AFLW Insight: Why improved Roos are looking good for the flag

"WE'RE happy to say we're in it to win it this year."

It's safe to say North Melbourne coach Scott Gowans wasn't pulling any punches on the eve of the season.

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While most sides will say they're hoping to make finals, and the flag being the ultimate aim, not many will boldly put a premiership on the agenda.

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As it stands after round five, North Melbourne is sitting pretty at the top of Conference A, having dropped only its first game against Melbourne by two points.

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After that match, Gowans made the point Adelaide had also lost its opening game before going on to win the 2019 flag.

The Roos are now the highest scoring team in the competition (averaging 48.6 points per game) and on Saturday monstered the reigning premiers in Adelaide by 42 points, the Crows' biggest ever loss. 

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Lessons from year one

North Melbourne had a similarly strong start in its first season in the competition in 2019, winning the first four matches before running out of steam, getting well and truly beaten by top-tier sides Adelaide and Fremantle.

They're losses which have lingered for Gowans, the coaching staff and his team.

Throughout this season, the coach has often referred to the round seven Dockers defeat, where contested ball was a big issue and the result ultimately knocked the Roos out of the finals.

"At the end of the day, we take the four points. I still reflect back to last year when Fremantle got hold of us in a similar fashion last year, but today we were able to withstand it, and I was pretty pleased with the result," Gowans said after the tough round four win over Gold Coast.

Changes were made over the off-season.

There were seven new players in the line-up against Adelaide: midfielders Ellie Gavalas, Mia King and Ash Riddell (who missed most of 2019 with an ankle injury), defenders Aileen Gilroy, Tahni Nestor and Sarah Wright and ruck Vivien Saad.

They've replaced the likes of Jamie Stanton (Gold Coast), Ali Drennan (St Kilda), Jess Duffin (pregnancy) and Moana Hope (delisted).

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The defensive trio have added some steel to the backline, with Gilroy's rebound ability and much-needed speed a bonus.

In Hope's absence, Kaitlyn Ashmore (eight goals, up from four last year), Sophie Abbatangelo (four, up from two) and Daisy Bateman (five, up from four) have already topped their goalkicking tallies from last year. 

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What's working? 

The Roos have hit upon a relatively uncontested, high-disposal game plan, and have the skills and list depth to execute it.

Statistic

Average

Competition Ranking

Disposals

225.8

1st

Kicks

144.2

1st

Contested possessions

100.6

=6th

Marks

46.2

3rd

Clearances

25.2

1st

Inside 50s

32.6

2nd

Goals

7.2

1st

Disposals per goal

31.4

2nd

 

"Part of the next step is to do with team defence and introducing a way to play football when you're behind the footy, to do with the scoreboard," Gowans told womens.afl before the season started.

"Everything we do is based off the scoreboard. There'll be times when we're one v one, there'll be times when we're plus-one, there'll be times when we have a different way to move the ball. That is team defence, for me, not just a particular shape. 

"The focus has been on education for the players about recognising the match conditions and changing the way we play accordingly."

And they did so against Adelaide, following a similar path to Carlton the week before and recording a season-high marking tally to defeat the Crows.

Just try stopping them

But North Melbourne's biggest strength is the depth which list manager Rhys Harwood has created, particularly in the midfield.

Think you've finally stopped Emma Kearney's gut-running? Jasmine Garner's just grabbed the ball and booted it 50 metres.

You've somehow managed to get on top of Garner's aerial work? Jenna Bruton's slipped under your guard and squirrelled the ball away.

And if it's not Bruton, it's Riddell or Gavalas or even youngster Mia King.

Not to mention the giant presence of Emma King – who is yet to hit her straps in 2020 – looming in the goalsquare, or the teamwork of Tahlia Randall, Danielle Hardiman and Britt Gibson in defence.

With games against Geelong (currently fourth in Conference A), Western Bulldogs (fifth in B) and a challenge against Brisbane up north (second in A), the Kangaroos are well poised to make their first finals series.

One thing's for sure, North Melbourne girls are hard to beat when they come out to play.