Round 19, 2023 v St Kilda: Let’s talk about Will Phillips

“Will Phillips, today was a perfect example. We spoke to Will about, ‘if you get 27 possessions at AFL level and you only get a couple of tackles, well … we’re looking at it saying, ‘that’s good you’ve got 27…’

“Or if you get 17 possessions and still only have two tackles, that’s not helping us a lot. Well today he had 20 possessions and 11 (tackles). So if you’re not getting a heap of the ball what are you doing on the other side?

“That was a part of his game that he was lacking. To see that today, you walk away and go, ‘that’s balanced’. When you have your good day out when you win it a bit, you might have a few less tackles. But if you’re not getting a heap of the ball, what are you doing to help us?

“And today you walk away and say, now he’s starting to get the balance of AFL. You’re not going to win the ball all the time, but you can do something else.”


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Those were the words of Brett Ratten post-match talking about Will Phillips’ performance.

Phillips, returning to the team after a fortnight in the VFL, had 20 disposals. But more importantly for the sake of this discussion, he had 11 tackles – nearly double his previous career high of six.

I’ve been tossing this topic around in my head for most of the season, debating the right time to dive into Phillips’ progress. I think now is that time, because there is such nuance and so many moving parts that it can be tricky to assess his trajectory accurately.

Sunday was Phillips’ 28th game out of a possible 62 since his selection at pick three in the 2020 National Draft.

In normal circumstances, a midfielder at pick three enters a club almost ready to impact straight away.

In this circumstance, Phillips – and many of his fellow draftees – spent most of their draft year tucked away in their rooms as it was ravaged by Covid.

A crucial development year for all concerned, nearly completely wasted.

Then Phillips entered the club naturally well down the midfield pecking order, looking up at the likes of Jy Simpkin, Luke Davies-Uniacke, Ben Cunnington, Jed Anderson (when fit) and Tarryn Thomas.

Not only that, but there was a new coach to deal with as David Noble and his team went about imprinting their MO on the club.

Phillips’ lack of size compared to seasoned AFL bodies meant his first year was going to be a slow burn, but almost instantly it became clear to impact at the level he would have to be a pure inside midfielder.

Whether Phillips could impact in that role was still up for debate, along with how that looked in a shifting AFL landscape, but it was clearly the path forward.

Because his 16 games in 2021 – two of which were unused and another two either substituted on or off – could best be described as middling.

Playing on the outside wasn’t Phillips’ strength, and as a pseudo small forward he didn’t have the pace to be threatening in space.

But even allowing for all that, at least after year one there was a clear sense of where to maximise Phillips and what to avoid. It didn’t make for the traditional scale of progress, but it did allow a clear plan of attack for year two.

Then 2022 happened.


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

Round 18 v Hawthorn: Different paths, part two
Round 17 v Geelong: A midfield step back
Round 16 v Adelaide: Different paths
Round 14 v Western Bulldogs: Half backs and higher forwards
Round 13 v GWS: Consistent themes


One bout of glandular fever is hard enough to recover from.

Two bouts of glandular fever in quick succession are brutal.

Phillips’ 2022 consisted of Covid – glandular fever 1 – temporary recovery – three VFL games – glandular fever 2 – season over.

While some would say not having to play an AFL game during last year’s annus horribilis was a blessing in disguise (in this case, some = me), it was still a crucial development year completely thrown out the window. Again.

It’d be fair to say not only was the year wasted due to illness, but glandular fever also wiped away many of the gains he made in 2021.

If anything, it left Phillips right back where he was on draft night. The only benefit this time was knowing where he’d be best suited at AFL level.

Yet even through the illness and setbacks, before poor health and then after it in recovery, everyone who has dealt with Phillips comes away singing from the same hymn book.

High character. Driven. Mature. Professional. All-around good human.

Those traits all combine to paint the picture of someone who will get the absolute best out of themselves as long as they stay healthy.

For Phillips, getting healthy meant starting from the bottom again.


All the list demographics, contracts, and depth chart pages are freshly updated and ready 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.


I was genuinely stunned when Phillips had recovered enough to play in North’s pre-season matches this year, assuming he’d be a slower burn given he was so far back at the end of 2022.

Right from the outset in 2023, it was clear he’d been earmarked for the role he’s best at – a pure inside midfielder.

It was equally clear how far Phillips still had to go, made to look second (or even third or fourth) best by freewheeling Bulldogs midfielders at IKON Park (if that is still the ground’s name today).

Through a stop-start first couple months of the season, there were flashes of promise mixed with understandable rustiness and adjustment periods.

Playing as a first possession/extractor type is tough at any time, let alone when still finding your way at AFL level. Eventually substituted out of the Round 6 game against Gold Coast, Phillips was sent back to the VFL for a fortnight to work on his game.

On return, after an acclimatisation game against Sydney, Phillips responded with his best two games to date. 29 disposals, 5 clearances and 5 tackles against Collingwood was followed by 27 disposals, 8 clearances and 6 tackles against Essendon.

Those games showed the ideal of Phillips in 12/18/24 months’ time. Toggling between ball winner and dirty work (with the exception of the first quarter against the Bombers, a poor one for all as illustrated at the time), it was as part of a functioning midfield unit and made his teammates better.

The key to those games was Phillips’ work without the ball. In the next three games that dropped away. Six tackles against Essendon were followed by six tackles combined against GWS, Western Bulldogs, and Adelaide.

At this point of Phillips’ career – or arguably ever – he isn’t good enough to get by without that in his game. As a relatively one-paced accumulator who can’t break lines with disposal, one of two parts in his game has to be top-notch to impact at AFL level:

a) The accumulating
b) Work without the ball

The second part dropped off for Phillips, so he was rightfully sent back to VFL level to work on it.

Now here’s the silver lining to the omission. Phillips’ clear role and continued availability – things that hadn’t been the case in 2021 and 2022 – meant there was no confusion in what he had to do to earn a recall.

In last week’s piece, when I mentioned North had a bunch of ‘scattered little wins’ in 2023, this is one of them. A functioning VFL system for individuals to improve undoubtedly helped in this case because after another fortnight at the level, Phillips returned for Sunday against St Kilda with a clear directive.

Across Phillips’ first 27 games, his highest tackle count in a game was six. Against the Saints he had 11 – 10 of which came in the first three quarters.

Even allowing for the Saints’ ball movement patterns not being the most threatening of all time (understatement), Phillips’ pressure around contests clearly restricted them even further until he ran out of legs.

It shouldn’t be seen as a coincidence that while Phillips did the dirty work, Davies-Uniacke excelled. He had a genuinely elite game:

– 33 disposals (equal game high)
– 23 contested possessions (next highest 17)
– 12 clearances (next highest 7)
– 9 inside 50s (next highest 6)
– 668 metres gained (game high)
– 3 Brownlow votes (surely)

It also shouldn’t be seen as a slight when I say that type of game from LDU is not what Phillips can do.

While Phillips’ disposal isn’t going to break lines, he can easily reach the point of being neat and tidy by hand and foot. That part of his game is usually serviceable but was off on Sunday.

Add that to his work off the ball – which should be viewed as the baseline from 2024 onwards, even if the stats don’t show 11 tackles per week – and the picture emerges of how Phillips can make his biggest impact at AFL level:

– Purely an inside midfielder
– First possession/extraction
– A net positive defensively
– Neat disposal

Because around him if you have the likes of LDU and George Wardlaw, the midfield is filled with explosive, powerful, two-way runners and that allows you to have one of Phillips’ type. But if players alongside Phillips are also one-dimensional in their own way, that could lead to problems.

And that means you’re left with a checklist:

– Will Phillips meet the traditional level of what’s generally expected from a top three pick: a dynamic match-winner? No.

– Is that counterbalanced somewhat by the picks immediately after Phillips either having injury setbacks (Hollands, Cox, Reid), charitably described as a slow burn (Grainger-Barras), or nice players so far without setting the world on fire (McDonald, Campbell, Perkins)? I think so.

– Do you know Phillips will do everything possible to reach his ceiling as long as he stays healthy? Absolutely.

– Can Phillips be an impactful player when played in his relatively narrow role? 100 percent.

– Does that relatively narrow role potentially limit a collective midfield’s ceiling? (bolded for emphasis) The million-dollar question, of which there is currently no answer and will arguably define Phillips’ career long-term.

Because of those moving parts, it’s easy for bad faith actors to twist it into their own narrative.

At some point, the status of a draft number becomes irrelevant, and you work with what you’ve got. For North Melbourne, the best-case scenario of that with Phillips means a pure inside midfielder who does the dirty, unsung work and makes those around him better.

It’s just a matter of waiting to find out how impactful that best-case scenario can be.

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