This wasn’t supposed to happen, not this North Melbourne team. Now one of the AFL’s most underrated clubs look like a fairytale finals story.
Is there such a thing as a “rebuild” anymore?
Two year’s ago North Melbourne packed it in, waving the white flag and fully embracing hibernation mode for the immediate future. In August of 2016, the Roos announced they would not be renewing Brent Harvey and Nick Dal Santo’s contract for the upcoming season, sending full forward Drew Petrie packing along with them. Collectively North’s fanbase braced themselves for a long rebuilding process, one that would likely take up to five years without even the afterthought of finals.
Fast forward, and here we are. It’s Round 7, and the Kangas have firmed from a reasonable $8.00 all the way into $4.00 to make the Top 8. Don’t look now, but North Melbourne sit fourth on the ladder, tied on points with the likes of Collingwood, Geelong, Hawthorn, and Adelaide, and although a couple of wins have come against, let’s say, “easy” opponents, it appears the Shinboners might just be the real deal.
In case you missed it, the Kangas gave the Hawks a serve last week. Forget a rebuild, North’s young squad made sure it was over by quarter time, belting Hawthorn for seven goals in the opening frame. North went on to take it comfortably in the end, and in a game that everyone thought they had no business winning, the Roos’ third win of the year put everyone on notice.
But what’s behind this underdog story? And why exactly didn’t we see this coming? Perhaps all punters need to know, is it looks like the real deal.
First and foremost, Brad Scott tricked us. This wasn’t really a rebuild after all, more of a refresh and restart if you will.
Lost in the chaos of turning down three major contracts in 2016 (among others), were 1,612 games worth of AFL experience. Naturally, forfeiting that kind of leadership and footy smarts will send a team spiraling down the ladder, evident in North’s 15th place finish last season. If it wasn’t for a final round win over Brisbane, the Roos would have earned the wooden-spoon, but on the positive, the Kangas achieved a victory in their own right by debuting a total of 11 rookie players.
As you can see, in the span of just two seasons, North’s list has transformed from the second oldest to the second youngest. They currently have 31 players under the age of 25, with the majority of their draft investments coming in the form of defenders. What’s been more impressive, though, is the free agent names North have acquired, in particular, former Hawthorn winger, Billy Hartung. The 23-year old was delisted from the Hawks at the end of last season, but he’s come good since his move to North, averaging 21 disposals a game.
Players like Hartung have quickly transformed a defence that allowed the most points from the forward 50 last year into a unit that ranks Top 5 in contested marks this season. Alongside Hartung, Robbie Tarrant and Scott Thompson are two of the more underrated defenders in the competition, but don’t let their age fool you, their strong ball-winning skills and intercept capability have helped form the backbone that is North’s stingy defence. Then, of course, there’s the long-awaited return of Ben Jacobs following a two-year hiatus. The midfielder is the role-playing possession winner North need, and his 7.8 average tackles per-game aren’t half bad, either.
What Brad Scott has also done well this season is taking key opposition players and erasing them from the contest. It’s the Bill Belichick New England Patriots strategy – tag their best man and worry about the rest. Last week Brownlow Medal favourite Tom Mitchell was held to just 19 disposals, proving just how draining this defence can be. With all that said, though, there’s no denying North’s true strength: the forward line. Oh and just in case you haven’t heard, it features the AFL’s leading goal-scorer.
Through six rounds, Ben Brown has kicked 19 goals. He’s a rare breed, able not only to slot goals, but also chase the midfield ball-carrier long enough until he’s wide open for the mark. Case and point from last week:
That's a beauty from Ben Brown!
— AFL (@AFL) April 22, 2018
In terms of accuracy, Brown is one of the best in the comp. His pre-kick routine is like clockwork, and his ability to use his body to edge off a defender, just like he did during Sunday’s game against the Hawks, makes him one of the most versatile forwards going. He also outscored Carlton by himself two week’s ago in Tasmania… how many other forwards can say that?
North’s success isn’t all thanks to Brown, however. The 27-year old Jack Ziebell almost looks reborn again, acting as a potent third forward that fits in nicely with fellow comrade, Jarrad Waite. The two combined are a nightmare to defend, and although Ziebell normally acts primarily as a midfielder, his eight goals so far this year mean he’ll be spending plenty more time up forward.
One last thing, Majak Daw. He’s been the scapegoat for North’s shortcomings for so long, but he too looks new and improved. He played well on Jarryd Roughead last week, and all of a sudden looks like a 100 game player. The beauty of all this is with newfound confidence, Scott can throw Daw up forward when need be and also have him hang back and lend a hand in the ruck – and given his 195cm frame, that kind of height advantage and athleticism goes a long way.
Cakewalk Kangas? Not So Fast
For a long time North’s strategy was to attack first and defend last. For year’s the Roos would storm down the field following booming kicks from their defensive fifty, only to be burned on the counter attack by stronger teams. This year things have changed, and for once, North Melbourne have the defensive pieces in place to play a more unsocial brand of footy. Wins against the lowly Saints and Blues may not mean much, but pumping a serious flag contender like Hawthorn last week is impressive. The real test now comes with games against Port, Sydney, Richmond and GWS over the next month, but since nothing is a guarantee this year, there’s no reason why North can’t sneak into the eight at a tidy $4.00.