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North Melbourne's high hopes

Snow business: Brad Scott and North players at their Utah training camp.

Snow business: Brad Scott and North players at their Utah training camp. Photo: kangaroos.com.au

SOMETIMES in AFL football you have to go that extra mile. It's what North Melbourne's players have been doing at their training camp in Utah this past fortnight. And it's what their coach Brad Scott has done, too. Literally.

Scott was there with the Kangaroos to kick things off upon their arrival in Deer Valley, Park City on a Friday night after 17-odd hours in the air. The next Monday evening, with the national draft looming, he headed home again.

The return flight arrived in Melbourne on Wednesday. The next morning, Scott caught a flight to the Gold Coast for the draft that evening, and first thing Friday drove to Brisbane to catch a plane to head back to Salt Lake City, via Los Angeles. Needless to say, he's now the full bottle on the latest movie releases.

“No big deal. It's just a schedule,” says the North Melbourne coach, once again in Deer Valley, of his own version of Planes, Trains & Automobiles.

“I was really strong on everyone being here on day one. I wanted our leaders to set the right example, and it would have been hypocritical of me to say I was going to wait for the draft, then come over. This camp is critical, but so is the draft, and I wanted to be there to support our recruiters as well.”

Scott is speaking a couple of hours before the half-dozen products of that draft mission – Taylor Garner, Ben Jacobs, Mason Wood, Mitchell Wilkins, Daniel Currie and Taylor Hine – arrive to join the rest of the group for the remainder of the annual gruelling three-week mission, now in its third year, and a selling point to them Scott was proud to use.

“One of the first things I did when I arrived at the club was to make a commitment to the players to come into an environment where we were genuinely going to provide them with the best opportunity to win and to provide the resources for that,” he says.

“I was concerned years ago that if a young 18-year-old listened to the draft and heard his name called out by North Melbourne, he'd be disappointed and wishing he went to a bigger Melbourne club. Whereas now, I think we provide them with great facilities and terrific resources to be the best they can be.

“Everyone who has played AFL footy remembers their first training session. It's a pretty daunting experience, but to be able to immerse themselves in this environment for two weeks, I think they'll come back from Utah feeling like they've been at the club six months.”

Soon after their arrival, while the rest of the group are preparing for another intense day of skills and running, the kids are out in the elements, setting out at 7am for a three-hour hike through deep snow alongside Scott and assistant coach Darren Crocker.

Utah has become like a second pre-season home for the Roos, one in which they have formed tremendous working relationships with the US ski team and other elite athletes who use the high-altitude settings as a training base.

Scott concedes that in the AFL, high-altitude training camps in the US have become almost a cliche.

This off-season, Essendon and St Kilda have done theirs in Colorado, Carlton and Gold Coast were in Arizona, while Collingwood, after years training in Arizona, is about to become the second AFL club to make Utah a training base after the Roos.

“I suppose we could be flattered by that,” he chuckles.

“I can't speak for other clubs, but we come here for very specific reasons, and all I can say is that I've had experience at different clubs, and what we're doing here is very different to what I've experienced in the past.

“Our focus has evolved a little bit. Originally, because we had such a young group, the camp was designed around educating them about how we wanted them to live their lives, and because being so young, aerobically we weren't as good as we needed to be. We wanted to fix that, and I think we've made some pretty significant improvements. But while still a key focus for us, now it's more of a pure football camp rather than just an aerobic base building camp.”

The Roos have had the footballs out a lot more this time, four days out of five, leading to an obvious question, couldn't they do the same thing at home? Scott is prepared for that one before it arrives, pointing out for good measure that this trip is funded largely by players and staff, costing the club itself “next to nothing”. “And we're here for the right reasons. If it was just about bonding, we'd be down at Torquay or somewhere.

“We're probably working at a higher intensity this time than we in have previous camps. A lot of our physiological testing has shown that the improvements we've made, the altitude has had a significant effect on. So, you're looking to pick up your program, take it over here and do what we'd be doing in a football sense at high altitude. The guys are tolerating a higher workload at even higher altitude than they've been at in the past, so the improvements are really clear to us.”

Scott notes a resolve among the group to continue to build on the form last season, which took North Melbourne into its first finals series for four years, apparent in the efforts of a 30-year-old, 12-season veteran in Drew Petrie, and other leaders like Andrew Swallow and Jack Ziebell.

“You'd think that this time of year someone like Drew is probably not looking forward to it and just thinking: 'Mentally, how can I get through another pre-season', but he and the others are really driving what we're doing here, not just getting through but really driving the direction in which we want to head, and the other guys are really following that lead.”

There's been enough time, too, for the odd social activity, many of the players having a few days ago taken in an NBA game between Utah Jazz and Denver Nuggets.

Mostly, though, it's been work and more work. Enough rest as is possible when you're trying to build fitness levels good enough to cope with the increasing demands of an AFL season. And the inevitable, for this time of year, lingering feeling of fatigue.

“You can take all the scientific markers which gauge players' recovery,” says Scott, “but as one of our great contacts here said, If you really want to know how your players are feeling, by far the best test you can do is to ask them'. So I'm doing that all the time. Most of the time they're a bit sore or a bit tired, but the most common response I get is: 'It's pre-season, I'm feeling how I'm supposed to feel'.”

Scott says North isn't kidding itself that having made finals, it now sits indisputably among the best teams in the AFL.

“We proved in the second half of the year that we can play some good footy, we beat Collingwood, Adelaide and some good sides, but I still think there's a lot of work to do before we talk about ourselves being in the top half of the competition.” But the Roos intend to do everything humanly possible to be able to say that sooner than later.

“If you speak to any club this time of year, they'll say they're training really hard and fitter than they've ever been,” Scott says. “But the game continues to evolve, and the changes to the rules are going to make it even more demanding on players, so in terms of improving their ability to run, it's a never-ending battle.”

One, though, that North Melbourne, now an old pro when it comes to a concept only a few years ago a complete novelty in the AFL, is giving itself every chance of coming closer to winning.

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