THE quest for an AFL premiership is not dissimilar to the running of our most prestigious horse race, the Melbourne Cup.
It is a marathon test of endurance, skill, preparation, courage and luck. The aim, of course, is to be in front when the final siren sounds on the last day of September, or at the finishing post of the gruelling 3200-metre journey.
After Hawthorn put North Melbourne to the sword to the tune of 115 points in round 10, thoughts of the Roos figuring in September appeared fanciful. The Roos had won just four of their first 10 games, with losses to the Western Bulldogs and Port Adelaide. In Melbourne Cup parlance, they were 16th at the 1200-metre mark, locked in on the fence, and going backwards.
What has transpired since that day at Launceston has been one of the great ”training” feats of the season. Brad Scott and his coaching staff refused to panic, and displayed a clear and calm confidence in their playing group, when the vast majority of football people had none.
They have won eight of their last nine games, including victories over top-of-the-table Adelaide, and fellow finals aspirants St Kilda, Carlton, Richmond and Essendon. Their only loss was a heartbreaking, two-point defeat against the Eagles, having given up a 35-point lead in the third quarter.
At the 2400-metre mark, they have moved back through the field, positioning themselves with a real chance of figuring in the finish.
And I guess in this AFL season, more than most in recent memory, finding your best form at the right moment, and timing your run to the line perfectly, may be more important than ever before. To that end, Scott and his group are finishing as strongly and as impressively as any team. Sustaining that run over the next three weeks will be challenging, starting tonight with their contest against the Magpies, who demonstrated last weekend that when they have their foot on the throat of an adversary, they are loath to let them up.
Fremantle at Etihad the following week will also be tough and then a final game against Greater Western Sydney should put them safely through to September. And that is when the field enters the home straight, and a new ball game begins.
There will be teams which have enjoyed a good run out in front for most of the year but will be looking over their shoulders at the fast-finishing Roos. They have every right to be watchful, for this is a side that is growing in confidence by the week. The Roos have demonstrated a resilience under pressure that smacks of total team ”buy-in”, and when you look closely at the group that takes the field each week, they are ticking the sorts of boxes that September football demands.
Let’s start with leadership. Andrew Swallow and Drew Petrie are warriors who know no other way than to whole-heartedly compete at every contest. Have a look at the Richmond game if you are in any doubt. It was a season-defining victory, Swallow was best on ground and Petrie kicked five in the last quarter after lowering his colours in the first three. Watching the game as an impassive observer, you couldn’t help but admire the way that club is led. Add the returning Jack Ziebell, a natural and hugely respected figure, and they are in very good hands.
The Roos’ centre-square set-up is formidable. Swallow is fifth for clearances and first for tackles in the AFL. Todd Goldstein is third for hitouts to advantage and Daniel Wells is fifth for inside 50s.
The midfield depth has increased substantially and has added class and pace with Kieran Harper, Jamie Macmillan, Sam Gibson and Ryan Bastinac.
The defence is flexible and capable enough to handle most forward set-ups. Much depends on Scott McMahon and Nathan Grima’s ability to handle the big forwards and you are always reminded of Lance Franklin’s bag of 13 against the Roos, but, hey, Buddy can do that when he’s in the mood.
And then there is some ”x” factor that most successful finals teams are able to boast. That Brent Harvey still qualifies under this banner is a testament to him and his preparation and an admission from this writer that I got it wrong earlier in the year when I suggested this would be his last year.
Wells is the other obvious class factor and everyone in football wants to see him strut his stuff at the MCG, with the sun shining.
But Shaun Atley is the one, for me, who has emerged most dramatically to announce himself as one of the classiest and most influential youngsters in the competition. This is one very special talent, who has the athleticism and confidence that will earn him All-Australian and best-and-fairest honours in the next couple of years. After 35 games it appears he may prove to be one of the steals of recent drafts. Every time he takes the field in a Kangaroos jumper, North officials still pinch themselves that they were able to secure him with pick 17 in the 2010 draft. It was beyond their wildest expectation that he would still be available, given Gold Coast had nine picks before them and eight other clubs also had the opportunity.
His hard running and creative ball use off half-back have been critical to the Roos’ re-emergence. The continuing trend of teams launching attacks from the back half demands that you have one of your most influential players across half-back. The fact that Atley is just 19 and in his second season, underlines the fact that North has an absolute beauty on their hands.
Improvement from within the Roos’ list has been the icing on the cake. At various stages, question marks hovered over the heads of Robbie Tarrant, Liam Anthony, Matty Campbell and Lindsay Thomas. All four have shown in recent weeks that they have what it takes to be valued members of this side.
North Melbourne is a team to be reckoned with. The Roos play with attitude, self-belief, are relentless and competitive and give the impression that they are all prepared to sacrifice for one another. They are playing very honest football. These are all qualities that defined their coach in his playing days with Hawthorn and, most notably, the Brisbane Lions. He has been able to mould this group in his likeness, unwittingly maybe, but impressively nonetheless.
The finishing line is approaching and North Melbourne has loomed ominously. If Scott has timed the Roos’ run to perfection they threaten as the ultimate wildcard in coming weeks.
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.