North Melbourne learned a crucial lesson the hard way in 2020: you can’t half-ass a rebuild. Although Essendon’s streak of no finals wins was there for all to see (and more recently the repercussions of Sydney’s and Hawthorn’s reluctance to bottom out hit home in 2020), they still tried to cut the corner when Brad Scott failed to punch through North’s Preliminary Final glass ceiling in the mid 20-teens. Firstly, Higgins and Goldstein were kept in the initial veteran exodus, despite interest from opposition clubs meaning North could have gotten something back. Then they tried to poach young talent – at the cost of high draft picks – but somehow ended up with B graders every time. Mediocrity ensued.
Well, they’re not half-assing it anymore.
While North will swear on the bible until they’re blue in the face that it isn’t a rebuild – they might use terms like “refresh” or “fresh start” or “change of direction” – transitioning your list from the 6th oldest to the 16th in the space of a single off-season is one hell of a pivot.
This has been driven by the new coach in David Noble, a highly respected AFL figure who has paid his dues in all pillars of the industry – playing, coaching and administrating. His vision has been realised by another industry heavyweight Glenn Luff, formerly of Champion Data and the club’s List Manager since late 2019. Together they’ve made a serious statement by gutting the top half of their list with a massive 12 delistings, while also facilitating the farewells of stalwarts Shaun Higgins and Ben Brown.
While we’re yet to see exactly what Noble’s brand will look like, the pre-season soundbites from the incoming coach sounds awfully lot like a move away from the celebrated Shinboner spirit. North have been hard to watch for years and 2020 was apparently the straw that broke the Kangaroo’s back – scrappy footy interspersed with rare passages of connected play (they racked up the 2nd-least marks and the 4th-lowest kick-to-handball ratio of all clubs) was hardly salvaged by the unquestionably courageous mentality adopted by their players as a North rite of passage. Winning a heap of free kicks (most in the league) and enjoying a tackle doesn’t win games, and it certainly doesn’t sell memberships. Thankfully, Noble’s spoken of bringing with him an attack-focused mentality; quick and slick footy with a focus on scoring looks to be the long-term goal.
But Rome wasn’t built in a day, and this is where the fantasy fallout lies. A new coach and his refreshing ideas is often a catalyst for a good start as the team bands together, but make no mistake – it doesn’t last forever, and there will be days when it’s bad from the Roos. I’m talking unwatchably bad, opponents-dancing-on-their-graves bad. You don’t carve out the core age bracket in your list without expecting some kind of adjustment process, because as impressive a bloke Noble is, he’s not a magician. He certainly can’t turn 20 year-olds into 26 year-olds, anyway. So growing pains with be the theme the theme of 2021 – but this time, everyone’s on the same page.
It is a rebuild, after all.
Brown, Higgins [trades, free agency]
Macmillan, Ahern, Daw, Pittard, Williams, Jacobs, Wood, Murphy, Crocker, Durdin, Hosie, Vickers-Willis [delisted]
Stephenson (COLL), Corr (GWS), La. Young (WBD), Bosenvulagi (COLL).
There’s “cleaning house”, and then there’s an end-of-lease clean. I’m talking the thorough, murder-clean-up-by-shady-Russian-professionals kind of deep clean. 12 delistings (which included pricey recruits in Ahern and Pittard) is akin to cutting the rotting flesh from a festering wound to let the healing process begin afresh.
To continue the metaphor – if reloading at the draft with 7 selections was the white blood cells rushing in to do their slow but crucial job, then North’s trade and free agency recruits were the antibiotics and painkillers that’ll a) speed up the process and b) hopefully make it bearable in the short term.
Stephenson’s potential was largely untapped by Collingwood since his Rising Star win, so to get him for cheap is a huge coup for a club that has perennially struggled to bring top-end talent in through the door from other clubs. Coming in a package with fellow Pie Bosenvulagi, Noble and Luff get the heavy dose of the speed they were prescribed. Corr strengthens the defense and will be groomed to take over for Tarrant eventually. Lachie Young is a free hit – the Pick 63 they sent to the Lions in a three-way deal was never even used – but he obviously has something that the Roos like with their lengthy courting of the fringe Bulldog.
#3 Will Phillips – M – 77 avg from 10 games in 2019 NAB League
The Roos pulled the carpet from under the entire draft’s legs with their unexpected selection of Will Phillips over the assumed Elijah Hollands, with the ripples of that one selection felt by the league for most of the first round. He was seen by recruiters as a very safe selection as a polished and diligent midfielder, almost certain to become a life member at whichever club called his name. His ability to play both inside and outside will aid his development early as senior players like Cunnington and Anderson dominate the CBA’s, so getting his foot in the door on a wing is probably his best path to regular senior footy. He’ll definitely debut in 2021 as North have invested way too much into this rebuild generally and Phillips specifically with pick 3 – but it might happen later rather than sooner after he failed to earn selection in North’s scratch match against the Saints last week.
#13 Tom Powell – M – 119 avg from 15 games in SANFL U/18’s
With his Victorian contemporaries unable to showcase their abilities in their top-age draft year due to COVID-19, Powell was able to lodge the most statistically impressive draft resume of 2021, and it wasn’t even close. The inside bull was super consistent with just one score under 89 AF across his 15 games for Sturt in the U/18’s, ultimately logging monster averages of 34 touches, 6 marks and 4 tackles over the course of the season. Despite his obvious strengths as an accumulator Powell has also impacted when resting forward, which could be the key to earning an early debut amongst the many young and talented competitors for midfield spots at the Roos. Powell be a massive focal point for DFS when he does get his chance, as the junior numbers are simply too tasty to ignore.
#36 Charlie Lazzaro – M – 76 avg from 8 games in 2019 NAB League
Not satisfied with just taking 2 top-line midfielders, the Roos settled on Lazzaro to round out their draft trifecta. Blessed with a more ready-made body than the pair taken ahead of him, Lazzaro also has the small forward chops – if not experience – that puts him into early debut calculations right there alongside them. Which is exactly what we saw, with the Geelong Falcons product playing in the St Kilda scratch match ahead of Pick #3 Phillips; and by all accounts he performed well enough, especially in the second half, to be firmly in Round 1 calculations.
#42 Phoenix Spicer – M/F – 59 avg from 9 games in SANFL Reserves
After locking up their midfield for the next decade, North switched their focus to other positions and more prospective talents. Spicer certainly fits both criteria as a draft bolter plucked out of the SANFL Reserves, and his raw talents probably put him on a different time frame to those I’ve covered above him here. Played as a rebounder and a wingman at times during his junior years, Phoenix really started making blips on the draft radar when he moved to a dedicated goal-sneak role and blossomed week by week. That’ll be his ticket to an AFL gig, but he sits among one of North’s few list bottlenecks in the small forward position.
#56 Eddie Ford – F – 53 avg from 16 games in 2019 NAB League
Considered by draft followers to be a bargain at pick 56, Ford has justified that label by generating a lot of hype since arriving at Arden Street. His X-factor and high-flying antics means he’s destined to be a cult figure, like so many draftees with flair before him. He’s more than just the eye-catching marks though, with Ford’s big strength being able to match his highlights with the scoreboard impact they deserve. He’s been amongst North’s first choice pre-season squad so far, so a debut early in 2021 is in play.
Rookie #2 Patrick Walker – D – 63 avg from 16 games in 2019 NAB League
The Roos add a third Walker to their list in the form of Patrick, a classy and clean user of the footy out of defence – and potentially on a wing after some development. Most expected Walker to have his name called out in the National Draft, so his rookie status doesn’t necessarily cast him as a project player as you might assume from a “rookie”.
Rookie #18 Connor Menadue – D – 78 avg from 15 games in VFL
We last saw him as a half forward for Richmond a couple of years ago, but Menadue has found his way back onto an AFL list through his VFL exploits off a wing and half-back. He’ll be more productive in either of those roles from a fantasy perspective than the 50-55-point region he hovered around in his time as a Tiger – he just needs to break into the side first as his pre-season has been lacklustre.
The traditional Shinboner spirit rang true here, with North’s playstyle heavily favouring contested players over the outside types. North routinely turned games into clogged-up scrap-fests, forcing opposition teams to thread through their rabid tacklers with handball chains rather than controlled field kicking.
It should come as no surprise then that the inside bulls were the big beneficiaries of the Roos conceding the 5th-most points to MID’s last year. Adjusted scores of 153 to Rockliff, 131 to Boak, 134 to Adams, 130 to Neale, 136 to Petracca and 133 to Oliver… the list goes on, and those monster totals were plucked from only from their last 7 games of the year.
A couple of availability quirks (dodging an injured Gawn, Chol’s inflated numbers with Nankervis missing, etc) warped North’s DvP numbers slightly, but take my word for it – Goldstein’s continued dominance ensures they’re comfortably in the bottom third for opposition ruckmen. With such a massive (and widening) chasm between the best and worst ruckmen in the league, there’s no need to force Goldy’s opposite number into your DFS line-ups, especially on multi-game slates – plenty of which North will be apart of given their past and future ladder positions.
5 IN FOCUS
1. Jack Ziebell
The Roos ranked 2nd-last in intercepts last year, so Noble has turned to his skipper to fill a structural void. Training all pre-season as a defender, Ziebell’s fantasy outlook improves drastically not only from the 47 points he averaged in a heavily injury-affected 2020 season, but also the marking forward role he filled when he and his teammates were all fit in 2019. He ticked over at 68 AF when playing as a forward that year, dwarfed by the super-charged 100 AF when in the guts when needed along the way.
While we haven’t seen what Ziebell can do in that role yet, early reports are positive, and the role change has been fruitful for midfielders-turned-backmen in the past. Matthew Boyd, who’d recorded 3-straight seasons of 115+ at the height of his midfield reign, reconfigured himself into a sweeping defender in 2015 and still averaged 104 and 102 in his first two years in the role (the latter year culminating in a third All-Australian gong). Hodge played a myriad of roles in his time at Hawthorn but his first 3 full seasons as a defender returned dividends of 91, 87 and 87-point averages.
So while Ziebell might not reach the heights of his three 94-average seasons, the manoeuvre of slotting an experienced head behind the footy has paid off under non-laboratory conditions in the past. I like him in the 85-point region this year, and that’s plenty for what he’ll be valued at early on in DFS.
2. Ben Cunnington
It’s all about price for the Arden Street bull, and specifically how both Draftstars and Draftkings translate Cunnington’s abbreviated 2020 season into a price-tag. I can see it going either way – he only played 3 games, which implies a discount; but he averaged an adjusted 83 AF in those games, which doesn’t.
A fit Cunners is a lock for 80+, and outside of entering the concussion protocol during the pre-season, he’s absolutely primed physically. He might not have the feathers he’d like, but he’s got the ball-winning ability that’ll keep his DFS owners happy with their weekly purchase in the mid-price bracket.
3. Jy Simpkin
Every second article on the North website this pre-season has been hyping up Simpkin. From his dual 2km Time Trial titles, to the newly aesthetic upper body, to the match sim dominations, to the scratch match masterclasses at the CBA’s – Simpkin would not be short of a little self confidence this pre-season.
And despite finishing 2nd in North’s Best & fairest last year, Simpkin still has another level in him. Jy was cruising along at a 105-point average in the first 6 games, largely due to his 81% CBA presence; but more time spent on a wing and across half-forward in the latter part of the season dropped that figure down to 68% and his average followed suit with 80 AF per game. But now that he’s stronger, he’s fitter and he’s got another year of experience under his belt – surely he’s locked into that inside rotation?
With 6 adjusted scores over 110 last year, Simpkin’s ceiling was already elite for DFS and I’d be floored if that figure didn’t increase on the back of a flawless pre-season in 2021.
4. Jaidyn Stephenson
Stephenson’s 2021 season will be an interesting study in nature vs nurture.
Was his 81-point average in 2019 due to Jaidyn’s own talents being nurtured, or simply down to thriving in Collingwood’s potent fantasy environment? After a year on the outer and the off-season from hell, the question has evolved: will Stephenson’s vastly improved job security and midfield time at North outweigh his new club’s lacking fantasy game and the expected sparsity of forward-line supply?
Noble is the only one with the answer, and he might not even know it himself yet. He claimed that Stephenson would play a “majority” midfield role back in early February, then backflipped on that by playing him almost permanently out of the goalsquare in North’s scratch match against the Saints. This isn’t to suggest that Noble is a liar or anything untoward – it’s entirely possible, perhaps even likely, that he’s still forming opinion as new data on Stephenson is gathered.
The range of outcomes is super wide here depending on that wing (and potentially inside) time, especially as his tantalising junior numbers of 132 SuperCoach points from 27 touches a game were won primarily as a midfielder. Track his AAMI Community series GPS closely for any clues as to his settled 2021 role.
5. Luke Davies-Uniacke
Fool me once, shame on LDU; fool me twice, shame on me.
I’m running out of people to blame waiting for this prophesied break-out, so the reports of Davies-Uniacke being a “standout” in match sim earlier this pre-season has me gun-shy. I’m sitting here trying to find angles to disregard how he’s “noticeably added extra strength to his frame”, and discredit reports of “damaging bursts playing through the midfield” as purely club-produced propaganda. Ziebell’s claim of “I wouldn’t be surprised if (he had) a rapid rate of improvement” might mean nothing right? Maybe he’s famously hard to startle? And so on I go.
Eventually I calmed down and quarantined my biases by looking at the raw numbers. LDU was actually really solid in 2020 amidst all the coronavirus drama, especially when getting the inside time – he quietly knocked out an average of 81 AF in the games with at least 70% CBA presence.
So it all boils down to that inside role. No one knows what Noble’s newly-established midfield pecking order looks like, and then you add a fit Cunnington to last year’s mix, and the maths doesn’t look good for LDU soaking up 72% of CBA’s (as he did in the final 5 games for the Roos last year). I’m very happy to be proven wrong here because LDU was a junior phenom (averaging 105 AF for Dandenong Stingrays) and I’d love to be able to plug that guy into my DFS line-ups. I’ll be watching his AAMI role closely.
- Tarrant and McKay will take care of the big bananas, which leaves Corr and Young to fight it out between covering the 3rd tall and playing the more attacking role. Despite being interviewed saying that he’d love to play that position after being stuck behind Haynes at GWS, Corr might have been pipped at the post by Lachie Young and his “high half back” role this pre-season – although a poor showing against the Saints has the pair neck-and-neck.
- McDonald produced a humongous finish to last year, averaging 110 AF in his last 10 outings after starting the season as a tagger. Ziebell to intercept and McDonald to distribute sounds like the secret sauce at North this year. Smash him in DEF-friendly match-ups.
- Polec is another interesting prospect after being on Rhyce Shaw’s shitlist last year, and who knows how Noble views his lack of defensive acumen or how much Polec has improved that side of his game in the off-season. Ceiling is huge if he comes out smelling like roses, as North aren’t exactly flush with dedicated wing types. Track closely.
- Dumont is North Melbourne’s Liam Shiels – always asked to plug whichever holes open up in the midfield. Averages 10 AF more with a full-time inside gig than the wing role, so keep his splits in mind.
- Anderson’s carrying an ankle into the season but can’t be ignored in DFS with 3 adjusted scores above 140 AF last season.
- Larkey is now the big banana, so battling the best defender each week will involve a learning curve. Very little interest early in the season in DFS.
- Goldstein looks like he has another year left as the alpha dog in the ruck, with Xerri’s ruck development halted as he focuses on helping out Larkey as a key forward. Goldy’s TOG will be interesting after the veteran averaged 92% game-time in the shortened quarters last year, which undoubtedly helped bump his output back into the elite bracket. Does that evaporate now that he’ll need to rest for longer? Hmm.
- Josh Walker is the safety net at either end, but you’d have to think his best chance at regular footy this year is as a key forward with Ben Brown traded, Wood delisted and Comben injured.
- Hayden impressed as a nasty small defender last year before getting injured, but has been utilised as a hard-edged inside MID at times this pre-season. Definitely one player who easily could have leapfrogged up the totem pole under Noble – we’ll see soon enough.
- Bosenvulagi has trained as both a line-breaking backman and zippy forward this pre-season. They obviously like his speed so I’d be surprised if we didn’t see the former Pie at some point this year, with the defensive role (somewhat counterintuitively) better for his fantasy prospects.
- It’s daylight after Polec in the wing stocks, with all of Hall, Scott and Will Walker dancing on the fringe. Powell was used there during the scratch match at times, which could be a sign that the Roos will continue to rotate their overflow of inside guys through the outside positions. We’ll know more after the AAMI dress rehearsal.
- Dom Tyson was back from the dead in North’s scratch match against the Saints, notching 21 CBA’s as a few mainstays like Cunnington, Anderson, Dumont and LDU were missing. I’m very open to a redemption story arc for Tyson but I think it’ll have to kick off from the VFL with his severe lack of runs on the board.
Thanks to Morts at DFS Australia for his all awesome tools, plus websites such as FanFooty, DT Talk/The Traders, Footywire, AFL Tables, Draft Central, AFL Ratings, Daily Fantasy Rankings, @Baked_Beams on Twitter and DT Live for their various stats and references.