Lessons from the pre-season and an eye on Round 1

With two Marsh Series clashes and one scratch match in the books, it’s time to take stock and look ahead to North Melbourne’s season opener against St Kilda at Marvel Stadium on March 21.

Understandably the Saints go into the match as favourites after a promising pre-season while North have been up and down, dealing with player unavailability in Rhyce Shaw’s first full season as coach.

Nevertheless, the makings of a fascinating tactical battle are there based on what we’ve seen so far in 2020.


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Defending against small forwards

Continuing a trend from late last season, the two Marsh Series games saw small forwards excel against North – Sam Lloyd with three goals for the Bulldogs and Tom Papley with four for the Swans.

In five of North’s last seven games in 2019, a small/medium forward kicked a bag of three or more: Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti with five in Round 17, Allen Christensen with three in Round 18, Gryan Miers with three in Round 21, Robbie Gray with three in Round 22 and Bayley Fritsch with three in Round 23.

Heading into Round 1, on paper the trio of Robbie Tarrant, Majak Daw and Josh Walker match up well against Max King, the resting ruckman (either Rowan Marshall or Paddy Ryder), and Tim Membrey respectively.

That likely won’t be where the problem lies in restricting St Kilda’s scoring. It’ll be the small forwards and rotating midfielders – Jack Lonie, Dan Butler, Jade Gresham and co – to pose the biggest threat for a North side which has struggled to contain speedy forwards since the Stone Age.

Even though the performance of small and medium defenders can be influenced heavily by how their midfield is restricting supply from further up the field, the suspension-induced absence of Marley Williams leaves North light on the ground for options.

Allowing for the normal selection process of seven defenders in the 22, the remaining four must be Luke McDonald, Jasper Pittard, Shaun Atley and Jamie Macmillan.

While the quartet had their ups and downs – Macmillan impressing against Isaac Heeney a notable positive, Pittard getting the word Sherrin tattooed into his face not so much – it’s far from a stretch to label this area as one of the most important to the end result.

They’ll be hoping North can rectify its biggest worry from the pre-season to help the defenders out.

Coping with aggressive ball movement

Throughout the pre-season, North have looked most vulnerable when the Bulldogs, Melbourne and Sydney have put pace into the game and moved quickly. Aerially the defending has been good and from slow play aside from stoppages it’s been rare to see a team break away. It’s why North likely won’t be overly concerned at the possibility of the key defenders being outpointed if the midfield can at least break even.

Where the unease should lie is how St Kilda’s best offensive moments of pre-season have come when they’ve looked to take risks with their ball movement and go forward at speed – often from ball ups and throw ins, which should sound alarm bells.

Brad Hill, following up his 18 disposals and 6 inside 50s in limited time during Marsh 1 with a 28-disposal, 8 inside-50 effort in Marsh 2, has been given all but free rein to be a key part of St Kilda’s attacking chains via his wing, which in turn makes Trent Dumont’s role one of the most critical.

It’ll be up to Dumont to curtail Hill’s influence which, if it happens, has the flow on effect of denying the Saints their prime line breaker through the middle and forcing them to put the ball into the hands of fellow midfielders who can’t wreak the same sort of damage with their possessions.

Working under the assumption that Jack Steele will follow Ben Cunnington around as he did successfully last year in Hobart, it’ll require Shaun Higgins and Jy Simpkin to take a greater offensive share. The domino effect from that then means the focus for the remaining on-ball midfielders should largely be on defensive duties.

The wildcard in all of this is what level of pressure around the ball we’ll see from North. Understandably the pre-season level was well down from the second half of 2019. The question is whether that carries over into Round 1, or will it revert to the same manic output of last year under Rhyce Shaw?

The ruck situation

Todd Goldstein has looked much the same as previous years, not having lost a step and ready to pick up where he left off last season against Marshall and Ryder.

While that duo is arguably the best amongst teams who will play two genuine rucks this year, what’s important to remember is the last time Goldstein faced Ryder in particular.

It was in Round 22 last season, when Goldstein made the Port Adelaide rucks look second rate. Even ‘second rate’ is probably too much praise, so comprehensive was Goldstein’s performance.

Make no mistake, Goldstein will remember that, as will Ryder. Sometimes these beltings have the effect of forming a mental edge which carry on into subsequent matches.

The reason for this being so important is that much like North, St Kilda are a team which sets up to work from their own ruck’s hit-outs, without a huge ability to shark the opposition ala the Bulldogs.  A step by step process for how this could affect the ruck scenario:

  • St Kilda will work plenty of opposing one-out ruckmen into the ground over the course of the year with Marshall and Ryder
  • If Goldstein gets on top of Ryder comprehensively in their head-to-head minutes, it should lead to a North advantage from stoppages
  • Then it forces Marshall to play more in the ruck and Ryder as a forward
  • That allows the defenders to settle into their direct matchups without having to switch around

It then leaves Goldstein with the one-on-one direct matchup which he so enjoys. While it’s important to clarify that by no means does this mean he’d necessarily beat Marshall, a ruck who’s right alongside Goldstein in that second tier below Max Gawn and Brodie Grundy, it’s the simplification of roles elsewhere on the ground which would help North.


A brief programming note about what the blog’s going to look like this season. There’ll still be the same amount of North Melbourne content, but after the positive feedback to last year’s finals dossiers (which you can find here), there’ll also be more from around the league. If there even is a league in amongst the coronavirus.


If Ben Brown doesn’t play

Despite the absence of Brown during the pre-season, it was clear North’s preferred forward structure contained two focal points of key position height, surrounded by mid-sizers, most of which who can play as lead up targets or in a pressure role at ground level if the situation calls for it.

The two tall forwards are essential to North’s preferred style. It’s near impossible for them to move the ball the way they want from slow play if the talls can’t either mark the long balls down the line, or at the very least halve the contest and bring it to ground.

Nick Larkey’s emergence in 2019 means defenders now respect his presence and will have a general reluctance to peel off and intercept elsewhere. The full impact will be revealed when Brown is in the side, but in the interim it’s asking a lot of a 19-game, 21-year-old to be the focal point without an established AFL player as a sidekick.

While Tristan Xerri’s improvement has been evident, and all signs point to him making a deserved AFL debut if Brown is ruled out, he won’t command the same level of regard from defences until he performs at the top level.

It’s up to the North midfielders and half forwards to build trust in Xerri by using him wherever possible. They can’t just click their fingers and expect everything to be sunshine, rainbows and contested marks. Sometimes that goes against natural instincts; in the heat of the moment when there’s leading targets and fractions of a second to decide where to go, the disposal will trend towards the player proven at the level.

It’s why Shaw was so firm in the behind the scenes peek during the Bulldogs game, imploring the players to trust their forward targets.


It’ll take on added importance against an experienced St Kilda backline. Working under the assumption Dougal Howard matches up on Larkey, Jake Carlisle to come back in and take Xerri, and with Dylan Roberton likely to play on the least aerially threatening medium forward so he can zone off, North have to be decisive when moving forward. If they’re not, the penalty will be an anaemic score.

Or maybe Brown’s cleared to play shortly after this is published and the whole final section becomes irrelevant. Bring on Round 1!

3 thoughts on “Lessons from the pre-season and an eye on Round 1

    1. Good question – I don’t think so at this stage, it’s more that in this case the best small defender is out against a side which has a lot of dangerous small forwards. But would definitely like to see some progress on that front during the year in the VFL.

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