The impact of Ben Cunnington on this North Melbourne side is immeasurable. A spiritual leader of the side, he sets standards both on and off the field.
After missing most of the 2020 season, Cunnington proved to the AFL world that he is back to his best with an exceptional performance against Melbourne on Sunday, as he finished with 35 disposals, 8 clearances and 2 goals.
Cunnington and North ruck Todd Goldstein have formed a lethal partnership in the middle of the park over the years, and the ruckman says having the brilliant number 10 on the field with him gives him the confidence he needs to play his best football.
“He’s (Cunnington) definitely one of those players that makes you stand a little bit taller when he’s out there … you know what you’re going to get from him and it takes away that bit of uncertainty of what’s around you,” Goldstein told RSN.
“Having someone like Ben stand up definitely makes a huge difference for us and it allows other players to play their role … [for example] it allows Jy Simpkin to play a little bit of inside and outside footy, whereas last year he was almost solely inside.
“I could see in the second half of last year and in pre-season how much hunger he had and how much he missed playing footy … he’s obviously quite laid back but he was very intense about how much he wanted to play.”
The reintegration of Cunnington into the side has not just helped Goldstein, but the addition of such a mature and experienced campaigner has taken some pressure off of North’s young players.
Goldstein says there was no way the club could have predicted injuries to so many senior players, but he’s impressed with the way the first-year players have adapted to the rigours and pressures of AFL football.
“The three we’ve got playing at the moment in Tom (Powell), Will Phillips and Charlie Lazzaro … to be able to come in and start performing really well has been really impressive,” he said.
“Being able to surround those younger kids with those mature bodies and mature minds is probably something we thought we’d have … like Robbie Tarrant who’s been a pillar of our defence for a decade.
“You can’t plan on having everyone but we would have had most of them available which would have given us a little bit more consistency and a lot more protection.”
North is still chasing its first win of the season, but will head into this weekend’s clash with Collingwood with its tail up after a strong performance against an unbeaten Melbourne side.
Goldstein says the confidence taken from the side’s quality first half performance is great experience going forward for North’s young players.
“The first half was a great feeling, we were playing the sort of footy we want to play,” he said.
“We were playing with the competitiveness and really having a crack we’ve been looking for in the six weeks before that, so it was really good reward for especially the young guys to experience what it feels like to play our way.
“I don’t think we’ve got the reward over the last few weeks we probably deserve … but in the end I think it came down to that as a side we need to learn how to finish a game off and how to win the footy.”