North Melbourne – Stuck in the Ultimate Paradox

Finn Devlin

North Melbourne’s controversial decision to axe club stars Brent Harvey, Drew Petrie, Nick Dal Santo and Michael Firrito, as well as the loss of star midfielder Daniel Wells to Collingwood via free agency, robbed it of 1588 games of experience.


The message out of the club, both from within the playing group and coaching staff, as well as the board, was clear: the club was in full rebuild.


Fast-forward one season, and North Melbourne finished 15th in season 2017, with 6 wins and 16 losses. Although had they lost to the Brisbane Lions in Round 23, they would’ve finished bottom of the ladder, six wins and three extremely narrow defeats represented a very respectable season for such a young side.


Most of the list building action, however, came off the field. North were very serious – and public – players for the two major stars of free agency last season: Dustin Martin and Josh Kelly, as well as others.


Given the club missed out on every single young or star talent it chased, North’s strategy has turned away from ‘accelerated rebuilding’ and onto the draft instead.


While this looks a good idea on paper – topping up talent from the bottom end – the problem is on North’s list. For so long, North have been a side of mostly B-grade footballers – good, but not great. Jack Ziebell is an example, a player who is highly valued at North, but not in the elite category of midfielders.


This means North’s rebuild will be longer than most clubs, for two reasons. One, a failure to attract any talent will keep the club lower down the ladder for longer, but also, the club has enough talent on its list to stop it from finishing last. Six wins and some close losses in what will arguably be their worst season of the rebuild is testament to that.


Herein lies the problem, however: North’s strategy of going to the draft arguably requires it to finish in the bottom two or three for several seasons.


There are two reasons for this: generally, there is a gap between the best two three players and the rest in drafts, as evidenced by this current draft class – Paddy Dow, Cameron Rayner and Luke Davies-Unakie are the standout three, and North will miss out on them with pick 4 – but also because finishing in the bottom two or three gives North access to two top 20 picks, and at the very least a stronger hand to trade up from.


The consequences of this are dire in the long term: a lack of star power means North will not rebuild to a premiership level team, and the cycle will begin again.


An example of a club successfully using the draft as a strategy is Carlton, who have looked to acquire as many top 20 picks as possible in the past few years. They’ve been bold, trading stars such as Bryce Gibbs – great players who are fan favourites but ultimately aren’t going to be lining up for them in a Grand Final four or five seasons from now.


North Melbourne, with their absence of A-graders but solid quantity of B-grade footballers, do not have the required currency to trade and increase their draft hand, which will mean that, unless the club gets an unusual return on mid-to-late picks (for example, Adelaide and Sydney), the club will struggle to cobble together talent good enough to build a premiership team out of.


Teams like the Brisbane Lions, who had three or four top 25 picks for each of the last three drafts (including 2017’s), Gold Coast, who have two first rounders next year and had four last year, and Fremantle, who have two top five picks, had two first rounds last year, are trading talent to stockpile early draft picks.


This gives these clubs a decade-long core of seven to ten players to build an era around – all similar in age, but specifically drafted from the same three-year drafting strategy.


Because of it’s absence of A-grade talent, North does not have access to a hand which can land them draft picks to accelerate their rebuild. And yet, their B-grade-heavy list means they will struggle to finish low enough to have access to enough high draft picks to build a list around.


North Melbourne, so often battlers in the VFL/AFL, are in a paradox. Spending their spare salary cap on one or two elite talents will lift them up in the short term – but depth of elite talent is needed to challenge for a premiership. Conversely, the club will struggle to finish low enough to attract elite level picks.


The clubs list strategy needs a re-think, and fast, or North Melbourne, success-starved in recent times, will continue to middle-out in the depths of mediocrity in the AFL.

The Problem with the Sunshine State

Finn Devlin


In an extraordinary trade period move, Lachie Weller is now a Gold Coast Sun. A last minute-move, driven by the player and completed by the fledging Queensland side, saw the Suns part with the prized second pick in the 2017 National Draft.


The move raised many eyebrows among those in the football industry. In the view of most, Weller, a 21-year old with less than 50 games experience, was not worth the chance at picking up the second best young player in the country at the draft.


From a list management perspective, Weller’s potential was less – and in the eyes of many, far less – than what could be extracted from pick 2.


The Suns, led by CEO Mark Evans, saw the situation differently. Their desire to land a player of note in the trade period, to replace the departing Gary Ablett, meant their hand was forced, particularly when Weller so publicly requested a trade home.


That Weller has roots and family connections on the Gold Coast made the trade even more enticing for the Suns, who couldn’t pass up the chance to land a player with the potential to be the cream of their midfield for the next decade. More importantly, the club couldn’t pass up the chance to land a player who wanted to be there.


It is this last reason that is so concerning for Queensland clubs. In the age of free agency and player power, players are increasingly finding homesickness an unacceptable challenge of being an AFL footballer. This is understandable, given the ever-increasing standards set in being a professional, high-performing athlete, and the spotlight that comes with being a footballer.


This landscape is meaning clubs are turning their focus to players from their home state to fill sizeable portions of their list. For example, West Coast is expected to use a large amount of its glut of middle and late draft picks on mostly West Australians in the upcoming draft, in order to ensure they have a core of homegrown talent to launch their rebuild from.


In other words, a core a players that are absolute certainties to stay at the club.


However, this is not a luxury that the Queensland clubs enjoy. The dearth of footballers that hail from the AFL’s most northern state mean that it is difficult for Queensland clubs to build lists that are comparable to clubs that are from more AFL-orientated states.


The reason is simple. Statistically, in a smaller sample size, there will not be as many comparibly talented as a larger sample size of players, such as Victoria or South Australia.


Therefore, it becomes harder for the Suns and the Brisbane Lions to build lists capable of challenging for premierships.


In this new age of free agency, players can nominate their preferred club, even if they are not eligible for actual free agency. A major flaw in the club vs. player power struggle is that these clubs are virtually forced to deal with this club.


As the majority of players are from Victoria, this means that despite the large amount of clubs and potential trades for the Lions or Suns to gain, if they don’t deal with the player’s club of choice, they face losing him for nothing in the pre-season draft, and the player will simply refuse to sign for another club who picks him.


The best example of this are the ‘go-home five’ for the Brisbane Lions, who departed in the summer of 2013. After losing five of their brightest talents, four of whom were in the Brisbane best 22 the year before, the Lions have had to go through yet another rebuild to get the club back on track. Although the squad is brimming with talent, they finished last in 2017.


And yet, the players the club gave away have been successful at other clubs. Elliot Yeo just won the West Coast best-and-fairest award, while Sam Docherty was an All-Australian this year. Billy Longer is first choice ruckman at St. Kilda, while Jarad Polec is established in the Port Adelaide side.


The Lions received no first round picks for these players, of whom two, arguably three, would command a top five pick now. Add those four to the Lions side and they are, in the estimation of this column, a three to four-win better side than their 5-17 record in 2017.


This trade period, the Suns gave away Gary Ablett, a two-time Brownlow medalist and their best-and-fairest winner last year, for a end-of-first-round selection (admittedly, there were other factors involved in this), while Brisbane received a mid-range second round and an early-third round for their number two pick, Josh Schache.


The clubs are bleeding talent, and getting peanuts in return.


The effect is two-fold. As more players than average depart the Queensland clubs to ‘go home’, less players want to move back home north, due to the comparatively low number of Queensland footballers in the AFL system. This forces the two Queensland clubs to overpay for players that want to come home.


The Suns gave up more than what Lachie Weller is worth in the eyes of the industry simply because he wanted to come home. Likewise the Lions for Charlie Cameron.


This means, over time, these two clubs will expend more to build a list, and receive less for departing players. Although both clubs may get it right with their respective additions this season, statistically, over a long period of time, these clubs will be at a disadvantage compared to others. This can be seen in their success record: The Lions haven’t made the finals in eight seasons, Gold Coast have never made them.


It is clear the current free agency system puts Queensland clubs at a distinct and unfair disadvantage. If the AFL are serious about making a good go of footy in Queensland, something needs to change.

The Chocolate Podcast – AUDIO Edition

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