Essendon bruised, not beaten by fierce North Melbourne

What it lacked in class and experience, North Melbourne compensated for in endeavour and desperation. Photo: North Melbourne FC, Twitter
What it lacked in class and experience, North Melbourne compensated for in endeavour and desperation. Photo: North Melbourne FC, Twitter

Last week the football world was falling over itself declaring Essendon the genuine article and a team that could do some damage come September.

And the Dons may yet evolve into that team, but they still have plenty of room for improvement, notably in the areas of consistency and concentration.

On Saturday afternoon the Bombers looked like a team that had turned up expecting to win and hoping for a bruise-free shootout against the undermanned 17th-placed North Melbourne.

To put this into perspective, this was a Kangaroos team that had seven players with less than 10 games experience, including raw debutants Josh Williams and Nick Larkey.

This was a Kangaroos team missing captain Jack Ziebell, deputy vice-captain Jamie Macmillan, its two best ruckmen and the man who is probably leading the club best and fairest, vice-captain Robbie Tarrant (a late withdrawal after injuring his back during the warm-up).

A Kangaroos team that may well finish the season with the wooden spoon and the No.1 draft pick.

For the first three quarters Essendon looked content to play open, running football against an opponent that kept scrapping and working and tackling and harassing its way into the contest.

What it lacked in class and experience, North Melbourne compensated for in endeavour and desperation in the first half. The Roos' tackling, particularly in the forward half, was fierce, epitomised by Luke McDonald's chase down of Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti and Taylor Garner's crunching wrap-up of David Zaharakis.

Essendon held sway at the centre clearances, which has not been a strength this season (it is ranked last in the AFL for its clearance work) and often benefited from chipping the ball laterally to its wingmen, who stayed wide in space while their opponents were drawn to the contest.

But for three quarters, whenever the Bombers threatened to break the match open, they would find a way to allow North back into the contest, whether through a turnover, a free kick, a 50-metre penalty, or through conceding marks to Ben Brown and Jarrad Waite.

During this period the lead changed 13 times and the margin between the two teams was never more than three goals.

It was only in the final term that Essendon managed to crack the nut open.

Cale Hooker, who had been relatively well held by third-gamer Daniel Nielson, had two chances to gives the bombers breathing room going into the final change, but twice missed shots to make the margin seven points at three-quarter time.

But in the final term he cut loose, booting four goals in 16 minutes to effectively end the contest.

Despite the largely unimpressive win, there were some encouraging signs for the Bombers.

Their centre-clearance work was led by senior midfielders Jobe Watson (five) and Dyson Heppell (six), while Zac Merrett again produced a quality performance (33 disposals, 14 of them contested).

With Joe Daniher relatively quiet up forward, the largely unsung James Stewart stepped up as an avenue to goal, while McDonald-Tipungwuti and Orazio Fantasia again looked dangerous.

Martin Gleeson and Conor McKenna provided some dash out of the backline.

For North, acting captain Shaun Higgins provided some polish, while the likes of Luke McDonald and Taylor Garner did plenty of blue-collar work throughout.

Majak Daw, given the bulk of the rucking responsibilities in the absence of Todd Goldstein, produced some handy tap-work and a few promising glimpses with his work around the ground, but did not have a physical presence or a major influence on the game.

In the end, Essendon did what it had to, but it will need to produce more accountable football more often if it is to be a factor come finals time.

By the numbers

ESSENDON 4.2 8.3 13.8 20.12 (132)

NORTH MELBOURNE 4.4 8.5 12.7 16.9 (105)

GOALS - Essendon: Hooker 5, Fantasia 4, McDonald-Tipungwuti 3, Heppell 2, Daniher 2, Stewart 2, Parish, Zaharakis.

North Melbourne: Brown 6, Waite 4, Mullett, Swallow, Williams, Gibson, Dumont, Garner.

BEST - Essendon: Merrett, Fantasia, Heppell, Watson, Stewart, McDonald-Tipungwuti, Hooker.

North Melbourne: Brown, Garner, Higgins, McDonald, Waite, Durdin, Dumont

UMPIRES - Pannell, Fleer, Fisher

CROWD - 40,359, at Etihad Stadium

This story first appeared on Brisbane Times.