This was a game that almost didn’t happen. It certainly came very close to not happening in Tasmania. With COVID-19 rearing its ugly head once again in Perth, North Melbourne faced an uphill battle to play this game at their second home of Hobart. Once the AFL approved the fixture, it was business as usual, and North faced another uphill battle, this time an even bigger challenge; the undefeated Demons.

It was widely expected to be a horrific loss for the winless Roos, but they came looking for a fight, and gave Melbourne an almighty fright. The undefeated Dees proved why they are at the top of the ladder, overcoming the plucky Kangaroos to record a 30 point win. Here’s how it happened.

 

THE BACK STORY

There’s no other way of putting this. North Melbourne is the worst team in the competition. I know that’s not exactly a shocking statement to make, but since Round Two, 2020, the Roos have a win/loss record of one win, 20 losses. Their solitary victory also came against a Crows team on its knees.

Off the field, it’s been just as bad, with Rhyce Shaw resigning just a year into his tenure, and David Noble being brought in to help steer the ship back to glory. Something tells me that this will only get worse before it get any better. When will they secure that all-important first victory? When can fans start to see a light at the end of this rebuilding tunnel?

Meanwhile, the Demons could not be riding any higher. Arguably the in-form of the competition, fans have started to believe just that little bit more with every passing week. Some pundits will argue that Melbourne hasn’t beaten anyone of note just yet, but that is out of the Demons’ control, and as they keep banking wins, their premiership hopes gain even more traction. Also, I would call Richmond a team of note.

Every player in their best 22 seems to be in career-best form, and they have two genuine Brownlow Medal chances in Christian Petracca and Max Gawn. Since the Bulldogs fell over against Richmond, Melbourne is the only undefeated team left standing in 2021. Who would’ve predicted that happening at the start of the year?

 

THE GAME

The first quarter started wonderfully for the Kangaroos, with a goal in the first minute of play, before Melbourne had even touched the ball. After another minute, the Roos hit the scoreboard again, and suddenly an upset was on the cards. Perhaps the Demons were mentally tired after an emotionally high victory last week against Richmond, but Melbourne hadn’t turned up, and a fired up North made them pay. Further headaches for Simon Goodwin, with Adam Tomlinson going down with a serious-looking knee injury, and he looked shattered when he emerged from the rooms, indicating that the medical staff suspected the worst.

Two Bailey Fritsch goals got the Demons going, but North refused to be pushed aside. Their kicking efficiency was at its best levels all year – with Tomlinson out of the game, Melbourne’s defence was disorganised, and the Roos pounced. It was as if the two sides swapped jumpers before the game, as North’s forward entries were excellent, while the Demons had to rely on scrappy efforts and quick kicks around the body to hit the scoreboard. North were ahead in uncontested possession 80-42, and led by their senior players, took a five-point lead into the quarter time break.

The second term started just as it had finished, with a goal to Jy Simpkin to extend North’s lead. Every time the Demons would get the goal many thought would kick start them, the Roos would answer straight back. All over the ground, North had Melbourne’s measure. 40 more disposals, ahead by 35 in uncontested possession, 20 more uncontested marks, along with a lead in inside 50’s of 30-23, and nine marks inside 50 to two.

Time on came, and North took even more control of the game. Led by Cunnington, Ziebell and Simpkin, the Roos burst the dam wall open to take a very handy 19 point advantage into the main break, and the Demons looked all at sea. The upset of the season now looked more than a realistic possibility, and you got the feeling that North wasn’t going to let this opportunity slip. The only downside for the Shinboners was a nasty corked thigh injury to Aiden Bonar, courtesy of a friendly fire knee from Jack Ziebell.

Then half-time happened. It was exactly what Melbourne needed, and clearly Simon Goodwin fired up his charges. The Demons came out breathing fire, and within two minutes, Fritsch nailed his third goal, and the Demons were up and about. The next five minutes were a tight tussle, Melbourne had clearly lifted, but North weren’t going down without a fight. Jack Mahony got the margin back out to 19 points, before Charlie Spargo answered back.

After the 10 minute mark, it was all Melbourne, preying on a tiring opponent. Goals to Fritsch, Pickett and Brown, followed by Fritsch’s fifth turned the game completely on its head and just about snuffed out any hopes of a North win. North had conceded six goals to one, and Melbourne had re-organised themselves behind the ball, shifting Tom McDonald into the position left vacant by Tomlinson.

By the time the siren sounded to end the third quarter, the margin was 13 points in Melbourne’s favour, which in any other game would’ve been close enough. Indeed, North were close enough, but they now looked tired, and Melbourne were full of bounce, indicating their desire to seal the result quickly.

It was game on again shortly after three quarter time, with the Roos fighting tooth and nail for every possession. No damage was done on the scoreboard, and at the eight-minute mark, Ben Cunnington capped off stunning personal day, nailing a goal to bring the margin back under two goals. Despite being exhausted from the adrenaline-charged first half, North kept fighting, and the margin was back to six points at the 11 minute mark.

Much like the third quarter, however, once Melbourne fought through the Kangaroos’ defences, they took control once again, and the workable margin got out of hand very quickly. Two goals in three minutes, and Melbourne entered time on with a three-goal buffer, a lead that wouldn’t even be threatened.

The theme here has been that although the Roos put gave Melbourne a scare, eventually the Demons superior talent, coupled with North tiring late in the third and fourth quarter, saw Melbourne overcome the dogged fight. Two goals in time on pushed the eventual margin out to 30 points. This was Melbourne’s biggest test yet, and their response after half time could prove the difference between a team making up the numbers, and one that can challenge for this year’s premiership.

 

THE PLAYERS OF THE MATCH

Starting in the back half of the winners, and it took a little while for the Demons to get going. After Adam Tomlinson went, Melbourne seemed disorganised in defence, and only got their groove back once Tom McDonald filled the void. Once they fixed the issue, Melbourne looked assured coming out of defence, led by big man Steven May.

Gathering 25 disposals, May was matched up on Nick Larkey, and he took North’s key target out of the game in the second half, while also propelling his own team forward. May took 14 marks, and registered eight rebounds from defensive 50. He worked very well with McDonald and Jake Lever, with each player both working well defensively and in a rebounding role. Both McDonald and Lever registered four defensive rebounds, and gathered 33 possessions between them. Another Demon defender worth mentioning is Michael Hibberd, who matched up well on Jaidyn Stephenson, while also gathering 19 disposals and ten marks.

North’s key forwards did whatever they could to get the game on their terms, but only three players kicked multiple goals; Ben Cunnington, Nick Larkey and Tom Campbell. Cunnington is a midfielder, so we’ll talk about him later. So how did Larkey and Campbell fare? Campbell was the more dangerous of the two, and his work as the second ruckman was vital in assisting Todd Goldstein. Campbell also worked well up forward for his two goals. Larkey was also good for his two majors, and for essentially a third-year key forward, is showing massive improvement in his technique with each game he plays.

 

In the middle, most of the better performers were on North Melbourne’s side. The pick of the bunch was Ben Cunnington, who put together his best performance of the year. Gathering 35 disposals (including 20 contested possessions), Cunnington had 19 disposals to halftime and was the main reason the Roos entered halftime with a three-goal lead. Cunnington finished the day with nine score involvements, eight clearances, six tackles, eight clearances and two goals. Other notable performers for the Roos were Aaron Hall, Jy Simpkin, Kayne Turner and Tom Powell. Hall’s kicking efficiency was on show in the first half, and he finished with 33 disposals (25 of them kicks), 12 marks and six defensive rebounds. Simpkin, Turner and Powell were also brilliant in a display that Roos fans will love, showing that their future is in good hands. Simpkin had 30 disposals, Turner finished with 27 in a different, more offensive role, and first year player Powell had 23, including an excellent second quarter goal.

For the Demons, Clayton Oliver was his usual contested beat, with 17 of his 25 disposals being contested. Oliver also had seven clearances, five marks and six inside 50’s. In the last quarter, Oliver kicked the vital goal that sealed North’s fate, and he also had five score involvements and a goal assist.

Other performers that had good days include Christian Salem, Ed Langdon and Luke Jackson. Salem and Langdon controlled each wing brilliantly, with Salem gathering 29 disposals and Langdon 25. Langdon took 12 marks, Salem four. Of the two, Salem was involved in more Melbourne scores, with five to Langdon’s two, but Langdon also kicked a goal in the second term. Perhaps the most surprising performance came from Luke Jackson. It was a display that showed everyone why the Demons selected him so early in the 2019 draft. Gathering 22 disposals (at 81% efficiency), as well as six score involvements, Jackson also supported Gawn well in the ruck with seven hitouts.

 

It was an interesting day in the Demons’ forward line, as aside from Bailey Fritsch, no Melbourne player had an out-and-out dominant display. Ben Brown, in his first game, kicked two goals, but only touched the ball five times, and should be better for the run. Kysaiah Pickett was up and about all

Ben McKay was the Kangaroos lone hand in defence, and his work in keeping Ben Brown out of the game went a long way in almost getting his team across the line. Yes, he only had five possessions, but that almost doesn’t matter, as Brown was largely a not factor, despite his two goals. The only knock on McKay’s game is that when the ball hits the deck, he often struggles, but we need to remember that this is a young key defender still learning the craft, he will be much better for the experience.

But today was all about Bailey Fritsch. No one could touch him, and for the most part, Fritsch was reason Melbourne won. Kicking a career high six goals, Fritsch was everywhere all day, registering 10 score involvements and six marks. Fritsch has kicked 18 goals in his six 2021 matches, and if he keeps his form up, will feature in the All Australian team at season’s end.

 

THE NERVOUS MEN

This is the toughest section of the review. Melbourne were the victors, and did so running away with it. Their first half was a collective effort, so it seems slightly unfair to single out any of their players in a negative sense. On the flip side, this was one of the Kangaroos’ best performances of the year, and the fadeout was primarily due to inexperience and exhaustion. But we live in a world where honesty and tough love needs to be taken on the chin at times, and it should be no different here.

Over in the winner’s camp, after halftime it was a complete 180, and seemingly every Melbourne player clicked into gear. However, two players, in particular, didn’t do enough, and had the Demons lost this game, both of these performances would’ve been under the spotlight during the week. Running machine Jayden Hunt was a virtual non-factor today, gathering just 11 touches. Yes, he took five marks around the ground, but Melbourne usually benefits from Hunt’s beautiful foot skill going forward, and that was nowhere to be found, with Hunt registering just two score involvements, from two inside 50’s.

Alex Neal-Bullen also didn’t see much of the ball, gathering ten possessions. Only 50% of Neal-Bullen’s disposals were effective, and he failed to hit the scoreboard. Neal-Bullen also registered six clangers, and gave away three free kicks, one of which eventually resulted in a Kangaroos goal.

For the losers, Charlie Lazzaro is going to be a very good player. But perhaps he needs more time in the VFL before he is fully ready to compete at AFL level. Lazzaro did gather 15 disposals and looked good at times, but he also had moments of uncertainty, and the Demons preyed on his mistakes. If he gets omitted, it will almost be a blessing in disguise, as the 19-year-old needs time to develop his game fully, and should be dominating at the level below before being considered for AFL duty again.

Finally, Captain Jack Ziebell could be forgiven for thinking he’d had a decent day. After all, he did touch the ball 23 times, took nine marks, and had six score involvements. However, looking deeper, Ziebell was responsible for some horrendous errors that should be scrutinised during the coaches’ review.

In the first term, Ziebell spoiled a ball that fellow defender Ben McKay had in his grasp, a mistake that led to Melbourne’s first goal. In the second term, while also trying to spoil, Ziebell kneed Aiden Bonar in the quad, and Bonar was subbed out of the game minutes later. Finally, in the third term, Ziebell fumbled an intercept inside Melbourne’s forward line, a mistake that once again cost his team goal. All tallied, Ziebell registered five clangers, and won’t want to watch some of his efforts back.

 

I can almost guarantee that even the most rusted on North Melbourne supporter never expected this performance. Make no mistake, this was the Roos’ best output of 2021, and it is a huge positive in North’s rebuild. But ultimately they couldn’t get the job done, and many will wonder when that elusive first victory will come. Maybe the also struggling Magpies will provide salvation for the Shinboners.

On the other side, Melbourne fans will be happy with their team’s fightback. In previous years, the Demons would’ve given up and rolled over, but today they took the pressure on the chin and overcame the plucky young Roos. Simon Goodwin has his team firing on all cylinders, and their VFL team is also dominating, showing that Goodwin has incredible depth at his disposal for a long premiership tilt.