So near and yet so far – the conference curse hit North Melbourne-Tasmania harder than any other club in 2019.
WHAT DID WE LEARN FROM LAST SEASON?
The Kangaroos were marooned in third place in Conference A behind Fremantle but four points and a whopping 24% above Conference B leaders Carlton.
The controversial system remains in 2020 (and for the foreseeable future) as the league undergoes its second expansion in as many seasons, this time from 10 to 14 teams.
Somewhat comfortingly for those clubs who missed out last year, finals places will also be expanded to the top three in each conference – however potential remains for a rerun of 2019’s heartbreak.
Better for the experience of top flight footy, the Kangaroos have retained most of their ultra-competitive list from last year whilst adding a few new faces and saying goodbye to a couple of higher profile players.
Scoring. North put up some big numbers in 2019; when on they regularly outscored their opponents by 20-30 points and averaged 43 points per game, which resulted in a percentage in the 140s before the devastating last round loss at Freo.
The potency of the Kangaroos was due to a well stacked side across the park, starting with arguably the best and most dominant ruck in the league, Emma King and flowing down through stars Jasmine Garner, Jenna Bruton and Jamie Stanton to skipper and 2018 AFLW Best and Fairest Emma Kearney among others.
Of these particular key performers, only Stanton is missing in 2020, having joined Gold Coast in the off season.
Having built a formidable partnership with Melbourne Uni in the VFLW over the past decade, North Melbourne-Tasmania will forge their own path from this year onwards while maintaining their strong presence in the Apple Isle with regular training camps and games in both Hobart and Launceston and helped by the late-draft addition of top class academy player Mia King.
Their off field presence in this regard has been exceptional and should assist one of the most exciting AFLW teams to push for glory in 2020.
Compared to most other sides, on paper the Kangaroos have relatively fewer obstacles to surmount in the season ahead. However premierships aren’t won on paper as last season’s pre-season favourites can attest.
Avoiding the cruel outcome that befell their debut year will be top of mind for North and their fans. They look again to be in the stronger of the two conferences (despite the shakeup of teams) with perennially in-the-mix Adelaide and the unknown yet potentially powerful Richmond and Gold Coast sides also in Conference A.
The losses of Stanton, Jess Duffin, Courtney Munn and the mercurial Moana Hope may also be more difficult for North Melbourne to make up for than many have predicted so far – their defensive mettle was rarely tested in arm wrestle contests (with the exception of the four point game against Melbourne – widely considered one of the best matches of the season) and in a slightly longer season against more and more-experienced opposition, the run-and-gun ‘Roos could be required to take to the trenches more often in their sophomore season.
ACCORDING TO GOWANS
With plenty of experience in coaching the women’s game, Scott Gowans seemed a duck to water in his first season of the top flight. Despite a season of tremendous highs, the bitter taste of missing out at the ultimate prize obviously lingers in his mouth.
In recent interviews Gowans asserted how assiduously Arden Street is taking the fourth season of the AFLW, explaining that the club avoided drafting too many younger players for more seasoned prospects in a quest to stave off similar outcomes to those two losses against Fremantle and eventual premiers Adelaide that took the wind out of North’s sails.
It’s all in for North this year and Gowan’s gung-ho attitude seems to be reflected in the playing group’s collective desires to win and win and win.
Gowans was also mightily impressed with North fans' membership numbers before the first bounce, with the club already breaking last season's record.
“I’m really pleased to announce that we’ve surpassed our AFLW membership of last year already, which is an amazing effort,” he told the club's website.
“It’s a commitment from you guys (our members) to us that it means a lot to you. We hold that dearly,” Gowans said.
“The players and I speak about it all the time; we are only custodians of this club that you will support all your lives.”
This former Pie knows how to kick goals and was electric for North last year; performances rewarded with representative honours at centre half forward.
Able to take grabs on the lead and dominate the high half forward area, Garner can be expected to link the formidable midfield and prolific forward line like no other in the lineup.
At the prime age of 25 and in some of the best form and fitness we’ve witnessed, don’t be surprised if Garner rips apart the best of the rest of the league.
Widely considered the most effective to employ the ruck craft in the league, Emma King remains a vital cog and beacon of excellence in the North lineup.
The All Australian and newly minted member of Sarah Black’s Top 30 AFLW Players looks set to win a lot of ball for her teammates and can go forward and kick goals on occasion too.
Kearney can do it all – a classic inside-outside mid dripping in leadership and steely determination, the well-deserved plaudits are clear from within and without clubland.
Having made the All Australian team every year, it would be brave to bet against her doing it for a fourth successive time and after having made an impassioned switch from the Bulldogs to her VFLW and now AFLW home, there’s no doubt that claiming a premiership for the blue and white remains Kearney’s most cherished footy goal – one that she remains best placed to help make a reality.
ONE TO WATCH
Though far from the only talented player to miss significant portions of the 2019 season through injury, pocket rocket Riddell’s ankle induced absence hurt her club more than most.
The former Fitzroy and Melbourne University gun impressed in her limited game time for the Shinboners and capped off her stalled year with a killer back end to the VFLW season, racking up 30-plus possessions on numerous occasions.
A fit and firing Ash Riddell walks into almost any midfield in the land and if she can help the Kangaroos deliver quality forays into the forward line while applying pressure to the opposition mids, North may just play finals in 2020 – and the 23-year-old may get an All Australian nod too.