IF YOU didn’t know what happened 152 days ago, you could have been forgiven for thinking Melbourne was still waiting to win its first premiership since 1964.
In the Demons first appearance since ending that 57-year drought against the Western Bulldogs last September, Simon Goodwin's men showed the first sign that they mean business in 2022. One flag is simply not enough.
With only four of the 23 from last year's Grand Final missing – Jake Lever (ankle), Jack Viney (health and safety protocols), Bayley Fritsch (calf) and Harry Petty (calf) – Melbourne sent an early statement to the competition in Thursday's practice match against North Melbourne at Casey Fields.
Forget the opposition. It was all about the intent. The Demons dominated the first half, overcame a brief fightback from North Melbourne after half-time before putting the foot down late to win by 88 points.
The Kangaroos couldn’t have finished further away from the Demons last year. But despite the gulf in quality and class, Melbourne was hungrier, cleaner and harder in Cranbourne, banking plenty of minutes for their first-choice team ahead of the Grand Final rematch on March 16.
Midfield stars Clayton Oliver, Christian Petracca and Max Gawn were rarely troubled by the Kangaroos and couldn’t have been more impressive for a game played in February. The trio linked up between the arcs and provided the reigning premiers with plenty of scoring options.
David Noble's men kicked two of the first three goals of the game, before the Demons slotted the next 10 in a dominant burst that stretched for nearly 60 minutes and provided everyone with a lick of the ice cream.
Ben Brown kicked a goal in each quarter to finish with five goals against the side he left ahead of last season, before playing 13 games including the one that mattered most in 2021, while Tom McDonald and James Harmes added three each to put North to the sword.
At the other end of the ground, Steven May burst out of the blocks to start the season, intercepting North Melbourne entries and then penetrating on rebound, before finishing the game on the bench.
While Adam Tomlinson put his hand up for an immediate return to Melbourne's back six by slotting in seamlessly down back, after being the heartbreak story of 2021.
The former Giant hasn’t played a senior game since tearing his anterior cruciate ligament against North Melbourne in round seven last year.
With Petty – the man who replaced him – going under the knife earlier this month to release bleeding from a corked calf and in doubt for the season-opener, Tomlinson looks ready to reclaim his place and lead the charge for back-to-back flags.
While North Melbourne is a work in progress, and expectations are low heading into the new season coming off a wooden spoon, all eyes were on the prize they reclaimed for finishing on the bottom of the ladder – South Australian underage star Jason Horne-Francis.
The No.1 pick from the 2021 NAB AFL Draft took some time to get going in the first half but was arguably the most influential player on the ground in the third quarter, instantly showing he is ready to make the step up from the SANFL to the AFL and why he is the favourite to win the NAB AFL Rising Star.
Veteran ruckman Todd Goldstein reminded North Melbourne's match committee why he is still the No.1 option at Arden Street, battling impressively with Gawn following a summer of speculation surround his position in the pecking order, with Tristan Xerri coming for the spot and Callum Coleman-Jones arriving from Richmond during the Continental Tyres AFL Trade Period.
With the return of Ben Cunnington still unclear given the challenges he is facing away from football, and Jed Anderson only returning to the football club this week and not expected to play senior football for at least the first month, the sneaky acquisition of Hugh Greenwood from the Gold Coast Suns looks set to provide North's young midfield with some extra grunt.
In a reminder of just how good Melbourne is, and just how good Oliver is, the three-time best and fairest winner slotted a goal late in the fourth quarter from a centre clearance. He polled 31 Brownlow Medal votes last year and finished third. Not hard to see why he is one of the favourites to take Charlie home this September.
It isn't all about Horne-Francis. With Aaron Hall in doubt for round one after straining his hamstring in last Friday's intraclub, pick No.31 Josh Goater was impressive and is emerging as a round one option for North Melbourne. Paul Curtis also showed a bit for the Roos in another positive. Melbourne played a near full-strength side and didn’t expose any untried options.
Kozzie Pickett was electrifying in Melbourne's phenomenal 2021 campaign. Simon Goodwin has teased him in the midfield before, but Pickett spent six-to-eight minute bursts in the guts on Thursday, providing Petracca, Oliver and co with some extra pizzazz around the ball.
Clayton Oliver dislocated his finger just before quarter-time but he was involved in the opening clearance of the second quarter and showed no issues from there on. Jaidyn Stephenson was involved a big collision and was helped off the ground before returning. Callum Coleman-Jones hurt his knee in the second half and went down to the rooms. North Melbourne was missing Luke Davies-Uniacke and Jy Simpkin due to illness but will get the pair back for the AAMI Community Series. Christian Salem departed the game late and looked ginger.
Kade Chandler only managed five games last year and has only played six in his career, but he showed some moments of quality, booting a goal from backwards of centre that rolled in to finish with two goals. Hard to put too much trust in Jared Polec at this stage, but the wingman was impressive in the opening half after being moved to the rookie list at the end of last season.