DAVID Noble's first season in charge started with eight losses but the Kangaroos were much more competitive after that and went on to claim a credible four wins and a draw.
It wasn't enough to avoid the wooden spoon but the emergence of a young group led by Jy Simpkin, Luke Davies-Uniacke, Tarryn Thomas, Nick Larkey and Cameron Zurhaar helped ease the pain.
An unfortunate run with injuries to senior players in the first half of the season could prove a blessing in disguise as it led to more responsibility for several younger players that could flourish in the coming years.
Noble was a calming influence on the club and supporter base while focusing on long-term development and implementing a new game plan.
A plan to rebuild from the midfield meant 30-year-olds Jack Ziebell and Aaron Hall were sent to defence. There were teething problems early but their long-kicking rebounds became a key weapon for the Roos as they learned to play to a plan when moving the ball from the backline.
The emergence of Simpkin, Davies-Uniacke and Thomas as the Roos' core onball group, with Ben Cunnington offering typically robust support, was exciting to witness even as the losses mounted. More midfield minutes for Thomas was a particularly pleasant surprise as he averaged 18 disposals and kicked 24 goals in his third season.
The Roos entered the season with few true key forwards and Nick Larkey was too often forced to stand tall with 189cm Cameron Zurhaar as his main support. North needed more from their other forward-50 marking targets than ruckmen Tom Campbell and Tristan Xerri were able to provide, especially with injury-prone youngster Charlie Comben sidelined for all but one match.
Early attempts to regularly move the ball through the corridor often cost the Kangaroos dearly but they found a better balance between risk and reward as the season went on.
Jy Simpkin had previously shown strong signs of his ball-winning abilities but emerged as a top-class midfielder this season. The first-year vice-captain averaged 27 disposals a game and improved his consistency to only drop below 20 touches once, while also ranking fifth in the League for centre clearances.
Since arriving from Gold Coast at the end of 2018 Aaron Hall had mostly teased as a flaky half-forward but relished his new role as a dashing defender. The 30-year-old’s line-breaking runs and penetrating kicking didn’t always hit the mark but made the Roos less predictable to opponents and more enjoyable to watch.
Jared Polec was surely desperate to bounce back from a disappointing 2020 but a hamstring strain in round three derailed his season. Even when he returned to fitness the 28-year-old found it hard to force his way back into an emerging midfield and managed only five matches which included one as the sub.
A positive outcome for Ben Cunnington after the removal of a testicular tumour was the best news of the season but the win over West Coast in the wet at Optus Stadium in round 17 was the most stirring display. North led by 11 points at the final change but the Eagles kicked four quick goals and looked set to overrun the young Roos until they steadied to claim a thrilling 10-point victory.
Early losses to Port Adelaide and Gold Coast by 50-plus points were a worry but worse was to come against Western Bulldogs in round three. The Roos were clearly outclassed but battled hard early to trail by only two goals halfway through the second term, then the Dogs went on the attack and kicked 20 goals to two for the rest of the match. The 128-point loss left the Roos with a percentage of just 37.4.
How should they approach list management?
The Roos can be pleased with their improvement in the second-half of the season but a wooden spooner will always have holes to fill. The focus should continue to be on packing those with elite young talent.
Nick Larkey needs more key forward support and the Roos might consider some options on the market, even allowing for the high hopes for Charlie Comben's development. A small forward that can hit the scoreboard regularly would also add better balance to their firepower.
At the other end, the Roos lack a tall defender that can consistently intercept high balls and are developing a game plan that suits having more rebounding defenders with clean kicking skills.
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Early call for 2022
The natural progression of a group that had 12 players aged 23 or under play at least 15 matches and a better understanding of the game plan should lead to more wins next season. But a continued focus on long-term success rather than a rapid rise will leave the Roos languishing in the bottom four again.
2 out of 10. A first wooden spoon for the club since 1972 will hurt but the progress made across the season showed the Roos are on the right track.