Robbie Tarrant says he needs to keep working hard
I feel a lot of pressure to keep lifting my game
DESPITE being one of North Melbourne's most-improved players in 2012, Robbie Tarrant is feeling the pressure as next season approaches.
Together with fellow talls Drew Petrie and Lachlan Hansen, Tarrant formed a potent three-pronged attack that was one of the keys to North's outstanding 10-2 finish to the 2012 home and away season.
But Tarrant, 23, knows North's key-position depth means he can never take a senior spot for granted. Especially with a new generation of forwards like Aaron Black, Majak Daw and Tom Curran emerging.
"I feel a lot of pressure to keep lifting my game," Tarrant told AFL.com.au recently.
"Blacky's had a really good pre-season, he's really taken his fitness base to a new level, and Majak has improved so much over the last few seasons.
"Tommy Curran has been able to get out on the track now too. Unfortunately for him last year he only played a couple games of VFL before he hurt his foot.
"To have these guys coming through is really good for Lachie (Hansen) and I.
"If there was no pressure you might rest on your laurels a little bit, but it's really good at the minute because you know full well you have to continue to work on your game and improve."
You suspect Tarrant's injury-plagued start to his AFL career also helps him ward off any complacency.
After being taken at No. 15 in the 2007 NAB AFL Draft, Tarrant had three shoulder reconstructions – in addition to another in 2007 when he was playing TAC Cup with the Bendigo Pioneers – before playing a senior game.
When he made his AFL debut in his third season, 2010, he broke his thumb in just his second match and did not play another game that year.
Just when it seemed he'd been fated to spend his football life inside North's rehab group, Tarrant's luck changed.
In the past two seasons, his broad shoulders have stayed in place, allowing him to log the consistent game time he believes has been crucial to his football development.
Still, it took Tarrant time to cement a spot in North's senior team. He played seven games as a key defender in 2011 and only became a regular fixture in the second half of this year, when he strung together 13 straight games in attack and kicked 23.16.
"You learn more when you're out there playing at that higher level than you ever can at training," Tarrant said.
"I was lucky enough to play a few games this year and you really learn a lot, especially having 'Drewy' (Petrie) there. He's so good at educating you.
"I think continuity is a big thing. I haven't been injured for a while now so, touch wood, hopefully that continues and I can get through another 23-24 games next year."
But as well as Tarrant's 2012 season ended, its start had been far shakier. He suffered a minor hamstring strain in the Roos' round one loss to Essendon and after returning in round five against Gold Coast was dropped following North's loss to West Coast the following round.
As disappointing as his demotion was, Tarrant was buoyed by the support he received from North coach Brad Scott and forwards coach Brett Allison.
Scott and Allison clearly spelt out what Tarrant had to work on to earn a senior recall.
"It was just getting to some more contests, just some running pattern stuff," Tarrant said.
"I was just missing contests by a couple of steps. It was just about working harder to get to those contests and providing a target for the boys to kick to."
Tarrant proved a model student, producing a run of outstanding form with the Roos' VFL affiliate, Werribee, to force his way back into North's team in round 12, against Gold Coast.
Tarrant went goalless in that game but showed those outside Aegis Park what he was capable of the following round, kicking 4.2 in North's impressive 32-point win over Adelaide.
After Tarrant's recall, North lost just three of 13 games as it rebounded from an indifferent 4-6 start to the season that had included a 115-point loss to Hawthorn in round 10.
North's hard running and fast ball movement through the midfield was instrumental in the revival that took it to its first finals series since 2008. But so too was the teaming of Petrie, Hansen (both 197cm) and Tarrant (196cm) in attack.
At times, opposition defences must have thought they'd strayed onto the set of the 1970s' sci-fi TV series Land of the Giants, as the North trio toyed with any shorter opponents.
Not surprisingly, Tarrant thoroughly enjoyed playing alongside Petrie and Hansen, saying they had found that the harder they worked for each other, the better they played individually.
But he stressed just how much easier Petrie had made life for Hansen and him, saying the North vice-captain attracted the opposition's best key defender without fail every week.
Looking ahead to 2013, Tarrant is basing his self-improvement drive on the same key performance indicators as last season – getting to as many contests as possible and competing fiercely in every one of those contests.
And it's not only North's up-and-coming forwards who are keeping him focused on that job.
Allison told AFL.com.au before Christmas that Tarrant's duels with key defender Luke Delaney, 23, had been one of the highlights of North's pre-season training.
"Lukey's one of my good mates," Tarrant said.
"We did our shoulders at the same time a couple of years ago. We managed to compete pretty hard on the bikes and the rehab and we've just sort of always carried that through.
"It's just good to go against someone who's a bit stronger than me and who is probably the hardest defender to play on here.
"To have those sort of battles is good, it's something we can build on hopefully and should stand us in good stead for the coming season."
Nick Bowen covers North Melbourne news for AFL.com.au. Follow him on Twitter: @AFL_Nick