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List balance and the dangers of tripping up at the trade table


Patrick Dangerfield and Shaun Higgins have been top pick-ups for Geelong and North Melbourne, but in list terms has it cost the Cats more than the Roos?

List balance and the dangers of tripping up at the trade table

Rohan Connolly    

Monday was the official opening of the two-week meat market which is the AFL trade period, and early indications are this year’s will be the busiest we’ve yet seen.

Barely had West Coast stepped off the premiership dais before the speculation had begun. Indeed, even the Eagles are already not the premiership side they were, with ruckman Scott Lycett accepting a deal to go to Port Adelaide as a restricted free agent.

Few, if any players, are “untouchable” any longer as clubs attempt to either fast-track a rise up the ladder or, if they’re already up there, maintain their spot in the face of rivals pulling every possible lever to catch them.

For a short time at least, an AFL club’s list manager becomes even more important than its coach, and with free agency now a well-established part of the player movement scene and the trade market more fluid than ever, his job has never been more complex.

Beyond crunching the numbers on his club’s list demographics, though, trying to anticipate what a healthy list will look like not just next year but for several after that, a list manager and his football department cohorts have to arrive at a fundamental judgement about the quality of what’s on their books. And that’s even tougher.

Geelong is an interesting case study to that effect. The Cats, having built a premiership dynasty off the back of astute drafting from 1999-02, have in recent years more pursued the trade/free agency route to stay in the premiership frame.

That has brought the likes of Patrick Dangerfield, Zach Tuohy, Lachie Henderson, Rhys Stanley, Zac Smith to the Cattery, along with the return of Gary Ablett as the Cats have attempted to turn six finals finishes in the last seven years into something more.

Given their consistent competitiveness, it’s certainly been an understandable strategy, and one being pursued to an extent again this off-season, former premiership Bulldog Luke Dahlhaus already snapped up for next year as a free agent.

Yet it also makes the juggling act of balancing a list between top-end established talent and that being developed via the longer-term means of the AFL national draft more difficult.

It’s hard to quantify just how much of an opportunity loading up at the trade table has cost Geelong’s less-heralded recruits over recent years, whether in terms of senior appearances or the sorts of responsibilities they’re handed once they become part of the best 22.

But there’s a couple now who have finally lost patience waiting for their turn, Lincoln McCarthy officially Monday’s first completed trade, the half-forward off to Brisbane, and George Horlin-Smith set to join Gold Coast as a free agent.

Geelong had a big win this season in the form of mature-age midfield recruit Tim Kelly, who finished equal runner-up in the best and fairest, the only fresh face in the Cats’ top 10. But he’s already indicated he wants to return to his native Western Australia.

The Cats unearthed another long-termer in Jack Henry this season, but most of their other youngsters are still feeling their way. And the bottom line is a list which was the fourth-oldest in the competition this year, and after another early finish of eighth, still short of the mark in premiership terms.

North Melbourne, meanwhile, is a club whose list strategy, not to mention performance, seems to have confounded various experts for a while now.

Barely a pundit in the land pre-season had the Roos finishing anywhere other than bottom two on the ladder. They were also the subject of some scorn for setting their sights upon then missing out on some big trade targets.

The accepted wisdom was that North’s trade-ins would prove little more than bandaids and that the youth it had developed at the same time simply wasn’t good enough. But the evidence of late is the Roos have been able to make both recruiting avenues work. Indeed, few clubs have had the sort of success with trade-ins that North has in recent years.

Shaun Higgins last week won his second straight best and fairest with the Roos, who also got plenty of value out of the recently-retired Jarrad Waite and continue to do so with Ben Jacobs and Marley Williams. This year also saw serious returns from another couple of other club’s cast-offs in Jed Anderson and Paul Ahern.

And what the sceptics about the Roos’ youngsters tend to overlook is a handy track record in developing from within. It’s worth noting that after Higgins, the next six placegetters in the best and fairest – Ben Cunnington, Robbie Tarrant, Ben Brown, Jack Ziebell, Trent Dumont and Todd Goldstein – were all players drafted and developed at Arden Street.

North may have missed out on a very big fish in West Coast’s Andrew Gaff, but Port Adelaide’s Jared Polec and Gold Coast speedster Aaron Hall seem at least two more than handy additions to the Roos’ plans for 2019.

North Melbourne may believe it is closer to the top than most outside the club, and after not just avoiding the popularly-tipped bottom two but finishing ninth only one win short of finals, why would you blame them?

It’s clubs’ capacity to make accurate calls on where their list is at and what means of recruiting should be followed to respond to those judgements which will shape their on-field future.

Which means that a busy time at the trade table for your club could be as much a cause for concern as one for celebration.

*This article first appeared at SPORTING NEWS.

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