Can North Melbourne take the next step?
After losing the past two preliminary finals, it’s the big question for the Kangaroos, even if the official position at Arden St is that they aren’t asking it of themselves.
“What we’ve tried to instil in the playing group is that if we get certain things right with the way that we play then that next step that people speak of will take care of itself,” North Melbourne director of coaching Darren Crocker told AAP.
“For us to improve as a team we addressed a couple of areas that we’ve trained pretty strongly over the pre-season.
“So with that and potentially the resolve that we hope has come through in the players after playing in two prelims – themselves realising that they’ve been so close – that the next step will look after itself.”
Experienced free agents Jarrad Waite, Nick Dal Santo and Shaun Higgins have been key factors in the Roos’ drive to successive preliminary finals, and will be important again this year, but they’ve also contributed to the club having the second-oldest playing list in the AFL.
With veterans Brent Harvey, Drew Petrie, Daniel Wells and Michael Firrito all the wrong side of 30, there’s a belief that North Melbourne’s premiership window will slam shut at the end of this season.
Unsurprisingly, Crocker disputes that notion.
“I think it’s a bit of a ridiculous statement because every club is after sustained success,” he said.
“We want that sustained success and that’s what we’ve been trying to build towards.
“We know that the profile of our list is quite strong and experienced at the moment, but we haven’t thrown the baby out with the bath-water and traded away all of our first-round picks.”
One key focus for North Melbourne is to not repeat the slow start of last season.
Having finished sixth and eighth in the past two home and away campaigns before going on to preliminary finals, coach Brad Scott has also spoken of the need to bank wins early and snare a valuable top-four berth.
The Kangaroos conceded the most points of all top eight teams last year and know they’ll need to be harder to score against if they’re to achieve that.
A factor in the Roos’ favour is the career-best form of reigning Syd Barker medallist Todd Goldtstein. He broke Gary Dempsey’s 1982 record for hit-outs in a single season last year and could be a big beneficiary of the slashing of interchange rotations.
If he stays fit, Harvey will be a key to his side’s success and will also have a chance to break Michael Tuck’s record for games played late in the season.
The Roos will be hoping they can honour Harvey’s milestone with a top-four berth safely locked up but they’re not taking anything for granted.
“What we do know as a group is that there’s a lot of hard work to get yourself back into that position to be vying for, firstly, a finals berth and, secondly, to advance all the way through to play off in a grand final,” Crocker said.
“So many teams out there will be thinking that they’ve had really good pre-seasons, individuals have improved within their group and they’ve improved collectively and they want to take our spot as a finalist.
“We know that we can’t sit still – we’ve got to continue to work to get better.”
Coach: Brad Scott
Captain: Andrew Swallow
Last five years: 9-8-10-4-4
Premierships: 4 (1975, 1977, 1996, 1999)
Key Five: Todd Goldstein, Jack Ziebell, Drew Petrie, Andrew Swallow, Ben Cunnington.
One to watch: Daniel Wells. A chronic Achilles injury sidelined the veteran onballer after round two last season but the club is hopeful he is over the issue after completing a modified pre-season program. The addition of his skill and pace could be a key piece of Brad Scott’s puzzle.
Ins: Jed Anderson (Hawthorn), Ryan Clarke (Eastern U18), Mitchell Hibberd (Clarence, Tas), Ben McKay (Gippsland U18), Declan Mountford (Claremont, WAFL), Farren Ray (St Kilda), Corey Wagner (Aspley, NEAFL).
Outs: Leigh Adams (retired), Ryan Bastinac (Brisbane), Daniel Currie (Gold Coast), Nathan Grima (Essendon), Kieran Harper (delisted), Scott McMahon (delisted), Eric Wallace (delisted), Max Warren (delisted).
B: Michael Firrito, Scott Thompson, Shaun Atley
HB: Lachlan Hansen, Robbie Tarrant, Sam Gibson
C: Sam Wright, Jack Ziebell, Ben Jacobs
HF: Shaun Higgins, Drew Petrie, Nick Dal Santo
F: Ben Brown, Jarrad Waite, Brent Harvey
R: Todd Goldstein, Andrew Swallow, Ben Cunnington
I: Jamie Macmillan, Taylor Garner, Luke McDonald, Daniel Wells
Predicted finish: 7th
Betting (William Hill)
To win the flag: $17
To make the top eight: $1.70