How North Melbourne Can Fix Its Broken List
Second-last on the ladder, in a shortened season, on a five-game losing streak and with 23 players out of contract.
North Melbourne have some serious decisions over the next 12-18 months in what shapes as the club's most crucial revamp in 20 years.
A look at the Roos’ contract situation reveals that in addition to all of this year’s uncertainty, only six players are locked in past 2021.
Not only is this year important enough in a vacuum, but it’s also just as vital for North to make sure it uses future flexibility wisely, not giving out multi-year contracts to the wrong players.
Cutting upwards of half these out of contract players in 2020 is unrealistic.
The more likely option is to break it up in two by taking a significant swing this year alongside a raft of one-year deals- followed by one more cut in 2021 to clear out most of what’s remaining.
In theory, this would leave North with a largely revitalised, balanced list for 2022 and beyond.
All things going to plan, the group of Ben Brown, Jed Anderson, Tristan Xerri, Kyron Hayden, Curtis Taylor, Bailey Scott and Will Walker will receive multi-year deals; the latter perhaps needing a performance trigger considering his injury history.
That leaves 16 players out of contract.
Considering there were a total of seven retirements and delistings at the end of 2019, it'd be a safe assumption to expect around the same total again this year.
A handful of further players are safe bets to receive new, probably one-year contracts – the quartet of Josh Walker, Kayne Turner, Ed Vickers-Willis and Majak Daw at the top of the pile to help fill holes at either end of the ground. One of Jamie Macmillan and Jasper Pittard can also be filled in as a near-certainty to fill the medium defender role.
At this stage it appears Mason Wood, Taylor Garner, Sam Durdin, Lachie Hosie, Joel Crocker and Ben Jacobs are all perilously close to the end of their time at North Melbourne. Jacobs is the heartbreaking one, felled through no fault of his own and with no control over his situation to get back healthy. Hopefully he lands on his feet post-football, and dives into a fulfilling career because it’s the very least he deserves after such hardships.
Already at six players in trouble, there’ll likely be a couple more that are unlucky; Paul Ahern, Tom Murphy, Marley Williams, Matt McGuinness and the remaining one of Macmillan and Pittard are all in a speculative category depending on list needs and availability with draft selections and players from other clubs.
The choice of experienced players to keep on is vital.
Pick the right ones and they continue to produce, shielding the younger Roos and allowing them to ease into AFL level without too much pressure.
Pick the wrong ones, however, and they’re either pummelled at AFL level while youngsters sit on the outside. That, or they’re sent down to the VFL where those same youngsters are forced to take a heavy load far beyond what most can handle.
That type of burden on an individual’s development can break them.
Jack Watts is a famous example, set back an untold amount by Melbourne’s decision to debut him on Queen’s Birthday 2009 against a Collingwood side intent on scarring him. Melbourne’s whole era between roughly 2008 and 2015 serves as a valuable warning for those who want inexperienced players thrown in en masse.
But as tough as it is for the list managers to make these decisions on players’ careers, it might actually be the easiest part of this equation. A look at North’s age demographic reveals a fork in the road.
By breaking it into these three sections, we can see a clear hole in the middle tier of players, the likes of whom should be in their prime and constitute the heartbeat of the side.
Instead, in that 23-27 age range there are only three clear best 22 players going forward – Luke McDonald, Trent Dumont and Jed Anderson.
That leaves two options for North during the off-season:
a) Fix the hole by targeting players in this age range
b) Keep hitting the draft, relying on experience already on the list to maintain production
Based on moves at the end of 2019 it looks as though the latter will be North’s choice.
Still managing to take three second round selections at last year’s National Draft while holding two first round picks for this year indicates youth will be the primary focus.
There appears to be a clarity internally on what the list needs, Scott Clayton telling AFL.com.au earlier this season they’d be targeting a backline boost and a small forward. Whether those specific types would be targeted earlier or later in the draft remains to be seen, but nevertheless, it’s hard to accurately stress just how important every draft selection is, both this year and next.
In particular, if the recruiters can nail the two first round and one second round selection this year, suddenly it brings three more core pieces to add to the likes of Jy Simpkin, Cam Zurhaar and Nick Larkey from 2016- along with plenty of promising signs from Tarryn Thomas, Curtis Taylor and Bailey Scott. At this stage there is a significant unknown around Will Walker and Luke Davies-Uniacke owing to injury, and their ability to consistently contribute at AFL level.
By going down this draft route, the needle is tough to thread for North from now until the end of 2021.
Pick the right, older players to stay on and produce at an AFL standard and simultaneously nail a couple of drafts and ensure the development of the current young crop continues on its positive path.
While that may sound intimidating, the rewards could be immense.
Get it right, add some extra tweaks around the edges, and North will head into 2022 with a handful of veterans capable of producing in their twilight, a strong potential core not far away from their prime, and a significant group of youngsters coming up and able to develop at their own individual pace.
Get it wrong, and the only option is pain. All eyes on Arden Street…
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