Photo: Owen Jones (digital_beard)

By: Daniel Kelly (@UKurrie)

A wintry Arden Street Oval saw North Melbourne, who fielded 10 AFL listed players, run out convincing 42-point winners over the Northern Bullants, 13.12 (90) to 6.12 (48) in Round 14 of the 2022 VFL Premiership.

Harry Jones (34 disposals), Jack Watkins (27) and Callum Coleman-Jones (25, and 26 hit outs) were the major ball winners for the Kangaroos, as Matthew Walker (3 goals), Jack Mahony (2), and Phoenix Spicer (2) kicked multiples for the home side.

For the Bullants, the peerless Tom Wilson delivered yet again with 33 disposals, six tackles, five clearances, and five inside-50s. Will Mitchell was busy all day with 29 disposals, 16 of them hard won contested possessions, seven tackles, and seven clearances.

Matthew King (21 disposals) was consistent again, and Doug Lawrence (21 disposals and nine rebound 50s) provided much of the Ants rebound attacks, and Billy Murphy (16 disposals) provided creativity and forward pressure.

Ethan Penrith (11 disposals, five tackles) provided some of the Ants highlights for the day in addition to his solid defensive contributions, and Mutaz El Nour (19 disposals, eight marks, five rebound 50s) continues to be a match up headache on the wing for the opposition.

The Ants six goals came from Liam Kolar (his first in the jumper), Billy Murphy, Jack Boyd, Tom Mills, Nathan Honey, and Sean Martin.

The Bullants represented a reasonably settled side with Tynan Smith returned in the place of Harrison Kennedy.

The Kangaroos settled faster in the teeming rain, kicking the first six goals of the match, and finding their targets around the ground much more effectively than the Ants.

By quarter time, North Melbourne had taken 28 marks compared to the Bullants 13, many of them uncontested, which reflected the higher pressure and intensity that the Kangaroos were operating at.

Despite having the ball more, the Kangaroos were also tackling more than the Bullants (+5 compared to the Preston side).

Most of the quarter was spent in North Melbourne’s attacking 50 and the 5.2(32) to 0.3(3) scoreline at quarter time reflected this.

The Bullants struggled to break out of this area due to the Kangaroos having an additional player, or two, in their defensive wall covering the centre to intercept or negate any swift transition.

Coach Ben Hart’s quarter time address focussed on slowing the Kangaroos transition and restricting their uncontested marks, especially through the centre of the ground. Despite the margin, he felt the Ants were still in the game due to their strong showing on clearances (+10 compared to North Melbourne) and contested possession performance so far.

Liam Kolar kicked his first goal for the Bullants early in the second quarter but this was only a temporary highlight as the Kangaroos continued to bely the conditions with clinical precision in front of goal. The Ants came back into the game from a balance of play perspective, and they certainly found more space to mark more comfortably, but North Melbourne were looking to consolidate their position, rather than chase the game.

The Bullants did bring more equity to the flow of play as the quarter progressed.

Liam Podhajski’s continued last week’s strong solo ruck performance by taking on highly rated Callum Coleman Jones and faring well, considering the calibre of the opposition. Hit outs were effectively even at the end of the match – 37 to 36 in the Kangaroos favour, with Podhajski contributing 27 of those.

The Preston side did execute Hart’s instructions to stop the easy flow of ball through the centre for the Kangaroos, and recovered some of the gap in marks, taking +8 compared to North Melbourne for the quarter. The Ants continued to dominate clearances by +16, and entered attacking 50 almost as many times as the Kangaroos in that quarter but were still down on inside 50s compared to the Kangaroos, 22 to 30 at half time.

In addition to Kolar, Murphy added his goal late in the quarter but the Kangaroos had still managed to add four.

Despite the 37-point margin at half time (9.3 (57) to 2.8 (20)), scoring shots were comparatively even – 12 to 10 in North Melbourne’s favour.

The Ants inaccuracy was not necessarily due to poor kicking, it was more reflective of the pressure applied by the Kangaroos, and the resulting difficult positions, or distance, that the Bullants were taking shots from, which sometimes resulted in rushed behinds.

The two sides traded goals early in the third quarter, with Jack Boyd snapping truly for the Bullants after a sweeping end to end transition. Boyd won a holding the ball decision a few minutes later and set the ball up nicely for Tom Mills to mark and goal just outside the goal square.

Similar to the first half, the Ants struggled to defend fast Kangaroo ball movement when Ants backs were forced to turn and face their defensive goal in an effort to chase open North players and space. North were incisive and regularly had more runners.

The Bullants intensity and spirit was on displayed throughout the third though, which continues to show that they can match it with all comers in short periods.

Ethan Penrith saved a certain goal with a ferocious tackle in his defensive goal square after a seemingly fatal turnover of the ball. He also later smothered a final North Melbourne attack on the wing before the siren sounded.

Likewise, Mutaz charged down AFL listed Atu Bosenavulagi who had an open goal ahead of him, securing a briefly inspiring holding the ball decision.

And, late in the quarter, Billy Murphy, Tynan Smith and Jack Boyd were tenacious in locking the ball inside attacking 50 which culminated in a Nathan Honey snap and goal.

The quality of the Ants third quarter effort was reflected on the scoreboard – adding three goals compared to North Melbourne’s two – although the Kangaroos were untidy in front of goal with six behinds. The Kangaroos lead was still healthy at 11.9 (75) to 5.9 (35) at the final break though.

In the huddle, Coach Hart willed the team to fight it out and told the Ants that the game was as live as they wanted it to be.

The final term was played on more or less even terms, although the superior fitness and skill of North Melbourne showed out as the Kangaroos added two goals. The Bullants added one through Sean Martin, who is making a habit of ghosting forward to kick goals from range.

Post-game, Ants captain Wilson lamented the head start provided to the Kangaroos.

“It was a slow start (and we) conceded five goals pretty early,” he said. “Any time you do that, especially in the wet conditions, it’s hard to play catch up. After quarter time we were pretty consistent, but you can’t give sides too many big leads like that.”

Wilson can see the potential of the team, and admits they need more time to create a consistency of quality.

“We’ve got a fairly young group,” Wilson said. “The challenge for us is to be better for longer. Whether that is a concentration thing, (or a) fitness thing, (or) being able to understand the context of the game, (like) whether we need to go quick or we need to slow the ball down and hold onto it a bit.”

Coach Ben Hart agreed with Wilson’s assessment of the fast Kangaroo start being terminal to the Ants chances of winning. But he also felt there were some strong individual contributions.

“Ethan Penrith was pretty solid down back, he played a really good game,” he said. “Mutaz – we played him on the wing again and he looked pretty solid – he knows what he’s doing around the footy but also gets behind it when he needs to.”

“Billy Murphy looked like he was a little bit better this week playing in a slightly different role. And the skipper (Wilson) again keeps turning up for us and doing the job.”

Whilst the Ants were (unusually) behind on contested possession on this day, they again won clearances, which is a trait of this side. Hart said that converting these strengths into outside run is a continuing focus.

“Some of that (improvement) is personnel, some of that is system,” he said. “There is no doubt we thrive in the contest and that is what we love…that ability to take – at times – dominance in that area to hit the scoreboard, or take better shots on goal, is certainly a work (in progress).”

Asked what success looks like for 2022, Hart wants to see a trajectory of improvement and understanding.

“Our best footy can take it up to any opposition,” he said “We just need to grow as a group, get better at what we’re doing (and) get better at our processes. We have lapses in concentration around our process so (if the team improves on that)…then we are on the right path.”

The Bullants will be wearing the PFC monogram again for their match against fellow standalone club,  Williamstown at Preston City Oval, 2.15pm Sunday 3rd July.

With both independent clubs alone at the bottom of the ladder with one win each, pride will be on the line.

Goals: Boyd, Honey, Kolar, Martin, Mills, Murphy

Best: Mitchell, Wilson, Penrith, El Nour, Lawrence, Murphy