From The Notebook: Round 17

A rare occasion when the Notebook is published before the end of the round, but a Monday night match involving North Melbourne can cause these things.

A slightly different structure to today’s edition, with two main observations followed by a string of mini-thoughts.

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Why are the Power being looked down on?

Last year, someone – possibly me – explored Port Adelaide in the 2020 Finals Dossier and made the case there’d be a perfectly understandable slight drop off coming given their list profile.

In 2020 their experienced core were ever present – Robbie Gray, Hamish Hartlett, Travis Boak and Tom Jonas played every game, Tom Clurey and Charlie Dixon only missed one, Tom Rockliff (three), Scott Lycett (four) and Brad Ebert (five) were consistently contributing, and there was a blessed run with injuries. Only 30 players were used, comfortably the fewest of any club.

Flash forward to this year and Ebert has retired, Rockliff has been largely unsighted thanks to a terrifying case of deep vein thrombosis, Hartlett hasn’t completed a full game since Round 10, Lycett missed a month after suspension, Gray is injured and will likely return on the fringe of finals, while on the other end of the age spectrum Zak Butters and Xavier Duursma have dealt with long term absences – Butters now set to spend more time on the sidelines after another unfortunate blow against Melbourne.

Adding the absence of players like Farrell and Fantasia to the mix, 30 players used in 19 games last year is already 34 in 16 this year; even allowing for the slightly inflated totals thanks to medical substitutes it’s clear 2020 continuity hasn’t carried over to 2021.

Minutes are still being pumped into younger guys which will pay off in time – Mitch Georgiades has played all but one game, as has Miles Bergman. Lachie Jones showed enough in his brief stint between injuries to suggest he’ll become a fixture, even if he looks 25 years old rather than 19.

With some of the veterans not contributing like last year, and more injuries to contend with, it’s still a good side but clearly – and obviously – one below the top tier. It makes the narrative that Port are somehow failing this year a peculiar one. All the need in the world to create content doesn’t change the reality of where a side is at.

Ideally the Power understand the reasons behind their season and take the correct approach in their off-season list build. They’re in a fascinating position which could branch off in any direction.

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If you’ve missed any previous editions of Monday’s Notebook, you can catch up by clicking here and scrolling through the season so far:

2021’s From The Notebook

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Brainstorming ideas to replace Eric Hipwood

A fortnight ago, I explained why Brisbane’s forward line is so dangerous, and it largely stemmed from every member providing a genuine goal threat.

Eric Hipwood’s ACL injury is an obvious game-changer to that structure, with no-one waiting in the wings capable of replicating his output.

It appeared to be a choice between Tom Fullarton or Connor Ballenden as the first replacement judging by Chris Fagan’s post-match press conference, but a hamstring injury to Ballenden looks to have cleared the way for Fullarton.

Fullarton had played the first month of the year as a stand-in for Dan McStay, while Ballenden had a solitary appearance in Round 3 deputising for an injured Oscar McInerney.

With six games until finals, it does provide a limited window for the Lions to experiment. Neither Fullarton or Ballenden can function as an exact plug-and-play replacement for Hipwood, which means there have to be changes.

As the first month of 2021 demonstrated, McStay’s role is one which provides such functionality to the team it can only be appreciated fully in his absence.

Joe Daniher can be such a matchup menace floating high and rolling back that taking it away from him feels like a net negative to both the individual and team.

Yet with Fullarton’s ability to cover the ground – did you know he has a basketball background? (sorry) – lending him to a higher role, it means Daniher may have to adjust and play a touch deeper. Teams will pay Daniher much more attention closer to goal compared to Fullarton, and it did appear Brisbane were comfortable having Fullarton roam during his month in the side.

Assuming Fullarton is given the nod first up as replacement, it’d be great to see Daniher play a bit deeper and given licence to own the 50 when feasible. He and Charlie Cameron as a one-two act close to goal is nightmare fuel for defenders.

By contrast, it’s tricky to determine exactly how Brisbane may use Ballenden – if they opt to experiment with him once he returns from injury – given there just isn’t the data available from prior AFL experience. His two games in 2020 don’t hold much water given it was before Daniher’s arrival, and as already mentioned his game this year was replacing McInerney.

Much like Fullarton, by bringing Ballenden in the goal will be to put him in a role which amplifies strengths in a way which makes defences respect him, not peeling off in the path of Daniher and co.

It’s not as if Ballenden is a stiff at ground level, but his physical presence does outweigh Fullarton’s (literally), which could lend itself to starting as a deeper, bash-and-crash forward if he gets the nod. That in turn would allow Daniher to continue playing higher if required.

The radical option is to bring in another small, which seems unlikely given it’d also require a shift in game style towards more run, carry and handball. But if Fullarton and Ballenden don’t work out, and someone like Archie Smith is a non-starter – or even Connor McFadyen as a mid-sized option – it’s always available as a break glass in case of emergency choice. This would surely be the last lever to pull though.

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For those who have missed any North Melbourne recaps and ruminations from the last month, you can catch up here. A rare occasion when the Notebook is before North’s match:

Round 13 v GWS
Round 14 v Brisbane
Round 15 v Gold Coast
Round 16 v Western Bulldogs

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Some mini-thoughts

Adelaide: Projecting out a couple of years, Friday night offered a look at an urgent point of focus for the Crows – figuring out a second tall to partner Riley Thilthorpe once Taylor Walker hangs up the boots.

Judging by Matthew Nicks’ mindset, there wasn’t a lot of confidence in the current alternatives given he set the team up to kick no more than 10 goals and pinch a win that way.

Although I may be one of Darcy Fogarty’s biggest non-Crow fans (in the non-Crows section), he’s an extremely low possession player, too often flattering to deceive. It’s a tricky line to thread that player type through to a consistent role as Robin to Thilthorpe’s Batman. He’d need to significantly improve his ability to influence to take the second tall role.

Billy Frampton hasn’t shown enough at AFL level yet and is now seven seasons into his career. He’s contracted until the end of 2022 which gives him a little more time to salvage something. Elliott Himmelberg showed glimpses at the end of 2020, but has failed to carry on this year.

Is it going to be one of these three players who eventually fills the role? Or is the draft and/or free agency the way to go? Either way, it needs to be a player who aligns with Thilthorpe’s timeline so as not to waste what he can become.

Gold Coast: Although the result could have gone either way, Sunday in Ballarat was an excellent example of a team learning from prior experience.

Gold Coast’s performance in Hobart a few weeks ago smacked of a side without experience on how to deal with wind, yet they adapted much better than the Giants here.

Stuart Dew brought up the Hobart game unprompted on multiple occasions in his post-match press conference and you could see the lessons learned in the way they attacked and defended, both with the wind and against it.

Save for the last seven to eight minutes of the third quarter where the Giants realised long bombs to packs actually isn’t the optimal way to use wind, the Suns’ method was as good as could be hoped for. It’s a great sign of putting lessons to good use, regardless of the result.

Western Bulldogs: After explaining how Melbourne’s loss was nothing to worry about last week, it’s much the same with the Bulldogs this week.

There was no alarm bells sounding on Sunday, no new information which sends coaches scurrying back to the drawing board.

Aaron Naughton has to be the number one forward to allow Josh Bruce to continue as the second option, a role which complements his skill set and doesn’t overstretch him.

Some minor personnel tweaks around the margins, coupled with Josh Dunkley and Stefan Martin returning to shore up the midfield and key position rotations and it’s all systems go as normal. Any other conclusion is doomsday and shock jock material.

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