It was a game with very low expectations. North are as bad as they have ever been, and the Demons are enjoying a nine-match winning streak to start the season. I’m sure when the fixture was released, North fans would’ve been saying a prayer that this match didn’t get out of control too quickly. Melbourne were always going to win, it was just a matter of how much they’d stretch the lead. Could North show their fans something and keep the margin below 100 points? Would the Demons put their foot firmly on the throat and re-establish themselves as a terrifying prospect? Was there an upset brewing after Melbourne’s second gear month? First vs. Seventeenth. Here’s what happened.
THE BACK STORY
It has been smooth sailing for the reigning premier. With barely an injury to speak of, Melbourne has continued on its merry way, and is yet to taste defeat this season. In fact, the most terrifying verbiage to come out of Gosch’s Paddock is the assertion that the Demons aren’t near their best. Melbourne are yet to really put their foot on an opponent’s throat and still have improvements in their game to make. With stars all over the ground, Melbourne are the team to beat once again, and whichever team lands the first blow to the Demons’ premiership defence will need to play an almost perfect game to emerge victorious.
The complete opposite end of the spectrum is where we find Melbourne’s opponent, North Melbourne. At the start of a complete rebuild, North are currently locked in a battle to avoid this year’s wooden spoon, and have yet to build anything substantial that will get their supporters excited. David Noble is suddenly under pressure to show that he can coach this team into the future, and their most valuable diamond, Jason Horne-Francis, has put contract talks on hold until the end of the season, which is always a worrying statement to hear. Losses can be absorbed, but the manner in which the Roos are getting beaten is concerning for those in charge at Arden Street.
It was a surprisingly dour opening to the game, and it was clear that although they don’t possess the talent, North had clearly brought the effort needed to bring some respectability into the game. Melbourne’s defenders looked panicky, and weren’t being afforded the time and space to use the ball. It was a poor free-kick that gifted the Demons the first goal, with Tarryn Thomas driving Ed Langdon into the turf, although Langdon made the choice to leave his feet and Thomas shouldn’t be held responsible for Langdon’s action.
The Roos were clearly losing the centre clearance battle, but their effort kept them in the game. A goal to Todd Goldstein, followed by another to Jason Horne-Francis, and suddenly the premiers were behind the eight ball. Goals to Tom McDonald and Trent Rivers (which was the result of a dubious 50 metre penalty against Luke Davies-Uniacke) restored order for the Demons, before Cam Zurhaar ran straight through Angus Brayshaw and put through a miracle goal. Late in the quarter, Bayley Fritsch laid an excellent tackle, which is exactly what you want from your forwards, to push the margin to 10 points at the first break.
North needed to come out with an attacking frame of mind to stop the Demons running rampant, and that’s exactly how it went. Through Nick Larkey, and a second to Zurhaar, North were back in front and looked ready for the fight that they knew would come. Another dubious free-kick went against a North defender, and Melbourne once again took their lead back. They had the effort in spades, but skill errors were costing the Roos, with errant kicks an unfortunate feature of their game, none more so than Kyron Hayden hitting Fritsch on the chest in the back pocket, and Fritsch made him pay in the worst way with six points.
Kysaiah Pickett nailed another goal, and suddenly the margin was out to 18 points, and Melbourne were threatening to run away with it. The Demons had another gear to go to, and North were giving everything they had in order to stay in the game. Zurhaar kicked his third to pull the deficit back, before a brilliant running goal from Pickett put the margin back out to 20 points at half time. North had done well to get as close as they were for the half, but it was 17 scoring shots to seven in Melbourne’s favour, and the margin should realistically been a lot bigger. There was also trouble for the Demons on the injury front, with Ed Langdon subbed out of the game, sustaining a rib injury as a result of the Thomas tackle in the first quarter.
North once again came out of the break the better, more determined side, and knew that they had to make in-roads, and quickly. It was a dour contest, with both sides committing basic skill errors, and neither side could make the other pay. North kicked the first two goals of the quarter through Jack Ziebell and Tristan Xerri, and halfway through the quarter, the Demons only led six points. Melbourne were dominating the inside 50 count, but could only manage minor scores, and despite their ascendency, North refused to yield.
After three consecutive Melbourne behinds, it took an excellent transition play for the Demons to score their first goal of the quarter at the 22-minute mark, after Luke Dunstan’s superbly weighted kick found Ben Brown, whose kick inside 50 bounced perfectly into the arms of sub, Toby Bedford. Jake Melksham’s goal around his body on the 50-metre line pushed the margin out even further, and North were on their knees. At the final break, the Demons led by 22 points, and it felt like all the fight North could muster had been withstood, and this margin now looked beyond them.
Melbourne, having built considerable momentum, started the last quarter looking to fully kill the Roos off quickly, and two minutes in, the game was over after Tom Sparrow kicked truly. If North could stay with the Demons, at least they’d gain a measure of respect, but the reigning premier was determined to completely squash their inferior opponents. North simply couldn’t get going in the final stanza, and once Melbourne got their tails up, there was nothing that could stop them.
Unlike the previous three quarters, goals were now easy to come by, and the margin quickly blew out. North had given the Demons a fight, but goals to McDonald, Fritsch and Max Gawn stretched the margin beyond seven goals. By the time the final siren had sounded, Melbourne had kicked 4.3 to two behinds, and the final margin of 47 points somewhat flattered the rebuilding Roos. North dominated on the stats sheet, gathering more possessions (360-322), taking more marks (111-66) tapping more hit-outs (48-33), and hitting more one-percenters (46-35). However, the Roos badly lost the inside 50 count (34-74), and overused the ball in the back half, leading to far too many turnovers, which the Demons punished accordingly.
THE PLAYERS OF THE MATCH
This was a tough match to grade. There was clearly a standout player on the ground, and his sidekick, both of which we will touch on later, but aside from those two, it was a very even spread from both teams.
We’ll start with the victors, who had winners all over the ground, though it took longer than usual to establish that victory over their direct opponents. Steven May and Jake Lever worked well in defence, and although their performance was less about their rebounding, both men had their moments of brilliance. Shutting down Nick Larkey and whichever ruckman was resting inside 50, May gathered 14 disposals and four marks, while Lever amassed 16 disposals and four marks. Youngster James Jordon was effective with 22 disposals in an uncontested running role, and Angus Brayshaw had his moments.
Venturing forward, Tom McDonald fully solidified his position with a strong display as his team’s main avenue to goal. Doing his best bullocking work, McDonald finished with 3 goals from his 11 disposals and seven score involvements, and could’ve easily kicked two more had he been wearing his accuracy boots. With Ben Brown largely ineffective, Bailey Fritsch also stood up to kick three important goals. Fritsch was also involved in nine Melbourne scores, and his forward pressure was excellent, laying three crucial tackles inside forward 50.
Let’s quickly touch on the losers, and I really hate to use that word because they carried themselves brilliantly despite the scoreboard. Aidan Corr played quite possibly his best career game, given how much he was under siege in the back half. Corr’s 29 disposals and 13 marks were career highs, and although McDonald took the points in the one-on-one battle, Corr ensured he didn’t dominate like he had the potential to. Melbourne did pressure him into error on occasions, with Corr recording eight clangers, but his disposal efficiency was still above 80%, and he registered 493 metres gained. Bailey Scott also played possibly the best game of his career, with 27 and 12 marks playing through the middle. Scott plays every game with the Shinboner spirit, and while other around him may possess more talent, it’s hard to argue that anyone has more toughness and a fierce desire to win more than Scott. Luke Davies-Uniacke was also prominent, with 27 disposals, seven marks, six tackles, and five clearances.
But the stars of the show were Clayton Oliver and Christian Petracca. Melbourne’s dynamic duo were beasts in the middle, as they always are, and nothing North did could stop the avalanche. Such is their dominance that curtailing one means the other gets off the leash, and on this occasion, it was Oliver doing more of the damage. Gathering a career-high 45 possessions, Oliver willed himself to every contest, with 22 of his possessions being contested, and he also registered 13 clearances and 13 inside 50s. Petracca was excellent in support with 30 disposals, 11 inside 50s, seven score involvements, six clearances and five marks of his own, and even with Max Gawn slightly off his game in the ruck, Oliver and Petracca still monstered North’s young midfielders.
THE NERVOUS MEN
The even spread from both sides made this section also tough to grade. Melbourne did win by 40+ points, so anyone that feels the pain of omission should feel hard done by. However, there were a few players whose impact on the game wasn’t quite up to par.
Veteran Jake Melksham, playing in game 199, provided his team with leadership when the second tier midfielders were in the coalface. However, Melksham only touched the ball seven times, and only laid one tackle. His goal in the third quarter was a highlight, but there wasn’t much else to write home about. Similarly, Ben Brown had an evening to forget, being shut out of the game by Josh Walker. Brown tried hard all game, and missed two gettable shots, but he finished the day with only eight touches, three marks, and zero goals. In the back half, Jayden Hunt was largely unsighted. Touching the ball just five times, Hunt laid three tackles, and had four defensive rebounds, but only registered one score involvement, which was a behind, and failed to take a mark all game.
Then there are the losers, who played better than the scoreline would suggest. Facing a near-impossible battle, the Shinboner spirit of never giving up in the face of adversity was certainly alive, and only last quarter blitz pushed the margin as wide as it became. Like the Demons, any player from this side that get the chop next week, but there are a select few that will want to be impressive on the training track.
Nick Larkey has all tools, and is on track to be a big star in the forward line for the next decade. However, as young key forwards tend to do, Larkey found it tough going today against the best key defensive duo in the competition. Larkey crashed packs and gave his smalls something to work with, but he only amassed eight disposals, four marks, and kicked the solitary goal. Larkey has shown more than enough glimpses to know that his talent is on the rise, but consistency is still a slight issue. Paul Curtis, in just his fifth game at the level, has also shown glimpses of his talent, but he wasn’t near the ball enough to have any real impact. Gathering just six disposals, Curtis took just two marks and laid one tackle. Perhaps a few weeks in the seconds will get Curtis’s confidence up so he can come back and impact game more so than he currently is. Kyron Hayden also had a dirty day, and while he had more of the ball than both Larkey and Curtis, his skill errors let the side down in a big way, costing the Roos two goals directly from his own boot.
All three of those are still young, with plenty of time on their side to improve, but Hugh Greenwood isn’t going to be afforded the same leeway. When you play permanent midfield, you need to be getting more than 10 touches in a game. Yes, Greenwood’s defensive work was excellent with seven solid tackles, which was a game-high, but Greenwood was recruited for much more than his tackling efforts. Greenwood’s last three weeks have been average at best, and perhaps there is an injury cloud hanging over his head. Whatever his issue is, Greenwood will need to figure it out, and soon, because Noble will want to get more games into his youngsters, and it could very well be Greenwood that makes way.
Most North fans would’ve walked away from Marvel Stadium relatively pleased with the way their team played. Sure, the eventual margin doesn’t look good, but for three quarters, this plucky outfit gave everything they had, and refused to be blown away. Melbourne did what it needed, and went to top gear when it needed to, extending their winning streak in the process.
The Roos showed that this giant is capable of being taken down. You can see what David Noble is trying to do, but this is only the start of North’s regeneration, and there is still plenty more pain to come. But this is about the victors, who withstood the pressure, put their foot on the gas at the right time, and put the game to bed when it needed to. The premiership defence is still running to schedule, and it would be a brave man that bet against them.