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Final in July: A tale of two northern neighbours

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Roar Guru
4 days ago
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A resurgent North Melbourne is holding a mirror up to Essendon ahead of their clash on Saturday, with the result set to determine the extent of the cracks.

While Brad Scott’s exit has been a shot in the Kangaroos’ arm, the Bombers under incumbent John Worsfold remain unconvincing.

Contemporary match-ups between these two clubs are often heavy on throwback references to the ‘Marshmallow’ game and the intense rivalry these clubs enjoyed as competition powerhouses in the 1990s and early 2000s.

But it’s the different paths these clubs have travelled down since those glory days that deserves more attention.

While neither team has taken another gulp from a premiership cup, the Kangaroos have come far closer.

North Melbourne’s three preliminary final appearances stand in stark contrast to Essendon’s 14 misspent seasons in mid-to-low ladder purgatory.

More impressive though has been the Kangaroos’ success in reinventing themselves.

At the end of 2013, the club boldly interrupted the organic rebuild that followed its 2007 preliminary final defeat – think the acquisitions of veterans Nick Dal Santo, Shaun Higgins and Jarrad Waite – so as to contend before the widely anticipated (but admittedly yet to be realised) period of GWS Giants dominance.

Having run its course, North Melbourne coolly dispensed of favourite sons, Brent Harvey and Drew Petrie as part of another youth movement, only to find itself knocking on the door of the finals last season.

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Meanwhile, the Bombers’ attempts at reinvention amounted to the aborted Matthew Knights reign and the club’s infamous supplements saga.

And yet these odd bedfellows now find themselves separated by a solitary win and sharing relatively similar playing list profiles.

Both clubs feature a bunch of promising kids complementing a solid core of senior players, with a sprinkling of lateral recruits on top.

While boasting supremely talented young full forwards in Ben Brown and Joe Daniher and elite midfielders like Ben Cunnington and Zach Merrett, neither club can be said to possess an out-and-out superstar.

But the similarities end there.

Caretaker coach Rhys Shaw has the Kangaroos playing the sort of ferocious contested brand of football normally reserved for late September.

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Four out of five wins, including the scalps of Richmond and Collingwood, under the new coach suggests this is more than a rebound relationship.

While consecutive wins speak to improvement, the Bombers on the other hand are continuing to display the uneven, disjointed performances that have defined Worsfold’s red and black tenure.

The Essendon brains trust’s decision to persist with Zac Clarke in the ruck last weekend despite the dominance of Sydney’s Aliir Aliir was another tactical head scratcher for Bomber fans.

That Worsfold continues to cling doggedly to his big picture premiership mantra, in spite of the club’s short term struggles, is eroding much of the goodwill generated by his vital role in the Bombers’ post-supplement saga recovery.

Not that he should shoulder all the blame.

After all, Essendon’s administration must accept a large degree of responsibility for the Guy McKenna and Mark Neeld missteps.

And away from the field, Essendon’s decision to extend its lease of the Melton Country Club pokies venue is a shocker. Particularly when you consider that North Melbourne, a club with far more limited financial resources than the Bombers, ended its pokies involvement way back in 2008.

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Yet, aside from the on-again off-again pressure on Worsfold, the club seems to have been given a relative free kick in light of its post-supplements saga commercial strides.

Coach of the Bombers John Worsfold

Coach of the Bombers John Worsfold. (AAP Image/Julian Smith)

One wonders whether this leniency has contributed to a football club that is a touch too comfortable with the status quo.

And the question remains whether this has informed a perception of the Bombers as a team you can get at physically.

Certainly the interminable talk about the club being in desperate need of a tough inside midfielder does not reflect glowingly on the mettle of the existing on-ball brigade.

The misplaced snarl displayed at times by Bomber big men Cale Hooker and Tom Bellchambers isn’t a great look either. Kangaroos fans are unlikely to have forgotten a dominant Hooker needlessly bullying North youngster Dan Neilson in a 2017 encounter between the clubs.

If Essendon is in danger of being an AFL fat cat, North Melbourne is anything but.

From list overhauls to fighting off Gold Coast relocation plans and playing games on the Apple Isle, the Kangaroos’ financial constraints have never allowed the club to rest easy.

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While the extent of Scott’s own involvement is largely unknown, his exit from the club is yet another example of change at Arden Street paying dividends.

If the Bombers’ mini season revival proves to be another false dawn, the club may be forced to take a leaf out of the Kangaroos’ book and move on Worsfold.

Failing that, there is an argument that – brace yourself Bomber fans – Orazio Fantasia’s potential exit is precisely the type of shock to the system this club needs to break out of its funk.

That, or Essendon passes what promises to be the sternest of tests against North Melbourne on Saturday and earns a rethink.

For the Kangaroos’ manic contested style looms as kryptonite to the free flowing, halfback fuelled football the Bombers play at their best.

If Essendon does in fact have a soft underbelly, North Melbourne is the team to ruthlessly expose it.

Marshmallow anyone?