North Melbourne coach Brad Scott. Photo: Getty Images
Despite the inevitable debate it provoked, North Melbourne coach Brad Scott’s post-match confrontation with the Brisbane Lions' Tom Rockliff over his exchange with veteran Roo Brent Harvey on Saturday night is neither here nor there.
Of far greater significance is North’s failure again to deliver the sort of consistent performance required by an aspiring top-four team. And to that end, at least in a symbolic fashion, Scott’s leap to defend his ageless champion perhaps meant something.
In his fifth season at the helm of the Kangaroos, Scott has resolutely stuck by the players. And it’s probably time to start asking at what cost to North Melbourne’s prospects.
While the patience of the coach in this long-term development hasn’t yet worn thin, that of supporters certainly has, with their team and with him.
Whether it’s the coach or players at fault is often one of football’s most difficult questions to answer, but those who lean to the coach do have a couple of decent arguments on their side.
Five years is more than long enough to assemble a list and develop players whose aptitude and attitude mirrors their coach’s philosophy. And this season and last have both served up evidence that those charges have been found severely wanting when it comes to mental strength.
Last year, it was 10 games lost by 16 points or less, narrow leads that couldn’t be protected or small deficits that couldn't be bridged.
This season, it’s week to week, even quarter to quarter consistency that is the damning indicator. Since round five, North’s results read loss-win-loss-win-loss-win-win-loss-win-loss.
Even that rare second win in a row against Richmond came after the Roos had conceded a six-goal deficit. On Saturday night against Brisbane, North was so in command early on that a 100-point belting looked on the cards. Instead, by midway through the third term, it trailed by 33 points.
You can pore over the make-up of the Roos' 22 and the entire senior list and debate the strengths and weaknesses, but at a more fundamental level, those continued lapses betray a lack of mental resilience, and after this long under one man, that has to reflect on the coach to at least some degree.
One particular statistic about Scott and North says plenty, too, that of players used per season. In each of his first two years in charge, when the Roos finished ninth, Scott rotated 37 players through his team.
That figure dropped to 34 when the Roos made the finals in 2012, but last year, when North finished a disappointing 10th, only 33 were used - the lowest in the AFL. The next five lowest-ranked teams, in terms of players used, were finalists who had settled, winning line-ups.
Does the coach show too much faith in too many of his players to come good after protracted spells of poor form? That figure would suggest perhaps that’s the case.
Which players continue to get games when perhaps they shouldn’t? Aaron Black has struggled all season up forward. In midfield, Leigh Adams, Ryan Bastinac, maybe even the highly rated Jack Ziebell, who has not once in six years had to play in the VFL, could have done with more selection pressure on them.
A particularly worrying sign is that of the generation supposed to be leading North Melbourne’s tilt towards sustained success, only Ben Cunnington is doing himself justice.
The Kangaroos' best and fairest award this season is most likely being led by the 36-year-old Harvey, and apart from Cunnington, the other mainstays in 2014 have been two players whose revival was most unexpected, Levi Greenwood and another veteran, Michael Firrito.
The irony is that even if Scott now feels compelled to wield the selection axe, he isn’t really in a position to do so.
Robin Nahas, Joel Tippett and Robbie Tarrant are long-term casualties. The sorely missed Daniel Wells still a couple of weeks away, and Nathan Grima, Jamie Macmillan and Daniel Currie at least another week. That certainly limits the potential changes.
But on that score, maybe the damage has already been done. There’s simply too many Roos who don’t have to fight tooth and nail to hold on to their spots in this team, and it’s showing in their continued failure to deliver the goods, or results, when most required.
Encouragement is Scott’s coaching mantra, rarely giving his players a bake, publicly or privately. And while it’s a different discipline, that approach is certainly at odds with the playing persona of the former Brisbane Lions back-pocket.
But in his fifth year, and with his team again doing little more than treading water, if ever the coach needed to at least metaphorically pull the jumper on again and get nasty, now is that time.
And while I'm at it...
‘THE BONT’ IS A BEAUTY
Amid the general doom and gloom about the Western Bulldogs this season shines the occasional ray of light, and it’s suddenly got a lot brighter with the arrival of Marcus Bontempelli.
The last three weeks from the 18-year-old tall midfielder have done much to lift the spirits of Bulldog fans, and yesterday his efforts pretty much dragged the entire team over the line against Melbourne.
If his left-foot snap in traffic to level the scores with five minutes left wasn’t good enough, Bontempelli’s match-winner is going to be hard to beat for goal of the year, laying two tackles, shrugging two more, spinning and snapping from an impossible angle hemmed in a forward-pocket.
If the popular view of the Bulldogs is of a club which fails to excite on or off the field, this kid could go a long way to changing that perception. More please.
CUT THE CLOSE-UPS
Channel Seven’s attempts to engage an audience beyond hardcore football fans can be at times puzzling, such as the repeated focus on two security men sitting inside the boundary at the Gabba on Saturday night.
But that wasn’t as annoying as is fast becoming the obsession with close-ups of the two competing coaches in their respective boxes.
In a nailbiting finish to the Brisbane-North Melbourne game on Saturday night, a Lions defender desperately banged the ball out of bounds near goal, an entire crowd and TV audience holding its breath to see whether he’d be penalised or not.
Before the umpire had made his decision, however, we cut, yet again, to a shot of North Melbourne’s coach Brad Scott, whose animated reaction could have suggested anything from the Roos being paid a free, to not paid a free, to shock at Miley Cyrus’s latest antics.
Memo guys, is there any chance we could stick with the actual game for more than 30 seconds?
LOSE SOME, WIN SOME
Brisbane’s failure to retain its draftees continues to cause much debate among the Lions’ fraternity, former coach and now director Leigh Matthews commenting that he would have made leaving a lot harder for those who bailed out at the end of last season.
Yet playing hard-ball can be a dangerous game for clubs. Had the club stood its ground and the likes of Jared Polec, Sam Docherty, Billy Longer, Elliot Yeo and Patrick Karnezis been made to stay, they may well have ended up in the pre-season draft and the Lions without compensation.
Recompense which has netted one emerging star for Brisbane in the shape of Lewis Taylor, critical to the Lions’ win over North Melbourne, and more who have shown signs in Saturday night debutant Daniel McStay, Tom Cutler and Nick Robertson.
Indeed, the Lions’ decision to play ball on trades last summer might not look nearly so bad a year or two from now the way some of the “newbies” are coming on.