Main content

Up for the challenge

North Melbourne's successful trade period will make competition for senior spots fiercer than ever in 2019, but emerging midfielder Paul Ahern is embracing the challenge knowing the influx of talent will only make the Roos stronger.

Although the Kangaroos missed their No.1 off-season target, West Coast wingman Andrew Gaff, they addressed their pressing need for outside run and class by bringing in Port Adelaide pair Jared Polec and Jasper Pittard, and Gold Coast's Aaron Hall.  

They also added to their inside midfield stocks with Demon and former Giant Dom Tyson.

Ahern finished the 2018 season as one of North's most exciting young midfield prospects, having flourished after finally debuting in his fourth AFL season, a milestone that was delayed by two right knee reconstructions in 2016, his second and last season at Greater Western Sydney. 

The former Calder Cannon knows the arrival of the club's experienced recruits means he is no walk-up start for round one next year. But he wouldn't have it any other way.

"The new boys have been good around the club already. On the track they've been showing really good leadership," Ahern said. 

"They all have their own skills sets, so everyone brings something different to the team, and I think it's really going to bolster our midfield this year.

"To have Jared Polec on the wing, Aaron Hall running through there as well, and Dom Tyson as that really good inside midfielder, it's going to be tight for spots. But if you want to be in a good team, that's what you've got to have.

"Come the season we've all got to work together and find out who fits where and obviously 'Scotty' [coach Brad Scott] will pick the best side that he thinks will help us win games."

For now, Ahern is focused on putting his "best foot forward", a determined attitude that was evident when he was one of several North youngsters who trained for nearly three weeks during the off-season at high altitude in Utah. 

The 22-year-old has also identified increasing his tackle numbers – he averaged 2.4 in 11 games last season – and improving his contested ball-winning and body work around stoppages as key focuses this summer. 

As he works to improve these areas of his game, Ahern is closely watching the example that senior Roos Ben Cunnington, Shaun Higgins and Ben Jacobs set on the training track. 

He has picked excellent role models.

As one of the game's elite run-with midfielders, Jacobs was ranked fourth in the AFL for average tackles last season (6.8 a game), while inside star Cunnington was fifth in the competition for contested possessions (15.4 a game) and equal eighth for clearances (6.6). 

Higgins, who has won North's past two best and fairest awards, was equal second with Richmond superstar Dustin Martin for inside 50s, averaging 5.9 a game. 

"I'm leaning on players like Ben Cunnington, Shaun Higgins and Ben Jacobs, they really help me week to week in improving my game," Ahern said. 

"Ben Cunnington is elite in his body work and tackling and just the work he does around the stoppages is the biggest thing I take out of his game. 

"Shaun Higgins has that burst of speed, just getting those repeat efforts and doubling up with the handball receives and breaking the lines. 

"I take a little bit out of each of their games and try to implement that into mine."

Ahern rarely thinks about his right knee nowadays, having progressively regained full confidence in the joint the more he played in 2018.

This time last year, Ahern was spending a considerable amount of time away from North's main training group as he completed an individual running program and change-of-direction drills. 

But this pre-season he's been a mainstay on the track and is confident it will have him far better prepared for 2019. 

"Last year I was just that tiny bit behind the rest of the group, not really having done any game-based drills because I was off on my own running away from the group," Ahern said. 

"This year I'm in the group and just doing that game-sense work is going to pay off in the long run, I reckon."