How Geelong and North Melbourne arrived at opposite ends of the AFL ladder in the space of a decade

How Geelong and North Melbourne arrived at opposite ends of the AFL ladder in the space of a decade
  • PublishedMay 15, 2024

When the 2015 AFL season came to an end, Geelong and North Melbourne were virtually neck and neck.

The Kangaroos ended the season having made their second consecutive preliminary final after another against-the-odds finals campaign under Brad Scott despite finishing the home and away season eighth.

Geelong missed the finals altogether for the first time since 2006 after winning just 11 games under Scott’s twin brother, Chris. 

In the decade that followed the two teams’ fortunes could not be any different.

Brad Scott raises his right arm and gives the thumbs up to the Docklands crowd.
Brad Scott took North Melbourne to consecutive preliminary finals in 2014 and 2015 before his tenure came to an end in 2019.(AAP: Hamish Blair)

Geelong has since missed the finals on just one occasion, in 2023, a year after winning a premiership. The Cats have won a combined 117 home and away games along with nine finals wins, 124 if you include the seven wins they have already amassed so far this year.

In comparison, it has been a grim decade for the Kangaroos. Since 2015, the Kangaroos have won just 52 games and have not made the finals since 2016, when they were belted by Adelaide in an elimination final. 

So why have the two teams had such contrasting fortunes in the last decade?

Attracting stars vs the inability to do so

There are so many aspects to team-building in the AFL, but your chances of a premiership begin and end with your best players and how many top-end stars you can have on your list at any one time.

It is no secret that Geelong’s immediate spike up the ladder in 2016 (from 10th to second in the home and away season) coincided with the arrival of current skipper Patrick Dangerfield.

Dangerfield, a Moggs Creek product who had played for the Geelong Falcons at the Under 18 level, had long been linked with a move to the Cats after starting his career with Adelaide. 

By the time Dangerfield decided to exercise his rights as a restricted free agent to join Geelong at the end of 2015, he’d already racked up three All-Australian jackets, and two top-five finishes in the Brownlow Medal. 

Patrick Dangerfield holds his arms out while holding the premiership cup and yells, standing in front of Cats fans
Patrick Dangerfield’s arrival at the end of 2015 put Geelong back on the path towards premiership contention.(Getty Images: Cameron Spencer)

Geelong, knowing it would have to make room to acquire Dangerfield, slowly began picking off parts of the core that won premierships in 2007, 2009 and 2011 in the years preceding his arrival.  

Between the end of 2012 and 2015, Geelong oversaw the exits of premiership stalwarts Matthew Scarlett, Joel Corey, Paul Chapman, James Kelly and Steve Johnson, with Dangerfield essentially acting as the bridge between two different premiership windows. 

The addition of Dangerfield was virtually mirrored five years later, when the Cats were able to add star forward Jeremy Cameron, who was also a restricted free agent. The pair played a crucial role in Geelong’s run to the 2022 premiership. 

Geelong’s reputation as one of the best-run sporting organisations in the country has allowed it to position itself favourably when it comes to attracting stars. Players regularly take discounts to be a part of the Cats machine, knowing buy-in could result in team success, as it has for Dangerfield and Cameron. While other clubs will break the bank in order to try and lure stars, Geelong doesn’t overpay.

File photo of Brent Harvey
Club legend Brent Harvey was forced into retirement at the end of 2016 after the Kangaroos refused to offer him a contract extension.(AAP Image: Tracey Nearmy)

North Melbourne has been stuck on the absolute other end of the spectrum. 

Like Geelong did during the mid 2010s, the Kangaroos also attempted to gradually transition their list into a new era around the same time.

After topping up with veterans like Nick Dal Santo and Jarrad Waite, the Kangaroos cleaned house at the end of 2016 in what was a controversial move. 

Club and league games record-holder Brent Harvey was forced into retirement after not being offered another contract despite a strong season. He was joined by Dal Santo and veteran defender Michael Firrito also retiring, while Drew Petrie was delisted.

The retirements continued in 2017 when Lachlan Hansen and Andrew Swallow called time, while goalsneak Lindsay Thomas was also delisted.

Dustin Martin pumps his fist and yells in delight
North Melbourne never recovered after coming close to signing Dustin Martin on a massive deal in 2017.(Getty Images: Michael Willson)

North Melbourne’s savage list cull, like Geelong’s, had a purpose. While the Cats had been eyeing off Patrick Dangerfield for years, the Kangaroos had their sights set on Richmond’s Dustin Martin.

As Martin began to put together a historic Brownlow Medal-winning year with the Tigers in 2017, there was hope from Arden Street that he would be lured by a whopping reported seven-year, $10.5 million contract.

However, on the eve of Richmond’s finals campaign which would end in a drought-breaking premiership, Martin recommitted to the Tigers, sacrificing up to $2 million to remain at the club that drafted him.

With Martin off the table, North suddenly had a massive war chest to attract the next available star seeking a seachange. 

Unfortunately for the club in the years following Martin’s rejection, the likes of Andrew Gaff and Josh Kelly opted to remain with their clubs instead of coming to North Melbourne, leaving the club to settle for a disappointing bounty of Jared Polec, Jasper Pittard, Dom Tyson and Aaron Hall in the summer of 2018. 

Polec, who was coming off a career-best season with Port Adelaide, signed a five-year deal that summer but wound up playing just 42 games for the Kangaroos before he was delisted at the end of 2022. 

Differing success in the draft

While Geelong has built much of its success off the back of star recruits such as Dangerfield and Cameron, the premiership-winning list in 2022 was littered with several draft steals.

The Cats’ presence near the top of the ladder has meant high-end draft picks have been rarely available, but Geelong has consistently hit on selections later on in the draft.

The 2016 draft saw the Cats add Brandan Parfitt with the 26th pick before hitting one of the great draft home runs by taking Tom Stewart 40th. 

In 2017, the Cats took Tim Kelly as a mature-aged pick at number 24 and Kelly was an All-Australian midfielder within two seasons before he was shipped to West Coast for four draft picks. At the back end of the same draft, Geelong added Gryan Miers.

A Geelong defender looks upfield as he holds the ball, ready to deliver a kick.
Geelong’s selection of Tom Stewart with the 40th pick remains one of the greatest modern day AFL draft steals.(AFL Photos via Getty Images: Albert Perez)

Sam De Koning (pick 19, 2019) and Max Holmes (pick 20, 2020) are both stars who would likely go inside the top five of their respective classes in a re-draft. 

Geelong has also benefited from the additions of Jack Henry, Zach Guthrie, Tom Atkins, Brad Close and Ollie Dempsey through the rookie draft. 

Comparatively, the Kangaroos have enjoyed far less success, despite having access to more top picks over the last decade. 

North can count Ben McKay (pick 21, 2015), Jy Simpkin (pick 12, 2016), Nick Larkey (pick 73, 2016) and Luke Davies-Uniacke (pick 4, 2017) as its major draft wins inside the last decade, but the wins are few and far between. 

Harry Sheezel looks ahead while holding the ball
The Kangaroos look to have hit a home run by selecting Harry Sheezel with the third pick in the 2022 draft.(Getty Images: Daniel Pockett)

It is extremely early, but Harry Sheezel (pick 3, 2022), George Wardlaw (pick 4, 2022) and Colby McKercher (pick 2, 2023) all look to be excellent selections who will build the nucleus of a strong Kangaroos side in the next five years. Jason Horne-Francis would’ve joined this list if he hadn’t requested a trade after just one season with the Kangaroos.

In terms of the rookie draft, the Kangaroos can only count Cam Zurhaar, who was taken in 2016, as its only major win.

The importance of stability both on and off the field

Former AFL coach Paul Roos, who oversaw the start of Melbourne’s rebuild, believes lengthy rebuilds are detrimental to a team’s culture. 

“I spoke to a player the other day … and he’s implored his football manager and recruitment team to not rebuild. Players are now understanding that it doesn’t work,” he told the ABC’s AFL Daily podcast.

“He’s actually saying we’ll lose players, we’ll go down to the bottom of the ladder and never get better again.

“You need leaders to teach your young players how to play. There’s this ridiculous notion of, ‘Let’s just get all these kids in and eventually we’ll become good’, that’s absolute garbage. They don’t learn how to play properly because they’ve got no direction. 

“Let me tell you who’s laughing at all the clubs who want to rebuild — Geelong and Sydney.”

While the likes of Tom Hawkins and Joel Selwood provided stability on the field for the best part of two decades, the Cats have also benefited from immense stability off the field. 

Senior coach Chris Scott and his assistants Nigel Lappin and Shane O’Bree have all been mainstays over the last decade. 

At the Kangaroos, since long-time coach Brad Scott departed midway through the 2019 season, the club has had five separate coaches in charge (although one of those was Brett Ratten who coached North while Alastair Clarkson took a mental health break last year). 

The problem for the Kangaroos is, that even with top-end talent in tow, bad habits form on losing teams, habits that are hard to correct. 

“It’s also the standards around losing,” Roos said of tanking for high picks.

“If you look at the way the great teams are built, you build it around contest, defence. You’ve got to build habits in your players. It’s like building a house. It’s like building a game plan from the ground up, and if you’re not building it from the ground up, players love making excuses.”

It’s been a painful decade for the Kangaroos, and this year’s 0-9 start proves that contention is still years away for this group.

Kangaroos fans will be yearning for the days of the late 90s when their side was the benchmark of the competition. Geelong languished in the bottom half of the ladder in that same era.

However, football has proven time and time again that it is cyclical, and North diehards will hope their time is coming soon.

SOURCE: ABCNEWS

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