IT'S FINALS or bust for North Melbourne this year.
"Failure" was the exact word Kangaroos coach Rhyce Shaw used – and reinforced – if his team didn't qualify for September for the first time since 2016.
Shaw's 12-match run in charge last season after replacing Brad Scott, firstly in the interim then as his long-term successor, produced seven wins as he orchestrated a physical brand of football.
They bulldozed past eventual premier Richmond and fellow finalist Collingwood in that stretch and ran Brisbane and Essendon close, as well as toppling Hawthorn, Port Adelaide, St Kilda, Melbourne and Gold Coast.
"My expectation is that we play finals, and it's as simple as that. I think we've got the capabilities to do that," Shaw told AFL.com.au on Thursday.
"I don't see any downside in saying that. I've seen the way the players operate, I've seen how driven they are, I've seen snippets of it last year.
"I wasn't totally pleased with some of our efforts during games last year and that comes with consistency, and we've spoken about that.
"The elite (sides) are consistent longer than anyone else and we've got to earn a right to be talked about in that company but I see it being a failure if we don't play finals.
"If we don't aim high, then there's no point being here. Everyone's in it to win a premiership – and if you're not, well, it's a joke, I reckon."
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Shaw's bold pre-season statement is designed to further instill belief in his players and encourage them to embrace expectation.
His confidence will be music to the ears of veterans such as captain Jack Ziebell, Robbie Tarrant, Ben Cunnington, Shaun Higgins and Todd Goldstein as they chase a flag late in their careers.
Higgins, who turns 32 in March, and Goldstein, 32 in July, both toyed last year with playing elsewhere before re-committing at North.
Higgins added a further season to tie him to Arden St until 2021, while Goldstein turned his back on free agency offers to sign a three-year deal.
There were some raised eyebrows about the length of both contracts – based on age, rather than output – but Shaw said he wanted to illustrate "a sense of loyalty" to his playing group.
"Todd and Shaun were fantastic for me last year and I leaned heavily on that older group of players," Shaw said.
"Todd plays nearly every minute of every game and he's a midfielder in a ruckman's body but he's so resilient and, touch wood, it continues … that was a no-brainer (decision) for us.
"I've got a fantastic relationship with Shaun, and he was completely open and honest with what was going on – and I was with him – and we reached a settlement.
"He's an elite talent in this competition and he's feeling good."
The Roos' on-field ambitions in 2020 present a delicate challenge for Shaw and co. at the selection table.
Prized top-10 selections Luke Davies-Uniacke and Tarryn Thomas will ideally receive mass opportunities.
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Fellow young players Bailey Scott, Aiden Bonar, Will Walker, Kyron Hayden, Tom Murphy and Curtis Taylor will also be around the mark, and then there's the latest batch of draftees.
At the same time, the more experienced Jed Anderson, Jamie Macmillan, Josh Walker, Dom Tyson and Aaron Hall will want to be senior regulars, too.
"There's a massive fight for spots and we have a lot of depth in the midfield (in particular)," Shaw said.
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"We've got some elite players that go through there and some guys who are developing really quickly and looking to earn some more time in there.
"It makes it hard for the coaching staff but I'm really looking forward to the challenge of picking our best side."
In a wide-ranging interview, Shaw also discussed:
"Maj is fine – he's in a really good spot. He's just had a little bubba, Hendrix, I think he's four or five months now, so he's enjoying some family time as well, outside of footy. He's in a really good spot. Physically, he couldn't be any better and now he just needs to earn his spot."
"Hally's going really well. He's another one, in terms of conforming to how we want to play, playing his role for the team – I think he's had an exceptional pre-season. He's going to be pushing guys to get into that midfield spot, and I think it's great for our midfielders that there's so much competition."
Ben Jacobs' health
"It's really disappointing and a really tough situation for everyone involved, because we've gone through a process to try and help this kid live a normal life, let alone play footy, so I can't give you anymore. We're doing our absolutely utmost to find a way for him to feel better."
"We've got to take everyone's individual development as individual as we can, and 'LDU' might just be a slow burn. He might take a bit longer than (someone like) Jy (Simpkin). 'LDU' performed really well before Christmas, came back in ripping nick, and now it's all about putting games together for him and playing a role and getting some good form in."
The big year ahead for defenders Mason Wood, Sam Durdin and Ben McKay:
"I wouldn't say it's make-or-break but I think it's a really important year for them individually but also for us as a team. If we can see some real improvement from them, then we're going to be a better team, so that's probably where that sits."