NORTHERN Knights were a much improved side in 2017, with an exciting bunch of elite talent steering them through somewhat of a rollercoaster season. They managed impressive wins over top eight sides Dandenong and Eastern, but still fell short against the top two teams – Oakleigh and Geelong – quite convincingly.
While they may not have top-end talent to match the likes of Nick Coffield, Jack Petruccelle, and Patrick Naish of 2017, they have a number of solid top agers who were able to gain valuable experience last season as depth players in what was the best Northern side for a few years.
Players like Braedyn Gillard (19 games), Harrison Grace (12) and Joseph Ciranna (10) will continue to provide depth through the midfield, while the likes of Stefan Uzelac (13 games) and Patrik Della Rocca (eight) will be solid tall options at either end of the ground. In addition to that experience is the return of 19 year-olds Mark Baker (17 games), who was invited to last year’s Victorian state combine, and Joel Naylor (six), who missed most of his top-age year with a torn meniscus. Both will be looking to catch the eyes of scouts after being overlooked last year.
Thomas Hallebone – a rangy, raw ruckman – and midfielders Brody Bell, Ryan Bowkett and Kareem Nasser have already been put through the ringer at an elite level with their Under-17’s Vic Metro selection last year and will be hoping to show a bit more of what saw them gain selection in that team. Meanwhile, Tom McKenzie – a smooth moving, clever midfielder – who starred in the same game looks to be the Knights’ most promising prospect, and will be hoping to secure a spot in the Vic Metro Under-18 Championships squad.
The bottom age talent in the squad is also something to keep an eye on. Xavier Naish and Aaron Castagna both have brothers in the AFL system at Richmond, while Lucas Perry became the third of his family to come through the Knights system with his debut last season. Cameron Wild joins brother, Mitch, in the squad and both are members of Carlton’s Next Generation Academy, which is ironic given their father played for Collingwood.
Overall, the Knights will be looking to build on what was a solid year in 2017, and their mix of talls and smalls should see them have the depth to hang around the finals mark once again, but it will be tough.
The first four games last year saw the Knights unable to snap a win/loss pattern, before breaking through with consecutive wins in rounds five and six. Their round six win over a strong Dandenong outfit which ended up 3rd was a standout for the season, with the Knights fighting back from 21 points down in the final term, and having skipper Nick Coffield slot the winning goal in the dying minutes.
After a thumping at the hands of eventual premiers Geelong, they went on to beat finalists Gippsland in their own backyard, which was a telling pattern of their season. A mid-season slump saw them lose seven of their last 10 games, with a draw against Greater Western Victoria Rebels and two crucial losses against Calder proving decisive in their final ladder placing.
Their strong start saw them make finals for the first time since 2013. They came up against a formidable Oakleigh side in the first week of finals having lost by 84 points to them earlier in the year, and were overpowered once again by 70 points. Having made finals and overcome some of the competition’s best, the Knights’ first season under coach Justin Wenke will be regarded as a huge success. In 2018, they will perhaps be looking to gain a little more consistency to continue on with their upward trend.
In 2018, Northern will again have a good mix of top-end talent and depth to carry them through the year. While they might again struggle to match it with the best of the best, their even spread of talent across the ground means they’ll be capable of causing a few more upsets. Their midfield is usually their best asset, as is the case again with ruckman Hallebone looking to give the likes of McKenzie and Gillard good service. But they will still be a more well-rounded side with some strong options up forward and a good fleet of runners on the outside.
They start off with a tough fixture against Sandringham in Frankston on top of meeting Oakleigh in round three at Preston City Oval. They will fancy themselves to pinch a few wins during the middle of the season with a couple more home outings and the top teams losing their best players to the Under-18 National Championships.
The last few rounds could prove to be a mixed bag as they host country sides Gippsland and Dandenong, while making the trip to Wangaratta to face Murray in the final round. The Knights will play six games at PCO, which will hopefully see a packed-out grandstand there to cheer the boys on.