Ben Cunnington will miss his first game of 2023 this weekend after being dropped to the VFL, a conversation North Melbourne footy boss Todd Viney described as “really tough”.
Cunnington has been subbed off twice this year, most recently in Round 8 when struggling for an impact against St Kilda.
Alastair Clarkson has now made the call to omit the 31-year-old, a decision that was no doubt tough to make considering Cunnington’s history as one of North Melbourne’s great players.
But Viney suggested it was one that had to be made.
“It was one of the really tough conversations we’ve had to have,” he told Sportsday SA.
“That’s part of the journey… you have to have some conversations with some of the team leaders and they need to make way for the law of the jungle.
“He’s been a great servant, he’s a great man, he’s very modest and he’s fought a very incredible battle to get back after fighting cancer, probably the toughest opponent he’s ever played against.
“So he’s done remarkably well to get back and play the first eight games but it's not at the level he expects of himself and we know the level he can get to.”
Cunnington’s attended an average of 56 per cent of centre bounces this year, down on his historical average.
The veteran has also found himself thrown forward on occasion in 2023.
But it’s his clearance and contested possession work where Cunnington hopes to improve.
“We’ve asked him to go back to the VFL, try and work on some parts of his game, get his A-grade game – which is his clearance work and contested ball – to the level he can get it to,” Viney continued.
“The game is changing, it’s more of a transition game now, so we’ve asked him to work on some of those facets of his game as well.
“To his credit, he’s taken it on the chin. In the selection meeting today with the team he said, ‘boys, I’ve got to work on my game, I’m not at the level I want and good luck to the young guys who are trying to take my spot’, which was perfect for him.”
Cunnington’s average of 10.8 contested posessions per game in 2023 is his lowest – barring his two-game 2022 season – since 2012.
He’ll line up against Frankton for North Melbourne’s reserves on Saturday.
Hugh Greenwood has assumed Cunnington’s spot in North’s starting 22.