The eight now, Kangaroos
The Kangaroos leadership group from left , Daniel Wells , Drew Petrie , Andrew Swallow , Jack Ziebell and Brent Harvey. Photo: Pat Scala
FOR Carlton, the pass mark in 2012 is the top four. Greater Western Sydney's goal should be to win a couple of games, avoid multiple 150-point defeats and, even worse, massacres in the Sydney media.
Melbourne hopes to play finals, but the real measure will be to drastically narrow the gap between its exhilarating best and limp, rag doll worst.
No club, though, has a clearer mission this year than North Melbourne, which has finished a semi-respectable ninth in both of Brad Scott's seasons as senior coach. North simply must make the eight.
The Roos don't need to play finals for Scott's sake. The administration removed any potential rumblings about the coach's future when it extended Scott's three-year contract by a season in the middle of 2011. There's no doubt that the club - and the competition - sees him as a long-term coach. He was as well regarded as his brother when the coaching jobs were being filled; the difference is that Chris, rejected by Port Adelaide, jumped on Black Caviar. In relative terms, Brad ain't no fortunate son.
If North doesn't play finals this year, in Scott's third season, then the whole football program will be questioned, internally and externally.
For the first time in three or four years, the club will wonder whether it has the talent, off-field expertise or resources to become a premiership team. Without improvement, there will be pressure for a shake-up.
Like governments, AFL clubs usually get a three-year term in which to make significant progress. A coach can survive three seasons without finals, but the graph must be upward. Injuries are the only credible alibi. Even then, there are limits - the conditioning/medical people may be lined up on the wall if there's a plague of hamstrings, groins and quads.
Why does North have to make the eight, compared to Richmond or Melbourne? Fair question. The Roos haven't had the golden early draft picks of those sides, largely due to their inability to bottom out and/or tank. Until recently, North was the reverse of those American financial institutions deemed ''too big to fail''. The Roos reckoned they were too small to fail.
By fail the club presumably means that, unlike West Coast, Collingwood and Essendon, it couldn't afford a prolonged period - three years or so - around the bottom. Happily, the AFL has boosted assistance for the small teams. Still, whereas the Eagles, Collingwood and Carlton have each had multiple priority picks, impecunious North has never had one.
Such hard luck is irrelevant in 2012 because the Roos have enough talent to play finals. North owns better senior players than Melbourne or Richmond, neither of which have a veteran of Brent Harvey's calibre kicking to someone of Drew Petrie's ilk. For Richmond, judgment day is probably another 12 months away.
The Roos are far better placed than they were at the corresponding stage of last year, when a raft of players were sidelined or had missed major chunks of the pre-season. Ryan Bastinac, Hamish McIntosh, Nathan Grima, Levi Greenwood and Scott Thompson had problems, Michael Firrito had interruptions, Lachie Hansen played most of the season with a sore shoulder. McIntosh didn't play seniors until the last game.
In 2011, North's back line was in disarray early in the season, due to injury and interruptions. The Roos lost the first four games - dropping the opener to West Coast in Perth by four points - yet finished the year with 10 wins, a game and a half adrift of eighth spot. North didn't beat a top-seven team and was smashed by Geelong and Collingwood.
To this point, there are virtually no injuries of note to regulars. Daniel Wells is on blood-thinning medication after his dangerous clot and has been confined to running and skill work, but the club thinks he will be fine. He is the most indispensable player on the list.
The Roos have a top end of senior players headed by Harvey, Wells and Petrie, a decent group of ''middle agers'' starting with new skipper Andrew Swallow and emerging ruck force Todd Goldstein and the younger crew led by Jack Ziebell, Bastinac and Ben Cunnington.
While they have defensive deficiencies and, Wells and Harvey aside, are one-paced in the midfield - a weakness they sought to redress by drafting Kieran Harper and Shaun Atley in 2010 - there's enough collective maturity and ability to win the 12 or so games needed to play finals.
North knows that missing the finals this year would represent failure. Swallow was pretty blunt about it in January when he said: ''We are at the point now where we need to play finals, anything less would be a big disappointment for the club.''
Once clubs avoided definite statements about what they might achieve. Today, there's a greater willingness for players and even the occasional coach to talk up their chances. Nick Maxwell proclaimed that Collingwood was set on winning the premiership in 2010 and, this year, Brett Ratten has predicted that Carlton will make the top four. Swallow's statement is hardly a huge one in that context.
The Kangaroos haven't played finals since 2008, when they fell into eighth under Dean Laidley. In 2012, they must be heading North.
Poll: Who would have been your pick for the North Melbourne captaincy in 2012?
- Andrew Swallow
- Brent Harvey
- Daniel Wells
- Drew Petrie
- Another player
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