Will Phillips handballs during North Melbourne's clash against Gold Coast in round nine, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

IN THE butterfly effect of Will Phillips' career, a game at Piranha Park could prove telling.

It was there, in Melbourne's inner north, where Coburg midfielder Flynn Gentile dominated against the Casey Demons. As North Melbourne's VFL coaches watched on, tracking their following week's opponents, the midfielder racked up 43 disposals, carved out 11 clearances and kicked two goals in a comfortable Lions win.

It gave Tom Lynch and Adam Marcon, two members of the Kangaroos' VFL coaching team, an idea. What if they looked to thwart the influence of Gentile with Phillips, using him in a completely foreign tagging role? Such was the success of their decision, in barely a month Phillips has now proved to be one of the AFL's most effective shut-down players.

"They told me to go to Flynn, because he's quite a good outside player and it was something I needed to work on in my game," Phillips told AFL.com.au at Arden Street this week.

"For me to play that game, in that role, and shut him down, it gave me belief in myself that I could cover the ground and play on an inside player which feeds into my strengths, but also an outside player like him. He's a mid, but he spreads pretty hard. It taught me a lot about myself."

Phillips kept Gentile to 17 disposals – his lowest output in nearly a year – in a six-point North Melbourne win. So influential was the 22-year-old that when Kangas co-captain Jy Simpkin felt at his hamstring 24 hours before a crunch match with Collingwood the following week, Alastair Clarkson had a similar idea.

Will Phillips handballs during North Melbourne's clash against Adelaide in round seven, 2024. Picture: Getty Images

Except this time, Phillips would be playing on one of the competition's best, most skilful, influential and hardest working players in Nick Daicos. Together with Clarkson, the pair poured over vision of the Magpies champion the night before they met. The fruits of their work were evident the following day.

"I'm naturally a bit of an overthinker, so I try not to study too much of my opponents. But we obviously still went in with a plan. I worked on that with 'Patch' (assistant coach Leigh Adams) and 'Clarko'. But then it was about adjusting to the state of the game as well," Phillips said.

Daicos was held to just 14 disposals in three quarters while matched with Phillips, who was substituted out of the game at the final break. Collingwood's maestro then demonstrated the influence he can have when left to roam free, racking up 10 disposals and three goal assists in the last quarter alone as the Pies rapidly reeled in a 54-point deficit.

"I was pretty gassed," Phillips said. "I'd played the whole third quarter, so that was a challenging quarter. It was hard watching us lose that game from the bench. At the end of the day, we should've won regardless of whether I was on the field or not."

Will Phillips and Nick Daicos pictured during North Melbourne's clash against Collingwood in round 14, 2024. Picture: Getty Images

Phillips claimed another scalp last week, holding Melbourne's Clayton Oliver to just 14 disposals. It was the star Dee's joint-lowest tally since his fourth AFL game back in 2016. This week, one of the Western Bulldogs' plethora of prolific midfielders awaits. But whether it's Marcus Bontempelli, Adam Treloar, or someone else remains to be seen.

For Phillips, though, the next step of his journey is an intriguing one. Tagging has been his route back into North Melbourne's senior side, but the transition into showcasing his own elite offensive weapons is what lies ahead.

A former No.3 pick, Phillips had long been renowned among the most precocious junior talents in the country before hitting the AFL, with his role as a bottom-ager in the Oakleigh Chargers' 2019 premiership victory just as significant as those played by older teammates Matt Rowell and Noah Anderson.

While there is a belief that Phillips can and will become that dangerous front-half midfielder again, tagging remains the priority for now. As well as teaching him valuable defensive lessons, that role has also provided his footy with a newfound sense of selflessness.

"I'm trying not to think about the long-term in that sense," Phillips said.

"For me, right now, it's just week to week. I'm playing my role for the team and doing what I can to help us get a win. I know, both me and us as a team, we have momentum. I need to realise that and not get complacent and think about all of the good stuff I've been doing to get to this point. I need to lock into that.


"'Patch' said to me, whether it's in eight years that I become an elite AFL midfielder who is potentially getting tagged myself, or if I'm still a tagger for the next one, two, three or four years, I'm able to play my roles. I don't know what that looks like, but as long as I'm trusting the process and looking after my own backyard in terms of what I'm doing on and off the field, just grabbing hold of all of the good stuff that I'm doing at the moment, then I think that will hold me in good stead for whatever it is.

"At the end of the day, if I'm playing my role in a team that's winning consistently and playing finals footy, I can't ask for much more than that. If I'm playing my role in order for 'LDU' (Luke Davies-Uniacke), George (Wardlaw), Jy, 'Powelly' (Tom Powell) and 'Sheez' (Harry Sheezel) to get more of the footy and kick goals and look awesome, then I'd be rapt about that. I want to see them succeed and I know that helps us succeed as a team. That gives me a lot of joy."

Will Phillips celebrates North Melbourne's win over Gold Coast in round 24, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

Phillips' journey to this point has been a difficult one. Part of the unique Victorian draft class that had their final season of junior football wiped out entirely by COVID-19, he was then struck by two separate bouts of glandular fever that ruined his entire second season at Arden Street. The mental toll of battling such an illness proved just as tough as the physical one.

"The hardest part was not knowing the right approach to it and the mental side of second-guessing myself and having to almost re-learn about when you're fatigued and when you're sick," Phillips said.

"Last year, it was a mental battle. I was probably telling myself that I hadn't had a full pre-season and I was underdone. I'd played one year out of the last three, because obviously there was COVID-19 that wiped out the previous year. It was the mental side of it that, in hindsight, maybe I didn't deal with too well.

"That led to potentially some inconsistency last year. But I reflect back on the good games I played and I was playing off instinct and I was fit enough and I was able to cover the ground. The games where I wasn't playing well, it felt like I was almost internally using glandular as an excuse. It's taught me a lot about how important your mindset is and it's taught me a lot about resilience."


The culmination of Phillips' health and fitness setbacks resulted in just 32 senior appearances across his first three seasons at North Melbourne, then only three more call-ups through the opening three months of this year's campaign. Combined with a run where the Kangas claimed just nine victories in more than three years of football, it's made for a difficult start to his career.

As the youngster toiled away in the VFL during the initial weeks of this campaign, stuck behind a raft of the club's fellow top recent draft selections in Davies-Uniacke, Wardlaw, Powell and Sheezel, and with his contract due to expire at season's end, it has led to some periods of self-doubt.

But in locking down his new role, and the improvement he's helped generate since returning to the side, the signs of the courageous and resilient Phillips that recruiters fell in love with throughout his draft process are starting to re-emerge.

"It's definitely harder than I expected," Phillips said.

"I came into the system and I look back to when I was drafted and my mindset going into it, I was quite confident and ambitious and I was so optimistic about North as well. So much has gone on and not the way I wanted. But I wouldn't change that for the world. It's taught me so much about myself.

Will Phillips celebrates a goal during North Melbourne's clash against Brisbane in round five, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

"I look at some of the other guys who are my age who are potentially going a bit better than me in their careers and I still wouldn't change anything. I know, with where I'm at and where we're at as a club, it's a good place to be. There's so much upside, I genuinely believe that.

"It's been a mental challenge and everyone goes into periods where they doubt themselves and something bad happens and you get down on yourself a little bit or the mood lowers among the group. But it's taught me how to pick myself back up. Now, I'm so good at moving on. We could lose a game on the weekend and the day after, I'd do my review and I'm easily able to move on.

"I wouldn't have had that resilience if I hadn't been through glandular or had multiple coaches or been with a really successful side. All of that stuff is going to hold me in good stead for the rest of the season and the rest of my career. Not just in terms of the long-term, but the day-to-day stuff. I've learned what works for me."

Will Phillips is pictured after being taken with pick No.3 in the 2020 draft. Picture: AFL Photos

Now, Phillips is ready to put those lessons into action. Not just against whoever Clarkson deems worthy of his match-up this weekend, but across his career. However, his first focus remains on helping North Melbourne chase what would be his own personal first victory for the season.

"Football is an industry where there are so many highs and lows and it's very result based. For me, selection has created a bit of a rollercoaster for me to ride on. I've had to learn to stay level-headed and be strong-minded," Phillips said.

"When things are going great, I've had to learn to not feed into that too much and to make sure I reflect on what got me to that point. The last two weeks, I've received a lot of praise. But I recognise that I'm not there yet. I still haven't won a game at AFL level this year. We're still bottom of the ladder. I've played two games in the team in this stretch.

"I want to play consistently in this team and in a winning team as well. There's a sense of humility that I need to recognise when things are going well and just appreciate what got me to this point. It's the same thing when things aren't going well. It's about still maintaining the belief and focusing on what I do well. That ultimately gets you back to where you want to be."