A BRAVE North Melbourne has struck an early blow against St Kilda with an inspiring come-from-behind two-point win in a last-man-standing affair at Marvel Stadium on Sunday.
Amid injury carnage on both teams, Rhyce Shaw's Kangaroos came from 31 points down early in the third term to prevail over Brett Ratten's Saints in a thriller, 8.8 (56) to 7.12 (54).
The Roos showed enormous courage given they were reduced to just one fit man on the bench by midway through the third quarter following injuries to skipper Jack Ziebell (knee), runner Paul Ahern (hamstring) and tall Josh Walker (concussion), while St Kilda was without star Jade Gresham (knee) for the entire second half.
The Saints controlled play in the first half, restricting North to just 2.2 by the long break as their running brigade comprising the likes of Jack Billings, Seb Ross and ex-Swan Zak Jones and former Docker Bradley Hill led North a merry dance.
ROOS OVERRUN SAINTS Full match coverage and stats
But against the flow of play and their horrific personnel predicament, the Kangaroos somehow found another level after the loss of Ziebell to pile on the next five goals to lead by three points midway through the last quarter.
St Kilda's prized debutant Max King regained the lead for the Saints with his second major with five minutes remaining, before Roos onballer Ben Cunnington put North back in front with his second goal in the space of just nine minutes after being swung forward in an inspired move by Shaw.
The Saints had two late chances to claim the points, but big man Rowan Marshall's set shot from 45 metres drifted right, before a desperate smother from North defender Jamie Macmillan on Paddy Ryder denied Ratten's men yet again.
Walker's lucky escape
Josh Walker's latest AFL career restart ended early and abruptly with a sickening crash landing. The 27-year-old former Geelong and Brisbane key-position player came to grief just 15 minutes into his first game for the Kangaroos when he launched himself high above a pack but lost his balance mid-air and landed heavily on the nape of his neck. An apparently unconscious Walker didn't move for some time, raising grave concerns for his welfare, but to the relief of all present he managed to get to his feet and walk from the field. Diagnosed with concussion, he sat out the rest of the clash. Early in the second term St Kilda's new defender Ben Long also hurt himself after flying high. Long took a screamer but landed awkwardly on his right foot and, after a delay, hobbled from the field with assistance. He returned after half-time.
Ziebell and Gresham didn't kneed that
North skipper Jack Ziebell endured a limited preparation because of a calf injury and now he has other concerns. In the third quarter the Roos warrior entered a contest for a ground ball with typical vigour but went down clutching his right knee. Just when his team needed his leadership and hardness most, Ziebell was helped from the field and didn't return. Soon after, North speedster Paul Ahern limped off with a right hamstring injury. Earlier, Saints playmaker Jake Gresham also suffered a right knee injury, believed to be a posterior cruciate problem, and didn't reappear after half-time.
Jasper's minute of madness
North Melbourne defender Jasper Pittard probably wishes he could take back a crazy period in which he made two poor decisions in quick succession – one of which he was made to pay for immediately, and another that could yet prove costly at the Tribunal. Midway through the second term, Pittard went to ground and as Saints forward Dan Butler gathered the ball and went to jump over him, Pittard thrust his right foot out and took Butler's legs out from under him in an action that will surely attract scrutiny. Umpire Ray Chamberlain missed the indiscretion and called for a ball-up and Butler became demonstrative in his disgust. Moments later, St Kilda ruckman Paddy Ryder marked strongly 30 metres out before Pittard made it a certain goal when he gave away a 50-metre penalty by pushing over an opponent.
Long live the King
St Kilda's injection of five recruits in Bradley Hill (from Fremantle), Zak Jones (Sydney), Dan Butler (Richmond) and Paddy Ryder and Dougal Howard (Port Adelaide) added quality on almost every line, but most interest was in a debutant who is tipped to have a long and illustrious career. Lifelong Saints fan Max King finally played his first AFL game after an injury-ruined 2019 and it was always going to be a tough initiation given he was opposed to miserly veteran Robbie Tarrant. King provided one of the early highlights when he slotted the second goal of the day and was mobbed by his teammates. He had other chances to score in second quarter but missed a set shot from the arc and snap in traffic also went astray. After being starved of opportunities as North swung the game, King nervelessly goaled with another set shot after a free kick to put the Saints back in front, before North responded.
Roberton's emotional return
North Melbourne big man Majak Daw's long-awaited return was delayed by his late withdrawal due to a cold, but the contest still featured a player making a heartwarming comeback after a long layoff in the form of St Kilda defender Dylan Roberton. The 28-year-old made his first AFL appearance in almost two years since collapsing on the field with a heart condition. The Saints' leadership group member was immediately into the fray with three touches in the opening two minutes but was possibly a little rusty given that, as he ran with the flight of the ball to cut off a pass, the ball hit him square in the back. Roberton wasn't involved a lot after that but it was just great to see him back out there.
North Melbourne: Big issues for the Roos with captain Jack Ziebell sustaining a right knee injury, Josh Walker suffering concussion and Paul Ahern picking up a right hamstring injury.
St Kilda: Jake Gresham hurt his right knee in the first half, while Ben Long tweaked his right ankle/foot but played out the game.
If round two proceeds, North Melbourne will face Brisbane at the Gabba on Saturday night, while St Kilda will host West Coast at Marvel Stadium on Sunday.
NORTH MELBOURNE 1.1 2.2 6.7 8.8 (56)
ST KILDA 3.3 6.7 6.11 7.12 (54)
North Melbourne: Brown, Larkey, Goldstein, Simpkin, Hall, Taylor, Cunnington
St Kilda: King 2, Billings 2, Steele, Membrey, Ryder
North Melbourne: Cunnington, Polec, Simpkin, Macmillan, Higgins, Dumont
St Kilda: Billings, Hannebery, Steele, Jones, Ross, Clark
Umpires: Chamberlain, Stephens, Brown