2016 season preview: North Melbourne

Last campaign

When North Melbourne clinched eighth spot with a round to spare in 2015, only ardent fans would’ve thought they’d be a serious chance to win a preliminary final a month later.

Yet the Kangaroos matched their 2014 feat of making the last four from outside the sanctity of the top four thanks to a rousing come-from-behind win over Richmond at a packed MCG, and a grinding victory over a battered and bruised Sydney at ANZ Stadium.

While they couldn’t overcome the Eagles at Subiaco, their gritty effort earned the club more legitimacy than their thumping loss to the Swans at the same stage a year earlier. The next step for the Roos is to produce the form they found in the final third of 2015 for a whole year – and give themselves a rails run to the pointy end of the season.

On an individual level, the undisputed star of 2015 was ruckman Todd Goldstein. The more responsibility Goldstein has, the more he thrives. He played every game bar the Round 23 loss to Richmond (he and his experienced teammates were rested in preparation for finals), recorded an extraordinary 1058 hitouts (averaging more than 44 per game) along with four tackles and more than three clearances per game.

Goldstein’s athleticism and endurance means he effectively becomes an extra midfielder when not at the contest, and nearly doubled his contested mark tally from the previous year. His rewards were an All-Australian guernsey and 18 Brownlow votes – it really deserved to be more.

Comings and goings

With a settled and mature squad, North Melbourne made minimal changes entering the 2016 season. Their one notable acquisition was to seek some leg speed and take a punt on Hawthorn’s Jed Anderson. The Northern Territorian has only played 10 games and has had his injury issues, but he was highly rated by Hawthorn’s inner sanctum. However, a late first round pick for a fringe player was too much for the Hawks to refuse, and was a necessary investment by a club looking to address one of its final deficiencies.

Heading out the exit door was back-up ruck Daniel Currie to Gold Coast and midfielder Ryan Bastinac to Brisbane, for a pick that became 21 in the national draft. With that selection, the Roos picked Ben McKay, a long term key position player who may be groomed as a successor to Drew Petrie.

Given the experience on the list, it’s difficult to see too many opportunities in 2016 for McKay and other North draftees Ryan Clarke, Mitchell Hibberd, Corey Wagner (nicked from the Brisbane Lions academy with a pick the Lions were unable to match) and Declan Mountford.

It wouldn’t be a huge surprise if the Roos played Farren Ray in 2016 though; the former Dog and Saint was taken in the rookie draft and gives coach Brad Scott an experienced body to go to in case of emergency.

Strengths

Maturity and experience abound in this 2016 North Melbourne team. With three finals in each of the last two seasons, these players know all about finals pressure – and have thrived in it. The Kangaroos’ forward triumvirate of Drew Petrie, Jarrad Waite and Ben Brown have all shone at one time or another in September due to their excellent contested marking ability, and the team ranked third for contested marking in 2015 thanks to them.

North Melbourne’s ‘run and carry’ is often underestimated too; they ranked third for running bounces last year. Leading the charge is the league’s oldest player, Brent Harvey. Set to break Michael Tuck’s VFL/AFL games record late in 2016 (barring injury or lengthy suspension), Harvey is still vital to North’s prospects – he had the third most bounces in 2015 and kicked a goal a game.

They can also shut down opposition guns: former Port Adelaide midfielder Ben Jacobs blossomed in 2015 as a tagger, and by the end of the season had earned the crown of the AFL’s premier shutdown player. Tom Rockliff, Trent Cotchin and Dan Hannebery were all valuable scalps for Jacobs last year, and Sam Gibson is also capable of an effective negating role.

A review of the team statistics for last season confirms there is nothing they really do poorly. North Melbourne is middle of the pack for clearances, are generally efficient with the ball and have a good conversion rate of goals to inside 50 entries: so why can’t this club step up and finish in the top four after the home and away season?

Weaknesses

Put simply, North Melbourne’s problem is consistency – not necessarily from week to week (although they’re still capable of the odd frustrating loss: see Gold Coast in 2015), but moreso within games. North traditionally  started matches slowly, and were ranked 13th in second quarters – known affectionately online as the ‘Norf’ quarter (by comparison, North were fifth best in third terms and fourth best in the last quarter).

Recent history suggests – in fact, demands – that a top four finish is necessary to be a premiership contender, and that means greater consistency. Frankly, that is baffling for a list that has the highest average of games played and is the second oldest behind Fremantle.

What to expect in 2016

North Melbourne’s fixture gives them the best chance possible to lay a strong base and put themselves in the top four mix: Brisbane, Melbourne, Gold Coast, St Kilda, Essendon and Carlton all loom as very beatable in the first nine weeks, before the fixture toughens up considerably.

North’s injury list is all but clear going into the season, with Daniel Wells set to feature after missing nearly all of 2015. Even in the veteran stage of his career, he is capable of injecting pace into a midfield accused of being on the slow side. A healthy Wells and a breakthrough year from Jed Anderson would be a massive step towards the top four finish the club so desperately seeks.

Best 22

B: Lachlan Hansen – Robbie Tarrant – Michael Firrito
HB: Sam Wright – Scott Thompson – Jamie Macmillan
C: Nick Dal Santo – Andrew Swallow – Shaun Atley
HF: Shaun Higgins – Ben Brown – Brent Harvey
F: Taylor Garner – Drew Petrie – Jarrad Waite
FOLL: Todd Goldstein – Jack Ziebell – Ben Cunnington
INT: Daniel Wells – Ben Jacobs – Luke McDonald – Jed Anderson

The verdict

A brave preliminary final defeat won’t be enough to please North Melbourne fans – this must be the year the Kangaroos prove their premiership credentials. Their window will likely be a brief one with Brent Harvey, Nick Dal Santo, Drew Petrie, Jarrad Waite and Daniel Wells all over 30, and with a soft fixture to start the year they should vault towards the top of the ladder early on. Only after that will we find out once and for all if North Melbourne truly is a contender.

We have the Kangaroos contending for a spot in top four, finishing in sixth.