IT SEEMED like the same old story.
North Melbourne comes up against one of the big three teams – Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide – and the perennial question is whether the Roos can finally match it with the competition’s best.
After failing to do so on all three occasions during the home and away season, it seemed like a qualifying final between Melbourne and North Melbourne would be fait accompli for the Demons.
But finally, finally, the Roos closed the gap in stunning fashion, and announced themselves as bona fide contenders.
Fresh off that triumph, AFL.com.au spent a day within the four walls of Arden Street, observing meetings and speaking to players and staff.
Turning the tide
North Melbourne has been a fascinating AFLW team since entering the competition in 2019.
And what a grand entrance it was, scooping up talent from across the league who either had pre-existing connections to the club through the Melbourne Uni VFLW program, or were simply drawn by the powerhouse squad that was developing.
They've always been beautifully skilled and play an attractive brand of football, but are interminably human, falling again and again at the last hurdle, never quite able to match it with the top three teams.
Their fallibility brought a can't-look-away quality to the AFLW – is this the time the Roos will finally break through? Or will they crash and burn against Adelaide, against Melbourne or Brisbane, once again?
But now, the tide has turned.
A thumping 41-point breakthrough victory over nemesis Melbourne – the dam walls bursting open in the qualifying final – has fast-tracked the Roos into the preliminary final this weekend, where they'll face Adelaide.
Skipper Emma Kearney has been there, done that before with the Western Bulldogs, winning a premiership in 2018 the year before jumping ship to reunite with Melbourne Uni teammates at North Melbourne.
Then, she was a midfielder who was the competition's best player. Now, she's a hard-running half-back, a veteran captain who still commands the ultimate respect from opposition, who still manage to fall for her calculatedly fiery nature on the field.
"It probably is the best win I've had. Just the whole team performance, across the board - our younger players really stood up," Kearney said of the Roos’ qualifying final win.
"We know what we're going to get from our midfielders, particularly Jas (Garner) and Ash (Riddell), but it was just the ability of our younger players to absorb the pressure of what finals footy is.
"We've had so many close contests against them, we've only been able to knock them off once.
"To be able to get the job done like that, just goes to show that when we are up and about, when we can play our style of footy - but also I think more importantly, it's that belief piece.
"So much of sport is between the ears and at times. Whether we said it or not, the battle of that mental side of things got us."
Inside the inner sanctum
Tuesdays are generally the team's sole full day at the club, with AFLW still ostensibly a part-time program with limited hours.
The coaching team get in first, having a planning and review meeting at 8am while players start filtering in. The weekend's game is dissected, and clips are identified to show individual players during their personal review meetings.
After arriving, the backline plonked themselves on the royal blue (edged in a white trim) floor of the Arden Street gym, with Sarah Wright initiating a game of seated keep-up with a soccer ball as the defenders loosened their bodies with light stretching.
Lulu Pullar's playlist was on repeat, generally dominated by songs from the mid-late 2000s, with Robbie Williams' 'Angels' particularly popular.
Head of AFLW Nathan Hrovat – who at just 29, is younger than players Kearney, Kate Shierlaw and Ailish Considine – has ownership of the game-day playlist, taking great pride in the fact he was asked to provide the noticeably more upbeat music.
AFL.com.au’s visit to Roos HQ occurred on just the second day the AFL men's first to fourth-year players had returned for their own pre-season.
The communal meeting space sits directly above the gym, in an area made open plan by men's coach Alastair Clarkson, who infamously came into the club and asked for the wall separating the club staff from the players’ common room to be knocked down.
When not in use, the large TV runs highlights (currently AFLW) clipped together by the club's video team, interspersed with recognition slides of club staff.
The AFLW players moved into their own private meeting, which is held weekly. Coaches and club media staff are strictly forbidden, and it allows players to address things internally.
Round eight saw the Roos lose to the Demons by 23 points. The players say that almost overnight, attitudes changed.
Rock bottom – or as rock bottom as you can get while still sitting third – had been reached.
Earning the right
External leadership consultants are not a foreign concept in AFL, with many crediting such programs with facilitating honest conversations that helped them turn their fortunes.
'Leading Teams' founder Ray McLean has been holding a fortnightly meeting with North Melbourne's women's team this season, focusing on helping to define its image and blocking out the outside noise.
"Ray got brought into the club through Alastair [Clarkson] and the men's program," coach Darren Crocker said.
"It's been wonderful, it's been really good to have the players hear from a different voice. Sometimes it's an echoed message, but it can be pretty powerful coming from a couple of different voices."
Following a lunch of pasta, pork meatballs with Bolognese sauce and coleslaw, players filed into the auditorium, filling the first three-and-a-half rows of royal blue cushioned seats. They settled quickly, remarkable given lunch had been a noisy affair, filled with laughter and a not-so-serious discussion about whether forward Tahlia Randall's star sign (Gemini) contributes to her decision to clean her shower daily.
On the side wall is a poster, which gets updated with the latest club debutant – Robert Hansen jnr, Shinboner #1055. Niamh Martin, Shinboner #58.
McLean congratulated the team in getting over the first hump, being the home-and-away season, which was still underway the last time he met with the players.
"You've been in control of your improvement and your destiny," he says.
Standing up the front of the room, he uses inclusive language – "we", "our" – and asked players to raise their hands if they felt they had a "solid" qualifying final against Melbourne, a seven or above.
Perched at the back of the room, Crocker hovers above his seat, keen to see how players felt they had performed.
"We have earned the right to have a week off," Kearney interjects.
"We reset after the Melbourne loss, and standards lifted."
Before the review portion of the meeting gets underway, Crocker has some news.
The All-Australian squad has been announced, and unsurprisingly, star midfielder Garner and perennial All-Australian Kearney – gunning for her eighth spot in the team – are recognised, as is the hard-working Ash Riddell, who works four days a week teaching at a primary school and is absent on the day.
But one more Roo remains.
The players have an inkling, shooting glances at dependable lockdown defender Jas Ferguson, sitting smack-bang in the middle of the auditorium, flanked by Kearney and Shierlaw.
There's a brief period of pandemonium as Ferguson's nomination is confirmed, capped off by Kearney accidentally punching Shierlaw (the pair happen to be long-term partners) in the mouth as they both turned to embrace their teammate.
Celebrations done and dusted, the review portion of the meeting gets underway, kicked off by leadership group member Emma King who flicks a slideshow through to the ‘Shinboner of the week’ award, voted on by players.
Defender Sarah Wright and young winger Taylah Gatt have been recognised by their teammates for their efforts against the Demons, and players are encouraged to share why they voted the way they did.
Pullar is the first to pipe up, opening the door for Bella Eddey to chime in. There's a pause, and Garner provides some encouraging words for Gatt – "defensively, you were so good, and offensively, you took it on". Simple, but powerful.
Senior assistant coach Rhys Harwood takes over, providing a more technical lens, as well as a clip of the lanky Crocker's daggy dad dancing at a club awards night, played on a loop to great mirth.
Leading questions are asked – "where would their ruck be at this moment?" – before a compilation package of some of the team-record 104 tackles from the match are shown, interspersed with spoils, bumps and players going back with the flight to mark.
It's a lengthy video, designed to reinforce the style of play moving forward, but the players enjoy it, with lots of oohs and ahhs and shouting out teammates.
"If I was still capable of playing, that's the team I want to be in," Crocker finishes.
"Our hardness was the missing link, we've got one more time to earn the right to do it another time."