IF PART of Essendon's struggles this season can be attributed to the injury-affected absence of Jake Stringer, then Sunday was a reminder of what the Bombers can be with their gamechanger at his best.
In the first quarter alone, Stringer booted three goals from the midfield in a ballistic burst that set the tone in Essendon's 48-point win over North Melbourne.
BOMBERS V KANGAROOS Full match details and stats
The 28-year-old bookended his day with two last-quarter goals to finish with five majors as the Bombers steadily built on their lead through the game to claim the 17.12 (114) to 9.12 (66) victory.
Stringer remains Essendon's chief matchwinner and his performance also included 14 disposals and six tackles in a damaging display for the Bombers, who recorded their highest score of the year.
It was their fourth win from five games in a turn of form that has lifted them slightly up the ladder and also raised spirits about a season that had otherwise been an ugly backwards step.
Despite losing in-form midfielder Dylan Shiel to a hamstring injury pre-game, the Bombers got on top around the ball, with Zach Merrett excellent with 38 disposals, 10 tackles and a goal, defender Mason Redman collected 32 disposals off half-back. Dyson Heppell, too, was consistent, while James Stewart returned to the Bombers' line-up with three goals.
Jy Simpkin tried valiantly in the midfield for the Roos with a career-best 41 disposals, while Cam Zurhaar was a threat throughout, finishing with four goals for the last-placed Kangaroos.
Stringer was sharp early. He kicked the first of the day from the goal line and had three by quarter-time, including a set shot and a clever snap.
Starting in the centre and pushing forward, Stringer was back to some of his brilliant 2021 form when he kicked 41 goals from 19 games and won several matches off his own boot for his team.
The Bombers' efficiency going forward made them dangerous in attack to hand them a 15-point lead at the first change.
North's own raging bull Zurhaar was standing in the way of a heavy defeat. He booted a goal to start the second term, his second of the day, and caused some headaches inside 50 for the Roos.
The Roos star kicked his third in the dying moments of the half to keep his side within reach of the Bombers, who had stretched their lead to 30 points just before the main break.
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But Peter Wright got involved in the third quarter with two goals as the Bombers stretched their lead to 33 points at the final change, as Essendon ran away with its eighth straight win over North Melbourne dating back to 2016.
Redman's star continues to rise
Mason Redman was in doubt to face the Kangaroos after being sent to hospital last week after coughing up blood against Collingwood. But he played, and played very well, as a crucial member of the Bombers' win over the Roos. Redman picked up 32 disposals, including 19 in the first half, and continued his brilliant form off half-back. His run and carry has been consistent throughout the year even when the Bombers were struggling, and his goal from long range in the second quarter added to his highlights. Should be leading the club's best and fairest.
McKay and Wright in tight battle
In his 50th AFL game, North Melbourne full-back Ben McKay emerged as one of North's best in his battle with Peter Wright. Wright had entered the game with 45 goals for the season after 19 games, but he met his match in McKay, who was less interceptor than usual but instead spoiled many of Wright's marking attempts in the first half. Wright was better after the main break, kicking two goals and being more involved, but it was an even contest.
And at the other end…
The emergence of Brandon Zerk-Thatcher has been a good find for the Bombers in the past month. The key back has played five games in a row since coming into the side against the Swans in round 16 and grown with every game. On Sunday he took on Kangaroos key forward Nick Larkey, who managed just seven disposals and three behinds. Zerk-Thatcher has been on the fringe of selection in recent seasons but has improved to find his spot in Essendon's back half and had 14 disposals himself.
ESSENDON 5.1 9.5 13.6 17.12 (114)
NORTH MELBOURNE 2.4 5.6 7.9 9.12 (66)
Essendon: Stringer 5, Stewart 3, Jones 2, Langford 2, Wright 2, Guelfi, Merrett, Redman
North Melbourne: Zurhaar 4, Anderson, Coleman-Jones, Goldstein, Scott, Turner
Essendon: Redman, Merrett, Stringer, Zerk-Thatcher, Hind, Ridley
North Melbourne: Simpkin, Zurhaar, Anderson, Stephenson, McKay, Scott
Essendon: Caldwell (calf)
North Melbourne: Nil
Essendon: Dylan Shiel (hamstring) replaced by Archie Perkins
North Melbourne: Lachie Young, Jack Mahony (health and safety protocols) replaced by Phoenix Spicer, Kayne Turner
Essendon: Jye Menzie (replaced Jye Caldwell in the third quarter)
North Melbourne: Josh Walker (unused)