Story of the Summer

Recruitment was once again the name of the game for North Melbourne in the off-season. Following a preliminary final humiliation to the tune of 71 points at the hands of Lance Franklin and the Sydney Swans, North – blessed by salary cap space – made it their mission to add depth.

The Kangaroos got to work quickly, convincing free agents Shaun Higgins (Western Bulldogs) and Jarrad Waite (Carlton) to make the switch to Arden Street and nearly making a deal for 2008 Brownlow Medalist Adam Cooney. While neither are expected to have the same impact on the side that Nick Dal Santo did after making the switch from St Kilda to North Melbourne last season both will prove to be valuable additions.

Shaun Higgins in particular looks to be on the brink of a breakout season of sorts. The 27-year-old looks to be over the recurring injuries which hounded his first eight seasons in the league, playing an equal career high 20 AFL games last season. Playing off both the half-back and half-forward line Higgins averaged a touch over 20 disposals per game at 74% efficiency last season.

Where Higgins will benefit with North Melbourne is that with greater squad depth than the Bulldogs possessed, he will be afforded the luxury of having a week off if he is anything other than 100% fit. In addition to additional opportunities for rest Higgins will also face less scrutiny from opposition lockdown players with Dal Santo being the prime candidate for a hard tag off the half-back line.

It was not all good news for North in the free agency and trade period, however, with in and under midfielder Levi Greenwood requesting a trade to Collingwood after the Pies put a larger contract offer in front of him than the one offered by North and subsequently being traded to the Pies for pick 25 in the national draft.

Greenwood will be sorely missed in North’s midfield after a career-best season in which he picked up 25 disposals per game, including 10.4 contested possessions, four clearances and four inside 50s, ultimately coming in equal second in North’s best and fairest.

Cameron Delaney also found himself on his way out of Arden Street as the Kangaroos’ plan to put him on the rookie list via December’s rookie draft backfired when Geelong nabbed the key defender one pick before North were set to pick him up.

Draftwise, North continued its mission of adding key position depth by picking up utility Sam Durdin, key defender Daniel Nielson and midfielder Ed Vickers-Willis with picks 16, 25 and 36 in the national draft respectively.

Liam Anthony, Tom Curran, Taylor Hine, Tim McGenniss, Mitch Wilkins, Max Warren and Robin Nahas were all delisted by the club at the conclusion of the 2014 season, although Warren and Nahas were placed back on the rookie list.

Where They Excel

Unquestionably the biggest question hanging to be asked of North Melbourne going into the 2014 season was over the team’s mental toughness following a 2013 campaign where the club had a record of zero wins and six losses in games decided by 10 points or less. It was answered resoundingly with North winning three of four such games in 2014; a turnaround which can no doubt be attributed to senior assistant coach Leigh Tudor implementing a more defensively sound system.

North also displayed its new-found resilience in two season-defining comebacks; first from 35 points down at halftime against Richmond in round 12 to win by 28 points then, most importantly, from as much as 33 points down in the third quarter to defeat rivals Essendon by 12 points in an elimination final.

Perhaps the greatest example of North Melbourne having buried the demons of 2013 came the week after the Essendon triumph in the semi final against Geelong. North Melbourne endured one last push from Geelong as – led by Tom Hawkins – the Cats scored cut their deficit from 32 points at the 14 minute mark of the fourth quarter to six points at the 26 minute mark. For five minutes North held out defensively and didn’t concede a single point, booking the club’s first preliminary final berth since 2007.

The recruitment of the defensive-minded Tudor at the end of 2013 paid immediate dividends last season, with North leaving Brad Scott’s run and gun game plan of 2013 behind to implement a more defensively sound system by committing more numbers behind the ball and rejigging defensive structures.

Tudor’s changes ultimately led to North conceding nine fewer points per game in the home and away season – from 87 per game (eighth best in the AFL) in 2013 to 78 per game last season (5th), with fellow top eight sides Sydney, Fremantle, Port Adelaide and Essendon the only sides to fare better defensively.

North continues to be one of the elite disposal sides in the competition going at 74% disposal efficiency (compared to 74.1% in 2013) good enough for third in the AFL last season behind only Essendon (74.2%) and premiers Hawthorn (74.3%).

Another marked improvement in North Melbourne’s game in 2014 was in uncontested possessions – an element of the game which is becoming increasingly important as demonstrated by all four of last year’s preliminary finalists ranking in the top six in the competition for uncontested possessions per game in 2014 and premiers Hawthorn ranking first.

North climbed from eighth for uncontested possessions per game in 2013 (221.2) to third in 2014 (230.2), signalling the players’ athletic capacity to outrun opponents and find space.

Rather than just in results in close games North’s newfound mental determination was also displayed through a drastic increase in one percenters – a stat which it is no coincidence the two Grand Finalists in Sydney and Hawthorn from last season ranked second and third in for 2014 – with an increase from 38.3 per game in 2013 (18th in the AFL) to 48.6 per game last season (10th).

New defensive structures and a more defensive game plan contributed greatly to North also eradicating its interstate demons last year.

In games played outside of Victoria and Tasmania in 2014 North recorded four wins and three losses, a huge improvement on 2013’s record outside of Victoria and Tasmania of zero wins and five losses. The losses came to Brisbane and Sydney in the preliminary final while the wins included defeating both West Coast and Fremantle at Patersons Stadium (where they hadn’t won since 2010) and beating Sydney at the SCG (where they hadn’t won since 2004).

Where They Struggle

In 2014 North ranked 11th in the AFL for contested possessions with 135.4 – almost 12 per game fewer than league leaders Sydney. A solution is not forthcoming especially with greater dependence now on Ben Cunnington, Andrew Swallow and Jack Ziebell at the coalface following the departure of Levi Greenwood, who ranked third at the club in contested possessions per game last season.

The Kangaroos also fell from fourth in goal assists per game in 2013 (9.9) to 10th last season (8.5) and from sixth for marks inside 50 per game in 2013 (12.6) to 11th in 2014 (10.6). While disposal efficiency percentage remained consistent between both seasons the 2014 number was inflated by an increase in sideways and backwards kicks due to the increase in numbers behind the ball and quality of entry going forward dropped.

Another considerable drop came in the clearance numbers. The Kangaroos fell from 39.2 clearances per game in 2013 (fifth in the AFL) to 38 clearances per game last season (12th), another problem which could be exacerbated by the defection of Greenwood (third for clearances per game at North Melbourne last season).

By contrast, Hawthorn, the side which all prospective premiership hopefuls must now be measured against, ranked sixth in contested possessions, first in goal assists, third in marks inside 50 and first in clearances per game in 2014.

The Year Ahead

Where North Melbourne stands in 2015 will be known very early on in the season as the Kangaroos face 10 teams with a realistic chance of making the eight in the first 11 rounds including trips interstate to face Adelaide and Fremantle and a visit to Simonds Stadium to play Geelong.

Regardless of a tough start, North Melbourne proved beyond doubt in last season’s Finals that they are capable of being a top four side in the competition and the experience gained from last season’s Finals campaign will be a great help in the club taking the next step this season.

The club totaling fewer than last season’s 14 wins would be a disappointment considering North now possesses greater depth to cover for injuries and the youngsters at the club have more experience under their belt.

If all goes right and the upswing in the team’s defensive prowess continues then it wouldn’t be a surprise to see North Melbourne finish the season in the top four and become a serious premiership threat.

Ladder range: 3-8

Best 22

B: Scott Thompson, Lachie Hansen, Michael Firrito

HB: Shaun Atley, Nathan Grima, Jamie Macmillan

C: Daniel Wells, Jack Ziebell, Nick Dal Santo

HF: Shaun Higgins, Jarrad Waite, Brent Harvey

F: Kayne Turner, Drew Petrie, Lindsay Thomas

Foll: Todd Goldstein, Andrew Swallow, Ben Cunnington

Int: Sam Gibson, Ben Brown, Aaron Black

Sub: Ryan Bastinac