Coming out of North Melbourne’s loss, the mainstream talking point was Jaidyn Stephenson turning his back on the football – twice.
It’s easy to understand why it happened the first time, but take two brought most of the ire (or mirth, depending what side you were on).
While there was the habitual pile on in response to the incident, all I could think of was one thing:
This frame is the symbol of a wasted season.
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Here is a general overview of the positions Stephenson played during the first few months of 2022:
Deep forward, half-forward, high half-forward, wing, on-ball, half-back, plus VFL time across most of those roles.
Confused? I know I am, and all I had to do was type it out.
Up until the last few weeks, it was a complete lottery which position Stephenson lined up in. It could have been with the midfield rotations, or maybe the forwards, or potentially the backs. Who knew?
Since the Collingwood game, which was for all intents and purposes the start of North’s next step, there has been a concerted effort to play Stephenson at half-back. In four of the last five matches he’s played in that position; Hawthorn in Round 19 as the lone one out.
Sunday was the first time we saw Stephenson and Aaron Hall in tandem across half-back for a full game. It’s important to emphasise the decision was another instance of smart coaching from Leigh Adams and his group.
Clearly there was an expectation of a forward tag from Ryan Clarke, given it’s been his role in recent weeks. In theory if Clarke went to Hall and succeeded in his task, then North lose their main back-half ball mover with no-one in reserve.
Keeping Stephenson back there mitigated the risk and allowed North to be less predictable with ball in hand.
From an offensive point of view, you’d have to say the plan worked. Ball movement was promising, and although most of the scoreboard joy came from stoppages, putting up 88 against a Sydney side playing genuinely well on both sides of the ball can only be viewed as a tick.
Of course, offensive production is only one side of the story…
We’re almost at the business end of 2022, which means production on The Shinboner is about to ramp up significantly.
Along with the return of Finals Dossiers, there is plenty more to be unveiled in an upcoming program guide.
Dropping on Wednesday morning, it’ll detail everything coming between now and the end of trade period, when to expect it, and how it’ll look.
As far as I can tell, this is the first time in Stephenson’s career – juniors included – consistently playing behind the ball.
So far I’d grade the move as a net positive, because it’s clear the value Stephenson’s skill set provides when North move the ball out of defensive half – although with a new role comes a natural learning curve and mistakes are to be expected.
He’s not the only one learning though. Consider these words from Leigh Adams in his post-match press conference:
“We’re doing this off a four-week prep of trying to get guys to feel a bit more positive and play the way we want to.
“With a full pre-season under their belt and a proper system in behind them, there’s enough there to suggest that we can be pretty competitive, pretty early on.”
In case it needs to be spelled out further, Adams is essentially saying everything in 2022 has been ripped up and the last four weeks has been a fresh start.
Almost the only gains to come from this year – before the last four weeks – has been from individual growth. Team system and familiarity has accounted for nearly none of that.
In an ideal world, the learning and growing pains of the last month would have happened in January or February.
It’s taken a fresh set of eyes to come in and quickly implement basics that should have been happening all year.
Instead of closing rounds used to confirm a handful of individual player questions before heading into a controlled off-season, they have to be like a last-minute study session for the exam you forgot about.
Adams has been tasked with implementing a modern style and has done a genuinely excellent job given all the handicaps in front of him.
Already there’s an identifiable method in the way North plays both with the ball and without it. The advantage around stoppages has steadily translated to scoreboard pressure more often than not – a further nine goals came from this source against the Swans.
Ball movement out of the back half has more bite to it. As a result, the last month has seen North score from possession chains starting in their defensive half at a standard, below-average-team rate. Before that it was sitting at league-worst-by-a-mile.
A lot of that can be chalked down to the moves in personnel, and what Stephenson has signified for the team’s shift as a whole.
Clearly there was a curiosity about using Stephenson back earlier in the year. He spent the second quarter there against Carlton in Round 7, showed some intriguing possibilities, and was then promptly moved away.
Left to drift afterwards, it’s taken a clear approach from Adams to essentially re-integrate Stephenson as a valued member of the team, while putting him through a crash course which should have happened months ago.
One moment shouldn’t take away from the positives Stephenson has brought over the last few weeks, shouldn’t take away from what he has the potential to do with consistent backing and guidance, shouldn’t take away from North’s improvement over the last month, and shouldn’t take away from how much time had been wasted before that.