Tagger: North's Jack Ziebell tries to cling to Collingwood's Dane Swan. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo
This was a tale of the best laid plans of mice and football clubs.
Collingwood spent a summer plotting this season and a month scheming for this game, working around the absences of Dale Thomas, Luke Ball and Andrew Krakouer, also Alex Fasolo and Alan Didak. Before the new year began, the Magpies had half a season's worth of wear and tear about them.
Round one, North Melbourne v Collingwood
Bailey Delaney, right, runs out with Collingwood captain Nick Maxwell. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo
Then, when the last "t" was crossed, it lost best-and-fairest winner Dayne Beams, who injured a quad at training on Saturday, and when the last "i" was dotted, All-Australian Heath Shaw was stricken by food poisoning while warming up on Sunday. Into their places came two debutants, making three in all, Josh Thomas, Sam Dwyer and at five minutes' notice, Jack Frost. So it was that for round one, Collingwood was the makeshift Magpies. Coach Nathan Buckley admitted he was not certain that they had the personnel to play to the plan.
But wait; there was more. Before half-time, veteran Ben Johnson was gone, with a badly corked thigh. Then Ben Reid, another All-Australian, was flattened by a flying shoulder from North's man-of-the-moment, Lindsay Thomas and, after a deathly pause, wobbled from the ground, a staunching bandage stuffed into his mouth.
Thomas, already four opportunist goals to the good this day, was wreaking damage in all its forms. Oh, and there was a piece of collateral damage: Buckley's phone.
Collingwood prides itself on its depth. Here was the acid test of it.
And here was the proof. Defying logic, the more grievous the Magpies' casualties became, they stronger they grew. When the toll reached its peak each side of half-time, Collingwood kicked six goals in a row, and eight of nine. The Magpies became a Hydra. More mysteriously, North looked the more battered and fatigued side. Ruefully, coach Brad Scott noted that the Roos had enough ball to win, but not enough poise.
Really, there was no secret. At their best, the Magpies are famous for their fierce work ethic. Now they redoubled it. Time and time again, a squandered North opportunity at one end became a fruitful one at the other, ye olde 12-point play. You know some of the names: Swan, Pendlebury, Sidebottom, Cloke, Jolly and at full-back, Nathan Brown blanketing Drew Petrie. Others are familiar, but not in this guernsey — Lynch, Russell — or that position: O'Brien and Clarke on wings, for instance. You would draw a blank on the understudies. But as always when assessing the Pies, it's the whole that matters, not the holes.
The first half on Sunday was played at breakneck speed and neck-breaking intensity. One player characterised Collingwood from the start. Time and time again, Alan Toovey plunged into the onrushing tide at half-back, with nary a thought for personal safety. At times in the first half, he was direct opponent to Thomas, but that was an incidental. Thomas was a prospector, artfully panning specks of gold from the swirling current. As North receded, Thomas drifted out of the game, but Toohey gave until he had no more.
For North, no more than Collingwood, did this day go to plan. It had had all summer to stew on its unceremonious dumping from the finals by West Coast last year, and longed for the day to re-announce itself as a growing force. It added even more alacrity to its game.
Yet, dealt all the aces this day, it folded. Certainly, the Roos came again in the last quarter, kicking four goals in a row, but that surge must be set against the fact that Collingwood was down to one usable bench player.
For Collingwood, this was an atypically low-profile fixture to start the season: twilight Sunday, North Melbourne, Docklands stadium, no television presence. It was a ghost fixture, played by a phantom team. But as North, and a crowd of more than 40,000, will attest, they were substantial enough.