Roo cull: Inside story of shock exit meeting
Presented with football's version of a blank canvas, North Melbourne filled its palette with vibrant colours.
"Speed, run and excitement," list manager Glenn Luff told the Sunday Herald Sun.
"That was at the top of the list of our strategy. It was pretty obvious we had to address those areas."
The Kangaroos made a splash when they took the broom to 11 players before any of the other 17 clubs had finished their seasons.
But in the background their brush was already being dipped in brightness to repaint Arden St.
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Luff and veteran recruiter Scott Clayton pored over match footage of GWS defender Aidan Corr last December, and his name was one of the first scrawled on a list of targets inside the club's boardroom.
Luff flew to Blacktown in February to lock eyes on the soon-to-be free agent in a Marsh Series game the Giants won by 94 points.
"I went up to watch a few of the guys - but Corr was the one I really wanted to look at live," he said.
"What stood out to me was his speed, but also the way he organized the back half - which you can't get off vision.
"He looks like a real leader for the back half of the ground. He'll be great for Ben McKay and to complement Robbie Tarrant."
SATISFYING A NEED FOR SPEED
Corr had closing speed. He also had a five-year contract offer worth around $2.5 million, which he was quick to sign.
In fact, fellow new Roos Jaidyn Stephenson, Atu Bosenavulagi, Lachie Young and Connor Menadue all come with a sharp set of wheels.
"We always wanted to bring in four, five or six guys from other clubs with AFL experience," Luff said.
"We tracked players we thought were underutilized and maybe not as valued at their current clubs.
"We were on to Lachie Young really early, and Atu pretty early."
When Clayton officially started working at North in February he threw up dashing defender Young's name.
Young proved difficult to scout because the Bulldogs, blessed with an abundance of halfback weapons, played their rookie on a wing in scratch matches.
"But it was more about his attributes (than position)," Luff said.
"Clearly he's an elite runner and we really like his kick and his size. He's hit the ground running in his first couple of weeks at the club."
St Kilda fans cling to hope that Gold Coast's Ben King will return home to play with twin brother Max.
Who knows? North fans could similarly wish No.7 draft pick Hayden Young (Fremantle) reunites with older brother Lachie at their club.
Plenty have wrongfully assumed Bosenavulagi came as the steak knives in the 11th-hour Stephenson bombshell.
But Luff said the Fijian was "targeted a long way out" - and their interest swelled the longer Bosenavulagi stayed out of contract.
Collingwood coach Nathan Buckley described Atu as a "little bowling ball - he hits to hurt", and it was that blend of pace and punch on debut against Hawthorn which franked North Melbourne's attention.
Menadue was the last player North Melbourne took in the rookie draft.
But even the 2019 Richmond VFL premiership star was on the hit list before the season started.
"We saw Connor in a Werribee VFL practice match," Luff said.
"Scotty and (head recruiter) Mark Finnigan came back from that and said, 'This guy's too good to not be on an AFL list'.
"He was probably a bit stiff not to land somewhere at the end of 2019."
THE BRUTAL PROFILE ADJUSTMENT
The recycle refresh helped remedy the need for speed, which Luff prioritized when he joined the Kangaroos in 2019.
But the urgency for an aggressive cull only crystalised this year.
The alarm was triggered when the Kangaroos lined up their birth certificates and ladder position midway through the season.
"We had an age profile that was in the top five of the competition," Luff said.
"We had the most 26-29-year-olds in the competition.
"That's when players are in their prime, and so when you finish 17th it became clear that wasn't stacking up.
"We had to change, and a lot of those 26-29-year-olds aren't on the list anymore."
Gone from that bracket are Marley Williams, Mason Wood, Ben Jacobs, Majak Daw, Jamie Macmillan, Jasper Pittard and Ben Brown, while 32-year-old Shaun Higgins has also departed.
"But we've still kept plenty of experience," Luff said.
"It's not like we're just throwing everything that's a certain age out the door.
"We've still got (Todd) Goldstein, Tarrant, (Jack) Ziebell, (Ben) Cunnington, (Shaun) Atley, (Jared) Polec, Josh Walker, Taylor Garner, Jed Anderson, and then we bring in Corr and Luke McDonald wins the best-and-fairest.
"There was always the out of how many injuries we had.
"We had the most games lost to our entire list and our best 22 - but it was clear pretty early we needed to change."
The bloodshed was brutal.
The axe fell on 11 players the day after the Round 18 loss to West Coast, and Ed Vickers-Willis eventually made it an even dozen.
Sam Durdin and Tom Murphy went from inside the best 22 to outside the club in 14 hours.
"I was pretty rattled when I got told I was playing that game," Durdin said as he embarked on the nine-hour drive home to South Australia on Thursday.
"Shawry (former coach Rhyce Shaw) pulled me up and said, 'You're playing forward' - which I haven't played in three years."
Tears flowed in the Metricon Stadium rooms post-game as plenty suspected their careers were close to expiring.
But they didn't know just how little time they had left.
"The next morning I was getting messages from blokes saying, 'I'm done, I'm done, I'm done'," Durdin said.
"I went into my exit meeting after nine blokes had already been delisted thinking, 'I might be right here'.
"But I was number 10. My meeting was at 11 or 11.30am, and I walked straight out and grabbed a beer and tried to drown my sorrows."
The entire list digested the rapid fire over a few beers together, and felt queasy over the way it was executed by Shaw and football boss Brady Rawlings.
"We left the meeting with questions and no answers," Durdin said.
"It was very quick and very short, with no real reasoning behind it. Thinking about that now it doesn't really sit too well with me."
Analyst Kane Cornes mocked the Kangaroos, saying they would struggle to field a Round 1 team next year.
But ultimately their exodus wasn't far from the rest. Brisbane and Collingwood farewelled 13 players, only one fewer than the Roos.
"It seemed like the whole world was panicking around how we were going to field a team," Luff said.
"But we were far from panicked. We knew what we were doing and what we had lined up.
"We did it straight away compared to other clubs who did it in stages."
DRAFTING A PLAN
Attacking the 2020 and 2021 drafts was the cornerstone of the list strategy, with the Roos refusing to dilute their hand in either year.
Future captain Will Phillips was the blue-chip pick at No.3 and the Roos genuinely couldn't believe their luck that fellow inside midfielder Tom Powell slipped to No.13.
"Will is going to be just that manic trainer and performer, and the leadership was clearly appealing to us," Luff said.
"He just feels like a North Melbourne player. It became pretty clear to us that Will was the man for this group and where we want to head.
"He's only been here a few days, but you can see the standards he'll bring to this place."
Luff, Clayton and Finnigan spent their Saturday mornings this year logging on to the SANFL digital channel to scout Powell, who has "elite footy IQ".
It was effectively Higgins for Charlie Lazzaro (pick 36) - and while Higgins would've offered another 20 gold-standard games, Lazzaro might punch out 100-plus.
The Roos liked Lazzaro in a trial game this year and loved Lazzaro in his interview.
"Like Will, he's pretty manic in how he goes about," Luff said.
"He'll set standards. Those two will be interesting to watch pushing each other for a long time to come."
The Kangaroos started a draft that was rich with talls at the top by grabbing three inside midfielders, which they deemed the best players.
"They offer more than just your traditional inside mid who's just stoppage," Luff said.
"They can run and get out and they've all got different little assets they bring to the game.
"We felt it was a great opportunity to block a group of midfielders to set us up for the next decade."
New coach David Noble knows first-hand this band can measure up, even without a 195cm monster such as Patrick Cripps.
Noble came from premiership contender Brisbane, where Jarrod Berry (192cm) is surrounded by little fellas Jarryd Lyons (184cm), Lachie Neale (177cm), Dayne Zorko (175cm) and Zac Bailey (182cm).
Well, Davies-Uniacke (188cm) and Tarryn Thomas (189cm) are North's big boys, and will be complemented by Jy Simpkin (182cm), Powell (183cm), Phillips (180cm) and Lazzaro (179cm).
It is a similar model at Richmond, which had its height policy cut down by 177cm star Kane Lambert.
In 2021 the Kangaroos will boast the most players aged 23 or younger.
Quantity doesn't equal quality, but Luff is confident they have both.
Seven of those joeys are first-round picks - Davies-Uniacke (No.4), Simpkin (No.12), Aiden Bonar (No.11), Thomas (No.8), Stephenson (No.6) and 2020 additions Phillips (No.3) and Powell (No.13)
"We feel like it's not ground zero," Luff said.
"People think 17th on the ladder, tipping 11 players out is starting again.
"But we bring in Stephenson and we've got six Rising Stars in the one-to-four year players - the most of any team in the competition."
Stephenson won the 2018 Rising Star and joins North Melbourne nominees Curtis Taylor, Bailey Scott, Cameron Zurhaar, Nick Larkey and Thomas.
"That doesn't include Simpkin and LDU, who missed out due to injury," Luff said.
"You throw in Will Phillips, Tom Powell and Charlie Lazzaro and we think we've got an unbelievable launching pad of youth to make a sustainable build.
"We're sticking to the plan, and it's looking exciting for us.
"We hope we're going to be a really good team to watch going forward."
Originally published as Roo cull: Inside story of shock exit meeting