Round 12, 2023 v Essendon: Closer again

Is it wrong to enjoy a one-goal loss that much?

After slumping to an early deficit, then losing two key midfielders, it would have been understandable – albeit not overly acceptable – if North Melbourne faded out of Sunday’s game against Essendon.

Instead a fightback had North on the verge of the type of victory that provides a marker for rebuilding sides and while it ultimately fell short, it’s a third successive week where the progress is clear for all to see.

Today’s post is going to be a jump-around style. Scroll through looking for the bolded text to note where a discussion topic has changed.


For a second season, The Shinboner Patreon is up and running. Of course, the North Melbourne match reviews will remain free for all, posted the morning after each game. But if you’ve missed all the other features, you can find them here.

There are a handful of new features to enjoy, plus a refresh of some favourites, and simplified tiers. Here’s the link to the Patreon page.


For the plaudits the midfield group has – deservedly – received in recent weeks, it was all over the shop in the first quarter.

It was a 20-point Essendon lead at quarter time: North were lucky it wasn’t double that. To concede five goals from stoppages in one quarter is nearly unheard of, and inside 50s at one stage were 15-2 the Bombers’ way.

Much of it started from the ruck, where Sam Draper and Andrew Phillips dominated Todd Goldstein, allowing Essendon’s on-ballers – aka Zach Merrett en route to one of the best individual quarters of the year – to move as they pleased at ground level.

Draper and Phillips combined for eight hitouts to advantage in the first quarter, Essendon had a 12-5 around the ground clearance edge, and North were chasing shadows trying to react all quarter.

To start the second quarter Liam Shiels went to Merrett, in more of a symbolic, ‘someone pay some attention to him and stay close please’ move than a hard tag as such. While one effect was turning Merrett’s game down from ‘on track for the best ever in AFL history’ to ‘solid’, the bigger positive for North was injecting a calm head and voice into proceedings on-ball.

Zach MerrettFirst QuarterLast Three Quarters
Contested Possessions66
Inside 50s34

It’s another example of what Shiels has provided in his role this year as a wise head who can still contribute on-field. Soon enough North will graduate past the need for it and Shiels will (I assume) begin a very good coaching career, but in the meantime the veteran continues to make his teammates better when they share the field with him.

Elsewhere, much of the midfield structure was similar, but Shiels paying attention to Merrett allowed everyone else to settle and focus on their individual roles – which became even more crucial once Jy Simpkin and Hugh Greenwood were ruled out.

Goldstein was able to battle back close to even in his duel, and the result elsewhere was North’s midfield – as inexperienced as it was with Will Phillips, George Wardlaw, and a first-game-back Tarryn Thomas – more on him in a moment – was better than Essendon’s without Darcy Parish and Will Setterfield.

North’s stoppage gameFirst QuarterLast Three Quarters
Scores From Stoppages6-3140-9
Hitouts To Advantage1-88-9

It goes back to the theme of last week’s post: this phase of the game will be North’s bread and butter soon enough.

The next part – scoring and defending from turnovers – is getting there but will take much longer to solidify.


If you’ve missed any recent North match analyses, you can catch up on the last five here:

Round 11 v Collingwood: Phases of play
Round 10 v Sydney: 76th Interchange
Round 9 v Port Adelaide: Unblocked exits
Round 8 v St Kilda: Small steps
Round 7 v Melbourne: Time for stage two


Tarryn Thomas slotted seamlessly into a forward-mid role on his AFL return, even allowing for perhaps a touch extra midfield time than planned due to Simpkin and Greenwood’s concussions.

17 disposals for 500 metres gained, 6 score involvements, 5 inside 50s, and six tackles – four of them in forward 50 – was a level of performance I wasn’t expecting for a couple more weeks given it had been nearly 12 months since his last AFL game.

I’m intrigued for his role in the midfield pecking order when Simpkin and Luke Davies-Uniacke are both in the team and can complete a full game. In the pre-season it looked like Cam Zurhaar and Ben Cunnington would switch between mid and forward. Does that become Zurhaar and Thomas?

Keep in mind there’s all of Simpkin, Davies-Uniacke, Phillips and Wardlaw to account for long-term, Shiels and Greenwood short-term, and Bailey Scott hammering nails into his foundation on one wing as well. It’s a fun discussion point.

A note about Thomas now that he’s back in the AFL side: Given what has allegedly happened off-field and is still to play out with July’s court date, the topic isn’t something I’ll be touching on here. Without intimate knowledge of all the moving parts, plus how he’s progressed since returning to Arden St, I’m not qualified to offer thoughts on it and completely understand if that lets people down.

Perhaps that’ll change after the court date, but in the meantime the last thing this world needs is another person confidently sharing an opinion on something they don’t know a lot about, especially when there are much more qualified places to turn to. I will focus on-field, which is what I do know.

For arguably the first time this year, the forward group consistently worked well with each other to create space.

It’s a bit of an arbitrary number to pick out to highlight it, but Sunday was the first game all year where North have kicked three or more goals in each quarter. Other games have featured one or two stronger scoring quarters, but this time the Essendon defence was under pressure from start to finish. Even allowing for the ball not getting down there too much in the first quarter.

In isolation, these two plays from Thomas and Zurhaar are minor. So minor. But it’s important to highlight because it’s an indication of how a functioning forward group works for each other.

Thomas and Zurhaar engage their respective opponents and take them out of play, leaving more than enough space for Nick Larkey to have a clean jump at the ball.

This sort of work was going on all day, and it should – emphasis on should – continue to improve quickly as it becomes second nature. In turn that normally makes it easier for the defenders and midfielders to find targets going forward, unlocking more scoring power.


Now the mid-season draft is in the books, all the relevant list demographics, contracts, and depth chart pages have been updated to play around with.

The depth chart pages are available for those on the $5 and $10 tiers. Hopefully everyone finds the tool as useful as I do.

Here is where to find the page.


Phoenix Spicer’s nine tackles were not only a game high, but comfortably a career high as well. It’s a sign of the improvement he’s made since last year. After what would turn out to be his last game of 2022, coincidentally also against Essendon, I wrote the following:

‘A long way away’ would have been an understatement when applied to Spicer at draft time. To take a line from NBA land, ‘two years away from being two years away’ was closer to the mark. Through that lens, Spicer’s progress over the last 18 months – in a time of enormous upheaval – has been hugely promising.

This is not to say Sunday’s performance was anywhere near at the level. Redman barely acknowledged Spicer’s existence when the two were matched up, content to roam in the knowledge he wouldn’t be punished. Then the Roo was pushed around in the contest time after time, his lack of size and physical nous evident every time. It was hard to watch at times, Essendon ruthlessly exploiting North’s weak point.

All the above shouldn’t take away from what Spicer has done to get to this point. Contracted to the end of 2023, it’s an enormous pre-season ahead of him.

Comparing that game to Sunday is night and day. Whether Spicer manages to become a consistent AFL player is still very, very much up for debate, his size and strength providing a natural ceiling.

But he’s made progress, taken another step forward and at this stage that’s all you can ask for. He’s clearly working hard, improving all the while, and putting his best foot forward. With the limited small forward options, Spicer will continue to get a chance to prove himself.

And after finishing last week’s post with a note on Ben McKay, it’s only fair to do the same this week.

Because that is what McKay has done previously, can do right now, and should be doing in the future. Eight intercept marks, 14 intercept possessions, picked his moments to ignore the direct opponent, and most of all – had a presence about him which was sorely missing last week.

Even the process behind a couple of late ‘mistakes’ were sound:

a) With 6:45 remaining, on broadcast vision it appears McKay is late to a marking contest as Andrew Phillips marks. In reality, McKay peeled off his opponent early, ran 50 metres and only just missed impacting. It’s a case of reading the play correctly, moving to the right area, but being just a fraction of a second off completing the play.

b) The high tackle on Nic Martin only came about because McKay read the run of Martin better than a handful of midfielders who were unable to track the Bomber. The execution wasn’t there, but the process was correct.

If the process – which in this case means the reading of play – is sound, results will soon follow. Hopefully this is the turning point for McKay, and he can replicate the performance week after week as he learns this new system.

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