Round 22 v Adelaide: The Return

On Saturday at Adelaide Oval, football felt both unimportant and extremely important, all at the same time.

Unimportant: Because when it came to Ben Cunnington, seeing him healthy was all that mattered and the fate of a Sherrin was secondary.

Extremely important: Because of the game as a symbol for everything Cunnington overcame.

In the space of 12 months it went from ‘I could barely get out of bed and go to the toilet without collapsing’, to playing AFL football and more than holding his own.



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Just one more to go after today and then we shift into off-season mode.

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Straight away it was evident how Cunnington’s decision making improved North. To see this option, understand where to hit it, and execute in the first two minutes demonstrated there’d be minimal acclimatisation time:

During the week Leigh Adams said Cunnington’s presence alone would lift the group, and nowhere was it more evident than centre bounces.

It was no coincidence that in the first half, before Cunnington started to feel the effects of an AFL game and every second Roo picked up an injury of some sort, North’s midfield treated Adelaide with disdain:

Centre Bounce Attendances (non-ruckmen): First Half

15: Jy Simpkin
15: Luke Davies-Uniacke
12: Ben Cunnington
5: Jed Anderson
2: Charlie Lazzaro
2: Tom Powell

Centre Clearances: First Half

13: North Melbourne
3: Adelaide

Although Cunnington was rarely the first choice from either Todd Goldstein or Callum Coleman-Jones’ hit-outs, it was his presence – doing the dirty work – which opened up space for Davies-Uniacke and Simpkin to run riot, particularly in the second quarter.

When Cunnington and Jed Anderson rotated as the third midfielder at a centre bounce, by and large it was their job to essentially play as a neutral force and space, like this:

Or this:

It worked a treat, as LDU and Simpkin had their way in a wild spell of football. Until Adelaide made changes at half time (and instead of spending 500 words explaining the minutiae, I’m sure there’s a Crows equivalent of The Shinboner somewhere to do just that), it looked like men against boys for a period.

Second Quarter Stats

Luke Davies-Uniacke: 12 disposals (6 contested), 4 clearances, 3 inside 50s
Jy Simpkin: 11 disposals (6 contested), 5 clearances, 5 inside 50s

Behind that, it was a genuinely dominant quarter from North, probably their best of the year. On another day it would have earned them a five-goal lead at half-time if not for some wayward finishing.

Second Quarter Team Stats

Disposals: 107-67 North
Contested Possessions: 38-21 North
Inside 50s: 22-5 North
Clearances: 16-5 North


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The main reason for Adelaide staying in the game was their efficiency inside forward 50 – 14 scoring shots from 19 entries.

While the Crows aren’t an overly creative team in possession, any functional AFL team will punish base-level mistakes.

When defending high up the ground, the first layer around the ball has to stop the ball at the source, otherwise it’s too easy to transition.

Here’s an example of how not to do it, where North players are simultaneously too far away to impact possession and too close which allows an easy over the top:

Or there’s this example, where a line of players behind Zurhaar on the mark aren’t guarding anything dangerous which allows Crows to get out over the back:

That’s not to say it was all bad. This style of defending is what’s helping North spend more time in their forward half, earning more inside 50s and scoring shots at goal.

59 entries against Adelaide tied their highest of the season, which came against Collingwood in Round 16.

North’s inside 50s by game, 2022

Round 1Round 2Round 3Round 4Round 5Round 6Round 7
Round 8Round 9Round 10Round 11Round 12Round 13Round 15
Round 16Round 17Round 18Round 19Round 20Round 21Round 22
First 15 games: 40.9 per game
Next 6 games: 50.0 per game

It’s why I can’t get too frustrated at these errors because I can see what’s being asked of the players and it makes sense, is logical and fits the AFL landscape in 2022.

Most of Saturday’s game – for better and worse – stemmed from what North Melbourne did well or poorly. Or how many fit players there were on the field.

Everything started from close to scratch a few weeks ago, and to see progress to the point where it’s clear how they’re trying to play makes natural teething problems understandable. For me at least.

Think of what’s been achieved, then project how much can be done with a full, focused pre-season…


If you’ve missed it, the two Patreon-exclusive pages will become very useful as we head towards the off-season and trade period. A reminder:

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With one week to go and the likelihood of bulk injury-enforced changes, the question becomes what to expect against Gold Coast. If, at a minimum, it’s:

Out: Ziebell, Anderson, Stephenson, Curtis

Three of the inclusions are obvious:

In: Comben, Thomas, Horne-Francis (ice bath completion pending)

While it’s probably too late to expect ‘coherent, well-drilled leading patterns as a forward unit’ as the fourth inclusion, hopefully it arrives over the summer with a refreshed coaching setup (that includes Adams).

Assuming Comben is fit and ready to play, it’s vital North get a look at a three-tall forward setup with him alongside Larkey and Coleman-Jones.

Although the Suns have just about parked the car for 2022, every minute is valuable for North and future intel.

Those three inclusions are part of 2023’s best 22, yet their presence raises questions which need time to solve. Here are five I’ve thought of with no preparation time:

– If Thomas splits time between forward and midfield, does a forward line with him alongside Zurhaar and three talls provide enough ground level pressure?
– If Comben is to play in a three-tall forward setup, how does his role and pattern co-exist with Larkey and Coleman-Jones?
– Is Horne-Francis’ best role a forward-mid split, or an inside-outside on-ball/wing role?
– Where does this leave Powell’s role in the best 22?
– Why couldn’t most of this have been sorted out in the first 21 games?

Maybe that last one is more of a lament, but the point stands: too many questions, not enough time. One match remaining.

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