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Match of the Day: Melbourne deals with its own demons

Melbourne pair Tom Bugg and Jeff Garlett in a celebratory mood after another Demon goal against the Roos. Photo: GETTY IMAGES

Match of the Day: Melbourne deals with its own demons

Rohan Connolly    

If North Melbourne’s winning streak of 17 against Melbourne seemed incredible in the era of the most even AFL competition we’ve ever seen, consider the following.

Until the Demons finally broke that run at the MCG on Saturday, their last winning coach against the Roos had been Neale Daniher. Skipper Nathan Jones is the only Melbourne player from that game in 2006 still playing AFL football.

Of course, you can rattle off a long list of other touchstones beyond football. When the Demons last beat the Roos, John Howard was still Prime Minister. Social media in its infancy. Reality television still a relative novelty. And so on and so on.

Whatever analogy you choose, it’s been a bloody long time. Which meant that whatever the vastly different expectations around these two teams in 2018, the Dees were always going have those little seeds of doubt in the back of their mind, particularly after having been upset by the Roos twice last year.

From that standpoint, Melbourne’s 37-point win was a business-like performance, one in which the Demons were able to gather their composure after being jumped at the start, seize the initiative before half-time, and continue to stay abreast of an opponent which, while clearly outgunned, never gave up the chase.

North Melbourne certainly couldn’t have started any better. Majak Daw, the late inclusion for the injured Robbie Tarrant, took a big grab in defence. Ben Cunnington had the Roos’ first goal on the board in under four minutes. Jarrad Waite quickly made it two.

Ben Brown scored a second North goal from a free kick, then a lovely attack launched by a genuine “screamer” from Jed Anderson at half-back ended with Waite’s second. Not only was it was four goals to zip, but the Roos were harder at the coalface and despite owning the ball, had out-tackled the Dees 16-5.

But in an open and fast contest, there was plenty of scope for Melbourne to hit back quickly. And it did.

Tom Bugg booted the first, again from a free kick. Dean Kent, back in the 22 for his hardness and defensive pressure, gave a perfect example of why, nailing Jamie Macmillan in a tackle and converting the free.

Todd Goldstein had another North goal on the board (once again from a free) but Bugg’s second reduced the gap to only 13 points by quarter-time. And come the second term, Melbourne got right on top.

Max Gawn, already busy with eight first-term disposals, had the better of Goldstein. A greater preparedness to bore in saw Melbourne’s midfield contingent led by Christian Salem, Nathan Jones and Dom Tyson, winning the lion’s share of clearances and contested ball. And the Demons’ forward set-up started to tick over far more effectively.

Goals to Bailey Fritsch and Bernie Vince made it just one point the difference. Billy Hartung answered for the Roos, but Melbourne promptly slammed on the next four in just 10 minutes.

Jesse Hogan crept into space and was found by Fritsch. An ambitious lookaway handball from Luke McDonald was beautifully anticipated by Jeff Garlett, who got a hand to it, took possession and ran into an open goal. Bugg had a third. And then Christian Petracca, deceptively strong in a contest with Daw, marked and screwed a lovely snap home from the boundary line.

Suddenly, it was 19 points to the Demons, who’d by now kicked seven of the last eight goals and looked to be pulling away.

But North Melbourne refused to let go. Particularly big Ben Brown up forward, virtually a sole target by now with Waite taken efficiently out of the picture by Melbourne defender Sam Frost.

Brown’s second goal just on half-time reduced Melbourne’s lead to only eight points. Two more in the third, the mop-headed key forward with a heap of room in which to work and opponent Oscar McDonald palpably nervous, made it only five points the difference.

Perhaps what happened from there, however, was another indicator of the more mature face of Melbourne in 2018.

The Demons had hauled themselves back from a five-goal deficit against Geelong and should have won. Last week, they survived letting slip a seven-goal lead to rally late. And this time, they went on to boot eight of the final 11 goals of the game, in doing so posting their highest score since mid-2016.

And while it was the smaller types who got that score on the board, it was the big men who were the biggest heroes.

Gawn did it all for the Dees, finishing not only with 50 hit-outs, more than three times Goldstein’s tally, but 18 disposals and six marks besides.

Jesse Hogan might have been nominally a key forward, but his best work was helping get teammates hit the scoreboard, finishing with 27 disposals and seven marks. And there were no shortage of teammates willing to cash in on that good work.

Bugg, Kent and Garlett shared 10 goals between them. Petracca and Fritsch could easily have had more. This is a forward set-up that is long on alternatives, something which is likely to prove even more valuable the longer the season goes than it did on this day.

So a major monkey has been removed from Melbourne backs. There are others. But at 2-1 with the sole loss by a kick to a pretty good team, you can already be reasonably confident it’s not going to take the Demons nearly as long to deal with those as this particular jinx lasted.

MELBOURNE 3.2 9.7 12.13 18.15 (123)
NORTH MELBOURNE 5.3 8.4 10.6 13.8 (86)

GOALS – Melbourne: Bugg 4, Kent, Garlett 3, Oliver 2, Hogan, Petracca, Vince, Fritsch, Lewis, Jones
North Melbourne: Brown 4, Waite 3, Cunnington 2, Goldstein, Hartung, Simpkin, Ziebell.

BEST – Melbourne: Gawn, Hogan, Petracca, Lewis, Salem, Bugg, Kent
North Melbourne: Cunnington, Brown, Higgins, Jacobs, McDonald, Dumont

INJURIES – Melbourne: Melksham (cut head), Vince (groin). North Melbourne: Tarrant (hamstring) late withdrawal, replaced in the selected side by Daw.

UMPIRES – Nicholls, Fleer, Mollison

CROWD: 35,518 at the MCG

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