After five years of steady building on and off the field, North Melbourne and Richmond should have an ultimatum delivered to them – it’s a finals victory or failure.
Both clubs have embarked on a long and tiresome journey, and now eventually stand on the precipice of evolution if they’re bold enough to grasp it.
In a simple contrast of the way both sides have changed their on-field styles in the last five years, it’s stark enough to herald the time is now to put up or shut up.
The North Melbourne side of 2009 played a pragmatic brand of football, utilising an aging squad to play a dour defensive stop-start style, which saw the lack of x-factor being the difference between winning and losing on numerous occasions.
Richmond of five years ago often put in valiant efforts, but after years of list management failures, it saw a team regularly dismantled in the heat of battle and a sloppy midfield belted in the era of contested footy.
Heading into 2014, for all the negatives and pitfalls that could be said of Richmond and North Melbourne’s game styles, ‘soft’ and ‘boring’ respectively are far from the terms used to now describe them.
Richmond now sit as the third cleanest side by ball use, with a 2013 disposal efficiency of 73.2%, and are within the top five for bounces per game and top three for marks inside 50. Whilst the midfield has been tuned up with home grown stars and acquisitions from elsewhere, their style avoids unnecessary contested play and seeks efficiency as an alternative to the grinding pragmatism of Ross Lyon’s Fremantle or Sydney’s ferocious pressure.
North Melbourne’s evolution from ‘Laidleyball’ – short, sharp and careful passing out of defence – to rampant kamikaze offence, finishing fourth for points scored in 2012 and third for points scored in 2013, is a double-edged sword. North can now match it for long bouts with the best with two losses to the Hawks under two goals and a victory and close loss against the Cats, but their ability to concentrate and employ successful defensive tactics remains to be seen.
Richmond now possess star talents such as Cotchin, Martin, Deledio, Riewoldt, Rance and a fully fit Maric, whereas young and impressive contributors such as Ellis, Conca and Vlastuin are all capable of the feats of the aforementioned.
North Melbourne with off-season acquisitions and natural development has seen one the largest list experience jumps in the league, climbing from 14th to third in the games played average and 14th to fourth in the average list age list. A distinct anomaly also shows that only five players have played more than 150 games.
Damien Hardwick and Brad Scott now face the biggest challenge of their short coaching careers, becoming tactically astute enough to take these lists to a successful finals campaign. Both sides have been given enviable fixtures and must capitalise, as there are no more excuses for failure.
Scott’s inability to reign in opposition momentum swings and Hardwick’s failure at times to shake complacency out of the playing group – a ten goal loss to North and two losses to Carlton were avoidable – will be the two biggest factors in whether North or Richmond sink or float in 2014.
The reality is for now that until either of these sides deliver, the promises of optimism and hope in the pre-season press are not worth the newspapers they are printed on.