Round 16 v Port Adelaide: Summing up North Melbourne’s defence

For those who missed last week’s post, over the final month of the season I’ll be using each game to look at a separate line of the field for North Melbourne and putting it all in a bigger picture.

Against Gold Coast it was all about the forward line. The Port Adelaide game will be all about the backline.

We’ll start with the players currently on North’s list. Then we’ll branch out from there, but first there’s no better place to start than Ben McKay’s emergence.

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The last month of North Round Reviews: Round 10 | Round 12 | Round 13 | Round 14

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Saturday night was game 13 for McKay. But if someone with no prior knowledge of that was watching him for the first time, they’d walk away thinking he was comfortably an established part of North’s best 22.

And in reality, it’s looked that way for much of McKay’s 2020 campaign. The switch has been flipped from ‘this is promising for an inexperienced guy’ to ‘…this seems like his level now’. On the current route we’re not far away from a definite lock.

Although there’s been a handful of promising long-term developments this year – games into key youngsters, Jy Simpkin stepping up, Luke Davies-Uniacke improving by a rate of knots each week – McKay’s emergence is arguably the most important of them all.

Without him, North’s playable key defender stocks consisted of Robbie Tarrant (age 31), Majak Daw (29, would be playing back if not for McKay) and Josh Walker (28). Although they’re all useful players at the very least – or an outright A-grader in Tarrant’s case – it hardly looked promising for the long-term, or in concert with the future direction of North’s list.

McKay allows North to lock in a piece for 2021, and it’s clear Rhyce Shaw believes in the 22-year-old as well. The coach’s comments after McKay’s job on Dixon, talking about (multiple) scalps and rewarding faith, points to the second key defensive post locked in for 2021 alongside Tarrant.

Projected Round 1, 2021 backline

B: ???, Ben McKay, ???
HB: ???, Robbie Tarrant, ???
Extra: ???

With the talls locked in, let’s look to the smalls. Although Kyron Hayden’s season ended prematurely, beforehand every possible sign pointed to the 21-year-old being entrusted as the first-choice small defender.

Hayden’s level of opponent could kindly be described as being thrown into the fire. But he showed more than enough, plus a quick week-to-week improvement, to suggest he’s capable of plenty more as he grows in experience and confidence.

A valid criticism of his eight games centres around Hayden’s ball use, but to me none of those issues looked terminal. Sometimes kicking turnovers can be because of a poor technique, other times they can be from poor decision making, trying options which are just never available.

For me, most of Hayden’s turnovers stemmed from being just a half a second slow in disposing – the natural side effect of a player without many AFL games to his name. There’d be an option, Hayden saw it, but by the time the ball was on its way the gap had closed. It tends to be, to quote a former coach, an easy fix. Those usually disappear with time.

Marley Williams, assuming he’s offered a one-year deal to stay, is a more than capable backup. Although the old line of knowing your limitations tends to vanish with ball in hand, his defending evens the ledger. Both sides were on display against Port Adelaide. At this stage – 27 years old and 128 games in – this is the player Williams will be for the remainder of his career.

The contract for Williams won’t break the bank, so a one-year deal to stay as a fringe/back up appears to be the logical option in a position which isn’t overflowing with options past Hayden.

Projected Round 1, 2021 backline

B: Kyron Hayden, Ben McKay, ???
HB: ???, Robbie Tarrant, ???
Extra: ???

One step up from the small defender spot is Luke McDonald, a player who can switch between small and medium forwards relatively easily.

McDonald, surely a certainty to finish at least top-three in this year’s Syd Barker Medal, has enjoyed a career best season spurred on by a mid-season stint as a tagger. As I’ve touched on numerous times, the confidence is pouring out of him and he shapes to be that utility who can defend a host of non-key positions and provide run and carry off half-back. Not as the prime option, which I’ll get to in a minute, but as one of the options.

Maybe, just maybe, you’re looking at someone blossoming into the next captain of North Melbourne.

Projected Round 1, 2021 backline

B: Kyron Hayden, Ben McKay, ???
HB: Luke McDonald, Robbie Tarrant, ???
Extra: ???

Most quality defensive units have players who can take care of those tweener-sized forwards. A guy like Tim Membrey is a prototypical tweener; at 190 centimetres too small to be a true key position threat, but plays in a similar fashion with the added benefit of covering more ground than a 200+ centimetre behemoth.

Dylan Grimes is an extreme example of a defender who fits the mould, given he’d be able to beat 90% of people who’ve ever stepped foot in a forward 50, but a standardised version of him is the ideal template.

As I’ve mentioned a number of times, Ed Vickers-Willis projects as the player currently on North’s list to fill the role. Health and fitness permitting, his defensive skill set and flexibility can cover a number of needs. We’ve seen it already in his last month of football, so much so it’s easy to forget he’s still only 19 games into a career. It’s not the typical situation for a 24-year-old in a sixth season – there still should be plenty of improvement remaining.

Projected Round 1, 2021 backline

B: Kyron Hayden, Ben McKay, Ed Vickers-Willis
HB: Luke McDonald, Robbie Tarrant, ???
Extra: ???

That leaves two places to fill, with seven defenders usually selected in the 22 from week to week.

If you’ve got this far, you’ll realise there’s been two things mentioned with no follow up – what’s not on North’s list, and McDonald ‘not being the prime option’ off half back.

They converge here. If reports are to be believed, North has been linked to both Aidan Corr and Zac Williams from the Giants.

Whether either of them arrives isn’t the important part for this particular discussion. The relevant part is how each Giant plays.

Williams, as we all know, is primarily used off half-back (He’d also be an excellent midfielder if used there, but let’s ignore that for now). Assuming my two plus two equals four in this situation, it means North is looking outside* for a player to be their prime mover from that area of the ground. It’s arguably the biggest hole in the list as it stands.

(*Flynn Perez’s debut was promising but expecting a youngster with his injury history to be best 22 from the start of 2021 is unrealistic. Patience, time, and a handful of games next year shapes as his trajectory)

Moving to Corr, earlier I mentioned a standardised version of Grimes as a tweener template. Well, Corr is that. He can play on nearly anyone, and his matchups this year – Esava Ratugolea, Jaidyn Stephenson, Cam Rayner and Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti among them – speaks to that.

Plug the ideas of both those players into a defensive template and suddenly things look quite logical.

Projected Round 1, 2021 backline

B: Kyron Hayden, Ben McKay, Ed Vickers-Willis
HB: Luke McDonald, Robbie Tarrant, (rebounding half-back)
Extra: (versatile defender)

Add the likes of Williams, Shaun Atley, Jamie Macmillan (who should be the one to win the medium defender contract sweepstakes), Josh Walker, likely Majak Daw, and Aiden Bonar (assuming he continues down back) into the mix for 2021, and a defensive group comes together.

The wildcard in all of this is what further moves are being planned by the list management team. Playing lists could be cut as well, which would necessitate deeper cuts to the list along with opening possibilities for those delisted by other clubs.

But if you think back to the forward discussion last week, there were many more questions than answers.

It’s not quite the same situation for the defenders.

7 thoughts on “Round 16 v Port Adelaide: Summing up North Melbourne’s defence

  1. While it is still peak stoopid over on Twitter as so called fans, egged on by TV footy commentators, pile in on a team with half the list injured versus one with 44/46 cherry ripe this analysis is a welcome relief. Esp like your observations about rebounding HB. Every time we put speed on the ball (including out of d50) we look much much better. I like KH aggressiveness and still think Murphy could be an asset with his kicking. Still worried that d-first game plan will make us look like Sydney. Not fun to watch.

    1. I reckon there’ll always be elements of Sydney given Shaw’s background, but if it all turns out well with these younger players there’s too much flair to not lean into. Especially with games at Marvel

  2. Be interested in your thoughts on Joel Crocker. He seems to be forgotten, with others getting a debut ahead of him. I like what I saw of him in the vfl and the Melbourne practice match earlier this year. Good user of the ball, which we desperately need!

    1. Hard to say for sure, without VFL to watch this year it’s tricky to get an accurate read on how he’s developing. The way I’m interpreting it is that given the mountain of injuries, for him to only barely make it to an emergency list seems like a worrying sign. Hope I’m wrong though!

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