THE LAST time Adam Tomlinson played North Melbourne was the last time the Demon played at any level.
That was down in Hobart in round seven last year when the 28-year-old tore his anterior cruciate ligament in the opening quarter, sidelining him for the rest of Melbourne's phenomenal campaign that culminated in ending a 57-year premiership drought.
On Thursday - on the ground where Tomlinson has put the work in to put his knee back together this summer - the key defender showed why he will come straight back into Melbourne's round one side for the Grand Final rematch next month.
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The Demons smashed the Kangaroos by 88 points at Casey Fields in their opening practice match of the pre-season, but the biggest story was the composed, aggressive return of Tomlinson in defence.
Melbourne will be without Harry Petty – the man who replaced Tomlinson – for the start of the season after the 22-year-old was forced to undergo surgery last week to release bleeding on a corked calf.
But even if Petty was fit, it would have been difficult to find room for him and Tomlinson, alongside All-Australian pair Steven May and Jake Lever, who missed Thursday's clash due to a minor ankle injury.
Now Tomlinson will have his heart set on returning against the Western Bulldogs on March 16, 319 days after his ACL went in Tasmania.
"It is nice to not have to play on him at training anymore. He's been flying," Melbourne key forward Ben Brown told reporters after the game in Cranbourne.
"The work that he's done to get back to the point he is, is a credit to Tommo. He trains as hard as anyone I've come across. It is a credit to him that he's able to get himself up at this point. I think it's been a pretty quick rehab, but he's incredibly strong and he'll be a really great inclusion for us to start the year.
Brown made his first appearance for Melbourne on the same day Tomlinson did his knee, after moving from North Melbourne under an injury cloud at the end of 2020.
The 29-year-old took some time to get going last year but finished with a wet sail, slotting 20 goals from the final nine games of 2021, including 3.2 in the Grand Final at Optus Stadium.
While Tomlinson ticked off a major milestone at Casey Fields, Brown torched his old side in a brilliant performance that highlighted how far ahead he is compared to this time last year, finishing with five goals, while fellow key forward Tom McDonald chimed in with three.
"Definitely different to last pre-season when I was coming off an injury and probably missed the first few rounds of the year. To be able to put a full pre-season into my body and to be feeling really good at this point of the year, I haven’t had that very often in my career so far," he said.
"I'm really excited about what the year holds. The excitement in large part comes with playing with this group of guys and what we were able to do in the back half of last year. I want to be part of that again. It's fun playing footy when you're playing well and part of a team like I am at the moment."
Melbourne and North Melbourne couldn’t have finished further apart in 2021 and the gulf in quality was stark on Thursday. But class aside, the clear difference was the intent which has launched the Demons out of the blocks as they look to become the fifth side to win back-to-back premierships since 1990.
Brown said the intensity on display in a practice match in February was reflective of how Melbourne has trained since they returned for pre-season in November.
"I think that’s the way we we've gone about our pre-season the whole way through. It was probably one thing when I first got to the football club that blew me away was the intensity with which these guys trained. I had to go up a level to get to that level and break into the team," he said.
"We've got a group of guys who are really driven, led by our leaders. Maxy [Gawn] trains as hard as anyone and is really hard on himself. The leaders are outstanding at that and bring the rest of us up to the level. You can't be a passenger, whether it's game day or training, every session is hard. I think that's how you get better."
Melbourne will now face Carlton at Marvel Stadium next Thursday night in the Demons' final tune-up against opposition, ahead of a season where they will be defending champions for the first time since 1965.