New season brings hope

The beginning of a new footy season is always eagerly anticipated, but after getting engaged over the summer and being consumed by wedding talk for a couple of months, I couldn’t wait for round one – even as a supporter of the reigning wooden spooners.

Walking through the Fitzroy Gardens to the ‘G, my chances of making it in time for the first bounce took a hit when my fiancée informed me she needed to make a stop for some food, before entering the ground.

Despite my concerns at the possibility of missing perhaps the only time the scores would be close, we made a hasty pit stop and just managed to make it inside for the start.

Predictably, the Kangaroos began the better of the two sides, booting the first two majors through livewire goalsneaks Lindsay Thomas and Matt Campbell. But while last season Melbourne would have panicked after being jumped at the start, this year’s Demons did not lose their composure.

Some good pressure from the forwards resulted in three scrambled goals and, lo and behold, Melbourne was in front!

North coach Dean Laidley had done significant tinkering with his side over the summer. Youngsters Lachie Hansen, Scott Thompson and Scott McMahon were given key roles in defence and all performed well. This helped free up Michael Firrito to leave his post at full-back and return to the midfield. And after being just one step away from the scrapheap a couple of years ago, Leigh Harding was a revelation running off half-back and on the ball.

With scores level at the first change, North threatened to kick away on a couple of occasions during the second and third quarters, but both times Melbourne were able to fight back.

Umpiring didn’t have a major influence on the contest, but there were a couple of shockers paid, with the Demons the primary beneficiaries. The umps seemed particularly keen to punish high contact, so several players who threw their head back in a tackle were rewarded with soft frees.

This didn’t impress a middle-aged North Melbourne fan a few seats across from us in the forward pocket of the Northern Stand. You couldn’t blame him for wanting to vent following a long off-season. But I was thankful to be in the same row as him, rather than directly in-front, because with every verbal spray, came a significant saliva spray.

The Demons played four debutants – Neville Jetta, Jamie Bennell, Kyle Cheney and Jake Spencer – while highly rated first-round draft choice Jack Ziebell was selected for his first match for the Kangaroos. While Ziebell was relatively quiet, Cheney was easily the standout of the five newbies, playing as a small defender. Often opposed to either Thomas or Campbell, the red-headed Cheney looked like he belonged on the MCG, reading the play well and possessing good foot skills.

While it was a willing contest, the match didn’t contain many moments that will feature in end-of-season highlight reels, bar a handful of exceptions.

In the second quarter, Nathan Jones made a courageous attempt to mark, running with the flight of the ball deep in defence, only to be outsized by a rejuvenated Hamish McIntosh. Entitled to be dirty after his name was thrust into the media by his coach as trade bait six months ago, the ruckman proved his value to the Roos, exploiting the Dees with his mobility and booting three goals, including the sealer on the run in the final term.

It was encouraging to see Melbourne youngster Ricky Petterd put his hand up for a regular senior berth, following two years hampered by injury and illness. Playing out of the forward pocket, he caught the Roos’ backmen by surprise more than once, taking nine marks in a lead-up role. As North threatened to skip clear in the third, it was a lovely six-pointer from a banana kick on the run from Petterd that kept the Demons in touch.

But the play of the day came soon after. With Melbourne on the burst and Colin Garland streaming through the centre square, Harding thrust his name into contention for best-on-ground status with a terrific smother and accurate pass to Adam Simpson for a goal that gave North a handy 14 point buffer at the last change.

The Roos finally broke the Demons’ resolve in the final term, with early goals from McIntosh and Hale, eventually running out victors by 34 points.

While Melbourne coach Dean Bailey rightly stated afterwards that any loss is disappointing for his young side, I departed the ground feeling the team had definitely progressed from last year’s non-competitive rabble. Perhaps I can even head to a few games this year believing we might win.

NORTH MELBOURNE 3.3 7.6 11.8 15.11 (101)
MELBOURNE 3.3 6.5 9.6 10.7 (67)
Goals – North Melbourne: McIntosh 3; Thomas, Petrie, Campbell 2; Simpson, Firrito, Harvey, Hale, Harding, McMahon.
Melbourne: Petterd, Green 2; Bate, Morton, Johnson, Moloney, Davey, Jetta.
Best – North Melbourne: Harding, McIntosh, Simpson, McMahon, Rawlings, Urquhart.
Melbourne: Green, Moloney, Cheney, Petterd, Bartram, Warnock.
Umpires: Mollison, Grun, McInerney.
Crowd: 28,707
Votes: Harding (NM) 3, McIntosh (NM) 2, Green (M) 1

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