AFL Saturday Study: Light at the end of the tunnel for North, and the brilliant Bradley Hill finally arrives as Saint

North Melbourne was never going to beat Melbourne at Marvel Stadium on Saturday night. But that’s not the point.

Upheavals of this magnitude rarely happen in sport: Teams as abject as the Roos were to start 2022 don’t suddenly turn things around against a juggernaut on a 16-game winning rip. But saying that, only North’s stingiest fans would have gone home, not at least thrilled with their performance.

It’s not just that the margin was averted a sixth straight 50+ point loss – by three points. It was the strategy, the energy and above all the commitment to desperately cling to the mantle tails of a superior team and end in an honorable loss after battling the Demons for two and a half quarters.

For starters, the Roos managed to deprive Melbourne of most of the ball – an impressive effort against the game’s best midfielder, especially with Christian Petracca and Clayton Oliver both among the best away from home.

It’s a tactic that has resulted in turnovers by the barrel under David Noble in the past, but while there were still plenty of errant kicks, they seemed better prepared to deal with the advancing demons when they came. , which was a rarity.

Marks and kicks around the halfback line were the operative word, with the Dees unable or unwilling to close space as they have for many teams over the past 12 months. Bailey Scott, an admirable replacement for the injured Aaron Hall, Aidan Corr and Lachie Young in particular used the ball well, knew their limits and rarely gave the Demons a sniff of a mere goal on the counterattack.

Teams haven’t always been patient with the Dees’ magnificent back line – think St Kilda a few weeks ago, who repeatedly pumped the ball into the waiting clutches of Steven May, Jake Lever and their friends . The Roos knew this, opting instead for incremental gains on the pitch before finding targets in good scoring positions.

Sometimes an accurate score can be an indication of a lucky day at the office, but the Roos’ final tally says more about their ability to find the likes of Cam Zurhaar, Nick Larkey and ruck pair Todd Goldstein and Tristan Xerri. near the big sticks. Few if any of their goals were ones you wouldn’t expect an AFL-caliber player to achieve.

Roos’ desperation was characterized by winning the tackle tally despite a mountain of more possession: this was not a team that was content to sit back and be whipped. With Jason Horne-Francis, Luke Davies-Uniacke and Jed Anderson relentless on the front line, only one Kangaroo of the starting 22 failed to land at least one tackle.

Halfway through the third quarter, the margin was only six points, and it was very well played. From there, however, the floodgates opened and the Roos were shown just how far off the pace they stayed.

These may seem like small wins for North, but that’s about all they can aim for right now. This is a team in the wrong way and it will take years to incorporate plays into their emerging talent, sort out their structure at both ends and turn that ship around. Days like this, even if they don’t mean much in the short term, are at least a step in the right direction.

It also prompted grudging acknowledgment of respect for demons: in the last quarter, the Roos forced reigning prime ministers to do their best to ultimately kill the contest. The result was frenzied and unprecedented forward pressure, the Roos were simply suffocated by the likes of Kysaiah Pickett and speedy medi-sub Toby Bedford, and started losing goals. The Dees’ dominance out of the center also began to pay off, with North’s defensive structures collapsing dramatically under a wave of inside-50s.

Having been torn apart by sides barely dropping out of third gear over the past few weeks, forcing the champions to do their best is another feather in North’s hat. A small one, however.

As for the Demons, having taken it all in front of them over the last year and a bit, it was an unusually ugly victory. There’s nothing to suggest that fans or Simon Goodwin should be worried in any way – it can be tough for a powerhouse to come up against a side clearly out of their weight range, and they’ve proven time and time again that they do their best against the best. – but it at least proved that this side is human. Able to make mistakes under pressure, able to slip at inopportune times, able to look vulnerable in defense against quick entries.

It’s not much for their rivals, but hey, at least they’re lethal.

Demons' Clayton Oliver and Kangaroos' Jy Simpkin are watching.

Demons’ Clayton Oliver and Kangaroos’ Jy Simpkin are watching. (Photo by Graham Denholm/Getty Images)

Both seasons have been difficult for Bradley Hill at St Kilda.

Whipped by the media and fans alike during the Saints’ stumbles last season, Hill’s 2022 has been going brilliantly so far. Saturday night against Adelaide, he was the best player on a street.

Hill’s mix of speed, balance and elite ball usage was always going to make him a serious asset if the Saints could unlock him. Credit to the man himself and trainer Brett Ratten for finally finding a way.

Minus Jack Steele, the Saints were beaten at the waistline, losing the punt count 36-29 and being shadowed in contested possessions. But it was their away use of the ball, such an obstacle last year, that won out. And no one was cleaner than Hill.

90% kill efficiency for a 30 kill game is usually the domain of the cheap halfback these days. But Hill wandered everywhere from forward half to back pocket, always providing an option for an out kick and using the ball impeccably. Kicks like in the video below were commonplace – in fact, it was one of his less lethal passes.

It’s part of the new role he’s taken on this year, moving away from the half-back position he’s held for most of 2021 to being used in front of the ball. It worked a treat.

Also throw Jack Sinclair into this category: no AFL player has improved as much as him in an off-season. A driving force in defense with passing on the ball, everything about him is pure football intelligence. He intercepts marks, he gets into good positions to defend, then uses his pace and striking skills to attack.

This pair had 62 touches and paved the way for another famous victory for the Saints, who now look all but guaranteed a place in the final, and quite possibly in the top four too.

Don’t read too much into this margin, though: The Crows fell apart once the game was sealed in the final minutes. The Saints scored the final five goals to clinch the win, but the previous moments to hold their own against an Adelaide side who have been terrific at home this year, challenging a nine-point deficit three quarters from time, were the matter of seriously good teams.

Spare a thought for the Crows, who have been badly bitten by the inaccuracy bug – something the Saints, who smashed everything last year, can surely sympathize with. But for some wayward kicking in the first three quarters, the game would likely have been over long before the Saints got into that run last season.

The Saints, on the other hand, started 11.2 on their set pieces. That was the difference. Just like Max King, who endured so much criticism for his kicks last year, who had six kicks for the night, six marks… and six goals in a row. It never seemed to go away either.

You can browse the Saints roster and find plenty of heroes – Brad Crouch was tireless without Steele to carry the main burden, Cooper Sharman pulled off a huge set-piece midway through last term, and Dougal Howard, for the most part, has kept Taylor Walker a secret.

But I’d be shocked if Brownlow’s 3-2-1 of the night didn’t read B. Hill, J. Sinclair and M. King. In this order.

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