LUKE McDonald found opportunity in adversity last season.
Stuck miles away from home and in the midst of a horror North Melbourne losing streak, McDonald seized the chance to guide the club's promising batch of young talent through a unique and arduous journey.
Where many could be forgiven for wilting under such unforeseen and difficult circumstances, McDonald found his calling. Along with captain Jack Ziebell and young midfielder Jy Simpkin, the 26-year-old became one of the most prominent and vocal leaders within a Kangaroos outfit beginning a transitional period.
He garnered the admiration of the playing group for the manner in which he rallied his younger teammates throughout a remarkably tough season off the field, and won the respect of the competition for the uncompromising manner in which his footy followed suit.
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For McDonald, the two – form and leadership – are intrinsically linked. Without consistency in his footy, there is no way he could have influenced the club's developing young talent so capably away from the park. But without that supervising role in the changerooms, there is no way his on-field production could have improved so significantly either.
"Without a doubt, it helped my footy. Massively," McDonald told AFL.com.au.
"You're always in the game when you're trying to be the eyes and ears for your younger teammates and helping them out. Obviously, you've always got to nail your role. But I feel like if ever I was having a down period in the game, I could get myself back in the game by helping to direct other players.
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"I did try to keep it pretty simple as well, because at the end of the day you've got to nail your role. But I did certainly enjoy a bit more responsibility, especially with a few of our leaders missing last year.
"With so many young guys at the club, I'm one of the older boys now. I look back to when I first got to the club, I had so many unbelievable role models who were so approachable. I just feel like it's my obligation to be there for these young guys, on the field and off the field.
"The hub was a really good opportunity for that. Obviously, it was really tough for us up there. But I just felt like it was a really good opportunity to stand up and I felt I was able to do that."
For many, McDonald's improved 2020 campaign was a long time coming.
Now into his eighth season at the club, with 126 senior games under his belt, it was the fulfilment of the potential North Melbourne knew he possessed when the club recruited the father-son prospect with the eighth selection in the 2013 NAB AFL Draft.
But the footballing side is only one portion of that potential. Last season, the ability to guide the club so effectively within the confines of its Queensland hub also unlocked a mature aspect of McDonald that many had seen growing recently.
Elevated into the club's leadership group this season as a reward for his efforts, McDonald will share vice-captaincy duties with Simpkin as the pair aim to support Ziebell as skipper ahead of the upcoming campaign.
Ziebell himself is well aware of the manner in which McDonald has dedicated himself to improving in every facet of his game. In fact, when the Kangaroos captain was asked to shift into a new defensive role this summer, the first person he sought for advice was his new deputy.
Earlier in pre-season, when a sore McDonald was forced to sit out a match simulation session, he was asked to keep an eagle eye on Ziebell's performance. The level of detail in McDonald's feedback is something that has stuck with Ziebell, and is something the skipper will hold dear heading into season 2021 and beyond.
"He's improved immensely in that area," Ziebell told AFL.com.au.
"He's grown up so much in the last three years. He was probably a little bit immature early on in his career and he took a little bit of developing and understanding what it takes to be an AFL footballer, but I think in the last 12 to 24 months he's understood that himself.
"The proof is in the pudding with his footy and the way he goes about it. All of his teammates respect him immensely and his leadership has grown and improved a lot over the last two years as well.
"He's been elevated into the leadership group for the first time, which is great reward for effort. I spoke to him about that not long ago. I told him he's in there for a reason, and that's because of the way he's behaved over the last 12 months.
"He's a competitor and that's why we love him so much, because he'll bring that. But also, to be able to improve his leadership skills and to improve his game again, it's going to be really important for our group. All of the boys really look up to him, so it's a great reward for effort for Luke. He's put a lot of hard work in."
With added responsibility has come added motivation for McDonald.
Last year, he was asked to set an example for his younger teammates in a tagging role across a pivotal month for the club early in its season. He responded by keeping Marcus Bontempelli to just 11 disposals, holding Dylan Shiel to 12 touches, and limiting Dustin Martin to 16 possessions. All in consecutive matches.
Taking on the burden of handling the game's best suddenly sparked an improvement in his form when he returned to his customary position across half-back, with McDonald gaining confidence that he could mix it with the competition's elite.
It's now also providing him with the impetus to get even better in the years ahead.
"Absolutely, I've got more to give," McDonald said.
"In that leadership space, we've lost a lot of older boys. I certainly know I've got another level to go to. I've just got to try to continue on from last year, I feel like I set a really good and consistent standard and I was playing to that every week.
"It's nothing too extraordinary, it's just playing your role and helping your teammates out and keeping it simple. In the past, I've probably tried to do too much and that's what has gotten me into trouble in a few games."
Next on the agenda for McDonald is captaincy.
Named alongside the 23-year-old Simpkin as vice-captain this season, the pair appear natural candidates to replace Ziebell when the veteran does ultimately step down from his long-held role as skipper.
It's a title McDonald – who has bloodlines at the club, having been drafted as a father-son prospect after his dad, Donald, played 155 games in Kangaroos colours – has long coveted.
"Without a doubt," McDonald said.
"Me and Jy's role right now is to support Ziebs and I'm really looking forward to doing that. Ziebs is a great captain. Even playing with him down back, he's just a physical presence on the ground. He's such a Shinboner, I absolutely love playing with him.
"But ever since I got to the club, seeing guys like Andrew Swallow – and even as a kid, being a North Melbourne supporter – I've always dreamt of being in those guys' shoes. Right now, I'm obviously really proud to be vice-captain. To share that with Jy, who is another young fella coming through, it's a massive honour.
"At this time, we're just here to support Ziebs and get our club back to where we belong."