2022 AFL Season Guide: Midfielders

North Melbourne currently have young talent on all lines, but nowhere more so than in midfield.

The likes of Jy Simpkin and Luke Davies-Uniacke were joined last season by the likes of Will Phillips, Tarryn Thomas and Jaidyn Stephenson in the middle of the floor and that list of youngsters has only grown heading into the 2022 season.

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Jason Horne-Francis
Horne-Francis’ hype so far has only been fueled by his performances in the pre-season hit-outs in North Melbourne.

While it may be remiss to name him as part of that young and burgeoning midfield, given that manager David Noble has announced he will play up the forward line this year, Horne-Francis’ performances against Melbourne and the Swans show that he is can mix in the middle of the park.

Against the Dees, he finished with 17 disposals and six team-high tackles, including a belter against Demon Christian Salem, and faced promising the likes of Clayton Oliver and Christian Petracca. He showed his forward talent against the Swans, finishing with two goals and two from behind, but also spent much of the game at center, facing off against the likes of Josh Kennedy and Isaac Heeney.

Whether he’s playing in midfield or up front, it’s going to be an exciting season seeing the club’s first-ever draft pick in action.

Jy Simkin
The club’s co-vice-captain took his game to new heights in 2021 when he won his first Syd Barker medal and Ben Cunnington’s absence this season means Simpkins’ team-mates will expect him to return from leads in front.

Simpkin showed great signs of versatility and growth while stationed on the wing last season, and excelled at finding the undisputed ball – something he’s struggled somewhat with in the past.

Time will tell if he makes the next leap forward this season and perhaps mentions his name in conversations about the competition’s elite.

Hugh Greenwood
Something of an unexpected off-season arrival, Greenwood’s leadership, experience and sheer competitive quality will now not only enhance North’s midfield but also help set up some of the club’s youngsters for the future.

Despite missing the end of 2021 through injury, Greenwood ranked first in tackles per game (8.6) and eighth in break time per game (3.9) in the competition across all competitions.

Having moved to North for possible future coaching opportunities, among other things, his knowledge of the game has been fully demonstrated this preseason. His guts, determination and class were shown against the Demons as he recorded 18 disposals (11 contested), six tackles and nine game-high clearances.

Against the Swans in the AAMI Community Series, he showed why his size and strength also make him a powerful marker target when pushing forward. He finished 19 touches, one goal and a team-high six clearances.

Callum Coleman Jones
Coleman-Jones is set to compete with Todd Goldstein, Tristan Xerri and Jacob Edwards for a senior ruck/forward spot. The move to North Melbourne will also potentially push him to spend more time in the middle of the floor.

David Noble has said he plans a 50/50 split of rucking duties for the selected pair of talls, giving Coleman-Jones an opportunity to prove himself in a hybrid role.

Coleman-Jones, who was just 22, struggled to break into a strong Richmond side, playing just nine games in four years with the Tigers, eight of which come in 2021.

With 11 goals from his eight games last year, ‘CJ’ also proved he can hit the scoreboard when needed. North fans will be aware of his quality after he scored twice against the Kangaroos in Round 21.

Tristan Xerri
After flirting with St Kilda in the October trading period, Xerri returned to Arden Street ahead of his fifth season in AFL football.

Xerri appears to be competing with new signing Coleman-Jones for the second ruck spot and has put together a strong preseason in which he has struggled for a Round 1 start, with David Noble and the coaching staff impressed with his bid.

After missing the preseason duel with the Demons, Xerri was among North’s best on the ground against Sydney, finishing the game with 17 dismounts, six tackles and 29 game-high hits.

A dominant jerk at the VFL level, Xerri has been pushed forward for much of his AFL career thanks to Todd Goldstein’s effectiveness at North. However, with veteran Goldstein being considered to play much of his football as a key forward this year, Xerri could get an opportunity in the middle of the park that has so far eluded him.

A breakout contender?

Before being sidelined midway through last season due to shame overload, Tom Powell lit up his debut campaign. Somehow, the young midfielder was denied a NAB Rising Star nomination despite consistently being among North’s best players earlier in the year.

While no player wants to spend long periods on the sidelines, Powell has used his off-team time to hit the gym, and heading into his sophomore season his body seems much better prepared to withstand the rigors of AFL football.

He spent some time up front last season, scoring North’s first goal of the year on his debut, but he will certainly be a full-time midfielder going forward. Hopefully he can maintain his fitness in 2022 and North fans can see the best of the young South Australian.

Can history repeat itself?

As draft pick number three, you were under pressure Will Phillips 2021 to join and perform immediately. While he impressed at times, his Covid-hit draft year showed the lack of football.

Phillips played 14 senior games a year and spent much of his time on the forward line while adapting to the pace and power of the AFL level, but when the opportunity presented itself in the middle of the park in the VFL, he absolutely dominated.

In a first season reminiscent of a young Ben Cunnington, he averaged just under 11 dismounts and three tackles.

Cunnington, number five in 2009, played 18 games in his debut season. In his debut season at the senior level, the now star-on-baller averaged 13.8 disposals and 4.7 tackles per game, playing mostly in midfield.

Cunnington’s incredible development at senior level has shown that natural midfielders who rely on their strength and power in competition can take time to develop. Phillips’ natural ability, desire to improve and dedication to the practice track are certainly there, it’s just up to him to carry that over to the senior level as Cunnington did earlier in his career.

The big question

With so many young and exciting players capable of running through the middle of the floor, fans are wondering: What will North’s preferred midfield be this season?

Jy Simpkin, Luke Davies-Uniacke and Hugh Greenwood all appear capable of participating in plenty of center bounces this season, but throw in Tom Powell, Will Phillips and Jed Anderson, all natural inside midfielders, and the Kangaroos’ best structure becomes less clear .

Tarryn Thomas played center-floor last season, while Jaidyn Stephenson, Charlie Lazzaro, Josh Goater and Jason Horne-Francis are all capable of making contributions through center-floor.

Should Ben Cunnington recover from illness and feature this season, he will provide another high-profile midfield option.

The most promising part of this selection headache for Nord supporters? Seven of the 13 names mentioned are younger than 24, and only Cunnington has celebrated his 30th birthday. This midfield can grow and mature together.

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