Roo joy: Brad Scott congratulates his team after North's win over Essendon in round 13 last year. Photo: Mal Fairclough
ESSENDON and North Melbourne don't boast one of the AFL's highest-profile rivalries, but it's one both clubs have always felt keenly. And it's been going on a long time.
As far back as 1896, in fact, and the formation of the VFL, when Essendon, a key player in the breakaway from the VFA competition, was seen to actively thwart North from becoming part of the new league.
In 1921, with North still awaiting entry to the VFL, a proposed amalgamation with the Dons was foiled at the last minute, but not before Essendon had helped itself to a large slice of North's playing talent. North recovered to join the VFL in 1925, and after years of hapless on-field performances, it finally reached a grand final in 1950, where it was beaten by … yep.
It goes on. Like Essendon calling for a player count at Windy Hill in 1958, but left red-faced when the Roos, lined up like schoolboys at roll call, were proven to have done nothing untoward. Well, except ultimately winning the game, and costing Essendon a finals spot.
Of course, the best-known incarnation of the rivalry came between 1998 and 2001, which started when Essendon coach Kevin Sheedy took offence at a third-party suggestion that the Roos thought the Bombers soft, labelling North club officials Greg Miller and Mark Dawson ''marshmallows''.
Few North supporters will forget the joy delivered not only in the Roos' banishing of Essendon from that season's finals series, but Sheedy having to walk the boundary line under a hail of that aforementioned confectionary.
Thus followed a series of on-field stoushes long remembered. A classic in 1999 at the MCG, with Wayne Carey booting 10 goals for the Roos, Matthew Lloyd seven for the Bombers.
The 2000 qualifying final, when Essendon whipped North by 125 points. And the following year, when the Dons pulled off the greatest comeback in football history after having trailed by 69 points 10 minutes into the second quarter.
Since that afternoon, there's no question North has had the edge, winning eight of the 10 subsequent meetings. But any rivalry of which to speak has lain largely dormant. Until perhaps now.
In 2012, it's not about petty politics, verbal stoushes, or on-field incidents as such. What it is about tonight, though, is no less appetising. Two teams that seem virtually inseparable in terms of ability, performance, and, most importantly, ambition. Last season, Essendon finished eighth and North ninth, the Dons a game-and-a-half clear, but both teams' percentage around the 100 mark.
Both sides will go into this game with a very dangerous key-forward proposition - veteran Drew Petrie, playing his 200th, for the Roos, and newly re-signed power forward Michael Hurley for the Bombers. Both will have a midfield general skippering the side - Jobe Watson and Andrew Swallow - both still on occasion left with with too much in their hands.
And both have a seemingly ageless veteran, Dustin Fletcher at full-back for the Dons, and Brent Harvey all over the place for North. Fletcher and Harvey are the two oldest players in the AFL.
The profiles of these two teams are like a mirror, and in a round full of line-ball calls, this looms as the closest. Indeed, the first apparent difference became clear only yesterday, in the approaches of competing coaches Brad Scott and James Hird.
Scott was playing up the rivalry for all it was worth. ''A lot of our coaches who played for North Melbourne against Essendon remember it fondly,'' he said. ''It's a game that I think the supporters look forward to. It's added spice to an already hot round-one clash.''
Pure marketing-man stuff, that. To which Hird was only too happy to play the role of Scrooge. ''For them, that's great. For us, we're about winning round one and defining who we are this year and hopefully building through the season.''
The clear subtext in that comment was: ''We've got bigger fish to fry.'' Condescending, perhaps? Hang on … looks like we might just have found the necessary Essendon-North angst. Seconds out, guys!