NORTH MELBOURNE 2.2 2.5 6.8 12.11 (83)WESTERN BULLDOGS 0.3 2.3 5.4 8.6 (54)
Goals: North Melbourne: B Harvey 3 D Petrie 2 A Black B McKenzie D Currie D Wells J Ziebell L Adams L Greenwood. Western Bulldogs: A Cooney J Macrae J Stringer K Stevens L Dahlhaus L Jones R Griffen S Crameri.
BESTNorth Melbourne: Harvey Thompson, Gibson. Bulldogs: Dahlhaus, Cooney.
Umpires: Mathew Nicholls, Dean Margetts, Brendan Hosking.
Official Crowd: 28,512 at Etihad Stadium.
For a moment it looked like the Western Bulldogs would rush the ball through the half-back line, run it forward and kick goals. For a second it looked like North Melbourne’s tall forwards would be a touch too tough to contain.
Actually, no, it didn’t. By half-time on Sunday night the Bulldogs had kicked two goals, and so had the Kangaroos. This game was so tight and so tough that when someone did manage to get the ball out, and when someone did start to run off with it, there was no-one to kick to but players wearing the other colours.
Things were started, then stopped. Then started and stopped all over again, often by the side with the ball. The Bulldogs found it hard to take any of their dashes past their own half-forward line. North seemed to get a little further, but struggled to locate the holes in its own, very crowded forward line.
It should probably not have surprised anyone that simply getting their hands to the ball was a priority for both sides. They both had something to make up for, to do better, and it just happened to be the same thing.
It’s what North Melbourne loves to do, what it can usually rely on, and what it couldn’t do against the Essendon midfield last week. It’s the first thing Brendan McCartney began teaching his Bulldogs, and one of the areas in which they struggled against West Coast in their own round-one game.
It explains the logjam, the rolling ball of players desperate to get to the ball first: North’s 187 first-half possessions to the Dogs’ 183. North’s 70 handball receives to the Bulldogs’ similarly stagnant 61, a contested possession count just three in North Melbourne’s way and a scoreline of 17 points to 15.
Something had to give. Something needed to happen, someone needed to find space, and the second half did start to open up. Through Drew Petrie and Daniel Currie, North did start to make the Bulldogs’ backline think. The half-chances that the Dogs didn’t quite take in the first half were finished off, or at least more of them were: Ryan Griffen’s strong mark ended with a goal. Jake Stringer’s kick bounced the right way through the open goal square. Brent Harvey wriggled his way close to goal at the other end, and squeezed his kick through. Goals being kicked meant goals had to be responded to. It meant things had to be done, as well as be shut down.
Harvey’s game was important: he was able to get things moving. Dal Santo found room to move. The Bulldogs are almost at the point where they need two versions of Luke Dahlhaus: one to do anything he can think of to win the ball in the middle and another to finish things in ways just as creative and determined. Ben Cunnington, Brad McKenzie and a battered Jack Ziebell kept flinging themselves at the ball, and Tom Liberatore kept tacking them.
In the end, North created the tiniest bit more room in which to move. There was never much in the possession count, and never much in the contested tally. But the ball seemed a little easier for their forwards to make. They seemed better able to get it to players in time for that player to do something unrushed with it.
They had Dal Santo and Wells kicking the ball inside 50. They had Levi Greenwood, and his 11-possession, one-goal last quarter that made a big difference, Most of all they had Harvey. Both teams worked hard, and didn’t really stop. North was just that little bit better at finding ways to finish things off.