaking under pressure. Contrast this to Round 1 and you’ll understand the difference.
Let’s not lock Rhyce Shaw into the permanent role yet, but the on-field signs are promising.