Round 14, 2023 v Western Bulldogs: Half backs and higher forwards

These introductions have felt nearly identical over the last five weeks: North Melbourne do a lot of good things, ultimately fall short, have promising signs to build on.

Somehow North’s midfield was well beaten but still managed to score 50 points from clearances. They also had literally half the inside 50s (72-36), but only lost by 21 points despite that type of disparity normally resulting in a thumping.

It was a strange game in many respects, but today’s post will touch on two topics: Tarryn Thomas’ move to half back, and placing Cam Zurhaar’s game in the larger forward picture.


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.


Perhaps the most notable player performance on Sunday was Tarryn Thomas and his move to half back. For the first three quarters, anyway.

Thomas essentially replaced Aaron Hall in the role of receiver and line-breaker, and given the way the Bulldogs play it was a useful team to start against.

Before Thomas moved on-ball in the last quarter, his first three terms were spent either playing on Bailey Smith or the least threatening Bulldogs small forward – usually Rhylee West or Lachie McNeil.

The move worked especially well when Thomas was on Smith. A large part of how the Bulldogs use Smith is quickly pushing up from a starting forward position to become an extra midfielder.

Then Smith, matched up against a conventional half back with not as much understanding of midfield patterns, can burn off his opponent and collect disposals regularly.

Not against Thomas though. Because Thomas is just as comfortable around the ball as anywhere else, coming up to contests didn’t affect him at all and as a result – perhaps inadvertently – it neutralised Smith’s effectiveness as well.

Smith’s 19 possessions only contained four kicks, his lowest total in a full game since his rookie year. Meanwhile Thomas kept involved around the ball and got his numbers.

But the point of Thomas when at half back was to create overlap from the defensive half and improve the general movement – much like the offensive side of Hall’s game when he was in the team.

When North were pinned deep in their back 50 – and there was plenty of it with 56 inside 50s conceded to three quarter time – they weren’t able to get enough ball movement to threaten the Bulldogs’ defence.

The word ‘enough’ is in italics because when North did get through they hit the scoreboard often, with 13 shots from 27 entries in the first three quarters. Thomas wasn’t a key part of it though, with – if my manual scrolling through footage is correct – just one score involvement in the same period.

It came down to a lack of instinct in the role, just being a half step slow in understanding where to move offensively, when to create, and when to overlap. None of this is meant as a slight on Thomas, more a straight recap of what happened.

Sometimes half backs get unfairly criticised as ‘easy’ possession winners, a lesser position than others on the field. But it’s not an area players can waltz into and pick up at will, which is what makes Harry Sheezel’s season so impressive.

It’s a shame Brett Ratten wasn’t asked for his thoughts on the move in his post-match press conference and whether the plan is to stick with it after the bye.

Thomas spent the last quarter in a traditional on-ball role after Miller Bergman was substituted into the game, the latter taking the spot in the defensive rotation.

Given Luke Davies-Uniacke is set to resume after the bye, and with no fresh injuries out of Sunday, the squeeze for midfield spots is going to be intense.


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

Round 13 v GWS: Consistent themes
Round 12 v Essendon: Closer again
Round 11 v Collingwood: Phases of play
Round 10 v Sydney: 76th Interchange
Round 9 v Port Adelaide: Unblocked exits


It’s hard to be certain whether it was influenced by the match situation or a concrete plan, but it was noticeable how Cam Zurhaar spent more time in a slightly higher forward position than previous weeks.

Of Zurhaar’s 14 possessions, eight were inside 50s, an equal career high. Not only that, but half of them turned into North scoring shots for a total of 3.1.

Given Zurhaar leads the team in inside 50s for the year, perhaps it was a slight shift to get more of it happening, especially with how the forwards lined up to start.

It appeared the plan was to have Paul Curtis as a deep forward alongside the two talls, which prompted the Bulldogs to send Liam Jones to take that matchup.

How it would have played out if Jones didn’t get injured we’ll never know, but that forced a Bulldogs reshuffle, which then changed Curtis’ role ever so slightly, and North just couldn’t get that sustained period of forward half territory at any stage throughout the evening.

But in playing Zurhaar just a touch higher and creating scoring entries, it contributed to North’s general effort in looking threatening most times the ball did get forward.

For the match North had 19 scoring shots from 36 inside 50s and most importantly there was consistent movement among forwards. It’s a theme that has carried on for about a month now, ever since the last quarter against Collingwood in Round 11.

There were examples highlighted in the Round 12 Essendon post and overall the scoring efficiency has started to improve.

Over the last four weeks, North has scored from a little more than 47 percent of their inside 50 entries, actually ranking fifth in the league. It’s a large contrast to the first 10 weeks where they were under 40 percent:

2023Scores per inside 50%AFL rank
Round 1-1039.29%17th
Round 11-1447.16%5th

However, the raw inside 50 totals are still a million miles off where they need to be.

36 against the Bulldogs were preceded by just 16 in the second half against GWS and for the season North are 17th in inside 50 differential. Consider the totals in the bottom five and it’s clear they’re a long way away from consistently playing the game they want to play:

2023Inside 50 differentialAFL rank
West Coast-20418th
North Melbourne-13417th
Gold Coast-6315th

But the fact the scoring per inside 50 has increased is a promising sign. Whether it would have been better for increased entries to happen before scoring efficiency probably depends on personal preference. You could argue either side of the equation and have a valid case.

So although the last five weeks can be viewed as frustrating at times, pieces are coming together. From being a historically bad team surrounded by darkness last year, it’s progressed to a regular bad side in 2023 with plenty of light at the end of the tunnel.

All that’s left to figure out is how quickly North can get out of the tunnel and into semi-regular victories.


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.


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