A win. It had been a long time. 154 days to be exact, if Google’s count is to be believed anyway.
Some parts of the game can be transferred to 2024. Bailey Scott finished a career-best year strongly, Harry Sheezel consolidated his Rising Star case, Tarryn Thomas was strong inside with and without the ball and looked invested, and Eddie Ford was an aerial threat to put himself in a strong position for a Rising Star nomination of his own.
Other parts of the game are a little more questionable. I can’t imagine Nick Larkey will kick nine goals every game next year – although it’d be useful if he did – Aidan Corr probably isn’t going to average one a game from outside 50, and opposing midfields aren’t going to be as checked out as Gold Coast’s looked for most of the afternoon.
I can understand the view of those who wanted a loss on Saturday. But at this point in time after the last few years, my view is that any chance for a win is one that has to be taken.
The rest of today’s piece will serve as a look at where North are placed heading into a crucial off-season. It’ll start with list demographics, continue with minutes played by age, move onto individual contracts and finishing with a depth chart.
No doubt this will look horrifically outdated in a few days’ time after the first wave of delistings, but in the meantime I’d like to highlight the right-hand columns on the demographic.
Given Todd Goldstein’s future is still undecided – although surely he’s in line for another year – and Liam Shiels is still to decide his, there’s a chance North enter 2024 with only one player over 150 AFL games: Luke McDonald.
Not only that, but North could also have just three players in their age 29 year or above pending free agency and trade pickups: McDonald, Corr, and Hugh Greenwood.
The trade period will tell us plenty about how the club views those currently in the 23-25 bracket and whether they’re ready to lead the club. If there’s confidence in the group, any older players brought in will be strictly about need, i.e. a key defender. More on that later.
But if there’s not a heap of confidence it wouldn’t surprise to see multiple older bodies brought in to shepherd the younger crew through. Given there are still 13 Kangaroos out of contract at time of writing, much is still to play out:
Kallan Dawson’s time in the VFL clearly served him well as he didn’t look out of place on Saturday. Regardless of Ben McKay’s future, there should be a place for Dawson on the list – especially with Griffin Logue out for the majority of 2024.
Given it took a McDonald injury for Dawson to get a game, the only logical conclusion to take is he’s viewed as a mid-size/tweener type. But that – in my opinion, anyway – sells him short. While he’s never going to play on the biggest key forward, there’s no reason why he can’t be on the second tall in certain matchups and the third in others.
It’s not to say Dawson is a guaranteed AFL player, more so that he may have been pigeonholed slightly.
Elsewhere, after the bye I touched on personal expectations for out of contract players. For the players I haven’t mentioned yet in today’s piece, much of the words from eight weeks ago still holds now.
A couple players had a chance at AFL level and didn’t light the world on fire, while Aiden Bonar’s body continues to give him grief. It wouldn’t surprise if there’s a first wave of delistings, followed by a nervous waiting period for several Roos.
It’s not exactly the neatest graphic in the world, but the names above each year signify who’s played minutes in each age group.
With the exception of Goldstein, North are now in a position where there’s not a heavy reliance on anyone in the back half of their career.
Compare it to the situation two years ago and there’s a marked difference:
From a pure age point of view, the list is much more sustainable over the medium to long term. With that in place, it’s now at the point where focus shifts towards the next phase of a build.
To do that – figuring out which players are your go-to – it’s time to head to the depth chart.
The end of season reshuffle has thrown a few players around, so the above has a healthy dose of opinion and assumption. For example, surely Scott spending time at half-back is temporary and he’ll be back on the wing to start 2024, and I’m also believing Greenwood’s time as a pseudo tall forward is personnel driven rather than permanent.
After the Hawthorn game, I listed the following 11 players as definite parts of a future core, pretending contracts and availability issues don’t exist. In no particular order: LDU, McDonald, Simpkin, Logue, McKay, Larkey, Zurhaar, Scott, Sheezel, Stephenson, and Wardlaw.
Unfortunately we can’t pretend contracts don’t exist. It makes the immediate issue what the key defensive stocks will look like if, as predicted, McKay departs. Without Logue for most of next year as he recovers from an ACL tear, without any restocking it leaves Corr as the number one man, and only Dawson alongside him.
Not to disrespect either man, but it can’t stay that way and I’d expect some shopping in the key defender aisles as a matter of priority.
While there’ll undoubtedly be a draft pick or two used in the position, there’ll surely be a look at some experienced cover. Depending on their individual situations, someone like an Adam Tomlinson – looking for game time, clearly viewed as depth at Melbourne when there’s a fit 22 – would be more than useful as a short-term hit.
While there’s been no word that I know of on GWS’ salary cap situation, it’d also be worth an enquiry on Nick Haynes. A standard setter who also has plenty of good football left, it could be a win-win situation – if the Giants need to clear cash for their next big moves.
For the moment I’ve listed Tarryn Thomas as the third best on-baller. However, if he can have a full pre-season and continue improving off the field, the sky is the limit. He can absolutely be the 1b to Davies-Uniacke’s 1a, not necessarily playing exclusively as a midfielder but causing maximum damage on ball or down forward.
At the top of the piece I mentioned how Thomas impressed with and without the ball against Gold Coast, and it’s important to highlight that improvement without the ball.
After the Geelong game in Round 17, I highlighted how Thomas was moved out of the midfield at half time after a poor defensive performance.
Since then Thomas has improved every week in the area and it culminated on Saturday when he was arguably the most balanced midfielder on the ground. Nine tackles were an equal game-high, but there was also 15 contested possessions and 10 clearances. To cap it off Thomas had 10 score involvements.
It’s the midfield that North should enter 2024 feeling bullish about. The key forward situation will take longer to rectify, while the key defenders are slightly easier to find short term fixes while developing others away from the spotlight.
Either way, over the next couple months there’ll be regular updates as moves reveal themselves.