North Melbourne, tanking, and building for long-term success
In a pre-launch preview for Flack Sports, writer, Vince Massara gives his opinion on the AFL tanking debate
The stigma around tanking in the AFL is overblown and unfair. What North Melbourne are doing is not ‘tanking’ it is making sure they are in a position for future success.
There are a few AFL stories that are prone to appear at the same time every season. Every. Season.
- Is player x past his best? (round two)
- How long will team y’s run last? (round eight)
- Player x is as good as ever, how does he do it? (round thirteen, usually about the same player from the first headline)
- How many years does *insert club champion* have left? (round fifteen)
- Tanking is ruining the AFL, change everything! (last few rounds of season)
Like clockwork, the tanking debate is in the AFL media again, with many opinions about what needs to be done to ‘fix’ our game. The current club in the firing line is North Melbourne, with Brad Scott having to defend his club: “It has been dismissed because it is absolutely laughable.” The thing is, Scott should not have to defend his club. North Melbourne are developing their young players and putting themselves in position for long-term success. Tanking is a dirty word, not a dirty tactic. Tanking implies that clubs and players are intentionally losing matches, what the Kangaroos are doing is putting themselves in the best position to win a premiership.
Free agency is not North Melbourne’s answer… yet
It is not exactly groundbreaking to say that the best teams have great players. To be in line for premierships, you need the cattle to get you there. There are three ways in which a club can get championship quality players. You can either draft them, trade for them or sign them as a free agent. That is it. Even then, it is rare that a star player requests a trade. So, there are now two viable ways in which a club can acquire the best talent.
AFL free agency is in its infancy. However, a trend has emerged. The majority of marquee free agents are going to the same few clubs, sometimes taking less money to do so. Looking at Lance Franklin who, in 2013 signed the first of the mega-contracts with the Swans, James Frawley joining the Hawthorn juggernaut in 2014, and plenty more examples it becomes clear that even free-agency works with a select few clubs. The successful clubs.
Successful clubs being attractive to free agents is not unique to the AFL, in the NBA, Kevin Durant almost caused a riot by joining the Golden State Warriors leading into last season, and Gordon Hayward recently joined the Boston Celtics, coming off a season in which they had the best record in their conference. Cap space at North Melbourne is worth a lot less than it is worth at Hawthorn or Sydney. Especially in today’s AFL landscape. It is sad, but it is true. North Melbourne have frequently been linked to every big-name free agent from Dustin Martin, to Josh Kelly, to Nat Fyfe. However, who sees any of these players joining the Kangaroos next season?
Restricted free-agency is even worse
While North can improve their list with younger restricted free agents, the restricted free-agency market is even worse for the buyer. With their original club having match-rights, the only way to secure a player in restricted free-agency is to overpay by so much that their original club doesn’t want to match. Congratulations, you signed a player on a deal you hope they can grow into deserving. There is no real winner in that situation. Well, besides the player.
Player development is critical
North Melbourne let aging superstar; Brent Harvey go at the end of last season and boy did it cause a stir. However, North had their long-term interest in mind. After previously overvaluing their list, North Melbourne topped up their list with elder players like Jarrod Waite to make a run at a flag. However, as we all know, there is one premier, and seventeen disappointed sides at the end of the season. The Kangaroos were one of those frustrated teams.
It resulted in the Kangaroos with an older list and no viable short-term way to a flag. North Melbourne made the hard decision on getting rid of the elder statesman like Harvey, Drew Petrie, Nick Dal Santo and Michael Firrito. While criticized at the time, North made the best choice. Why keep running on the treadmill mediocrity and cross fingers that they strike draft gold with an average pick?
By letting go of the old guard, North gave their younger players a chance to develop and show what they can do in larger roles. Expect more of the same for the rest of this year. Players will be shuffled around to see how players go in different positions. Perhaps Luke McDonald develops into a gun midfielder. Who knows?
What I do know is that while North may finish last, improving their draft pick simultaneously while developing the youth they already have is better than winning an extra two games in 2017.
The more bites at the apple, the better
All in all, the best way to get superstar players is still to draft them. The best players are selected early in the draft. While there are clubs that find hidden gems later in the draft. That is more the exception than the rule. The higher picks a club has, the better chance they have of drafting a star. North Melbourne is a club who have turned their back on present mediocrity, with eyes on long term success. They should not be ridiculed for putting themselves in the best position to land star players.
AFL fans want to have their cake and eat it too when it comes to club’s list development. You cannot look at developing youth and neglect putting yourself in place to draft the best young players.