NORTH MELBOURNE 6.2 8.4 11.7 15.10 (100) ESSENDON 5.2 8.6 9.10 11.10 (76)
GOALS North Melbourne: Harvey 3, Hansen 3, Tarrant 3, Garlett 2, Gibson 2, Wells, Wright Essendon: Davey 3, Hurley 3, Melksham, Watson, Lovett-Murray, Crameri, Lonergan
BEST North Melbourne: Harvey, Thompson, Anthony, Wright, Garlett, Swallow Essendon: Watson, Fletcher, Bellchambers, Hurley, Davey
UMPIRES C Donlon, S Meredith, S McInerney
CROWD 42,674 at Etihad Stadium
FOR half a game at the Docklands last night, Essendon and North Melbourne played footy drawn from the 1970s. The ball moved end-to-end at breakneck speed. There were no obvious zones or forward presses. With a spot in the eight on the line, they went at each other not with defensive structures, but with hard-running in front of the ball.
The throwbacks included Dustin Fletcher, Essendon's ageless warrior of a full-back, playing on North's best forward, Drew Petrie, kicker of 23 goals in the past four games. At 37, Fletcher is usually afforded the luxury of a lesser opponent or a zone-off role nowadays; not on this night.
It was nine goals to eight at half-time and North Melbourne had lost two players to injury - Daniel Wells and Leigh Adams. Both are of major importance; in fact, Wells was best-afield in the opening 20 minutes before he broke down.
So it became apparent that one team would crack and the popular choice would have been the Kangaroos, with their reduction in numbers on the interchange bench. In fact, it was Essendon that wilted and at the pivotal moments, the key figure was yet another throwback in the form of Brent ''Boomer'' Harvey.
There were six goalless minutes at the start of the third, a kind of sizing-up period. Less than a goal separated the teams. Enter Harvey, who, at 34, has lost none of his pace or panache or nose for the contest.
Harvey took a strong mark in front of Michael Hibberd at half-forward, needing to kick from just beyond 50 metres, and drew up on his trademark. He slyly baulked Hibberd on the mark, ran around him to extract the five metres of ground he needed and drilled the drop punt through.
A minute later he snapped a goal around his body after Robbie Tarrant made a ferocious contest at ground level. Two minutes later he was in the perfect spot, streaming into the goalmouth, as Fletcher's spoil on Petrie landed in his hands for another goal.
Three goals in three minutes. Even a young Boomer would have been proud of that. These were the moments when Essendon's chances went sliding away.
Harvey even threw in a hanger over Travis Colyer to complete his day. Rotations? Who cares about rotations? ''If I had it my way I probably wouldn't want to come off anyway,'' he said. ''Rest forward, and play in the midfield. That's old-school football and I'd probably prefer that. But you can't do that. You've got to rotate. We knew we were fit enough to run it out. You look at the bench, you can't come off, you go again.''
The Bombers were in quicksand afterwards. They would kick just three goals in the second half, although they fought the game out.
Essendon's only goal of the third quarter came from another throwback: a Fletcher torpedo bombed from the centre to the goal mouth, and a Jobe Watson contested mark. By this time Watson had gone forward to find a score. As ever, he needed to do everything for Essendon. Great player that he has become, he is not a miracle worker.
Watson was close to best-afield with his 32 disposals, seven tackles, five clearances and a goal. Fletcher was magnificent, smashing the ball away from Petrie with his long arms and not conceding a goal to the North forward, who is on track for an all-Australian berth.
Similarly Tom Bellchambers will win plaudits for his bravery against Todd Goldstein in the ruck and his marking around the ground.
But North made Essendon look slow. The Bombers have bulked up to ensure that they can compete in-close, and a 149-134 contested possession count in their favour showed that the effort was there and the execution, too.
But the Roos have a unique brand characterised by quick, sharp handball releasing the runner on the outside of a pack. The statistic that was most significant was uncontested possession: 257 to 165 in North's favour. ''We believe we're a super-fit team,'' said Harvey. ''That's the reason we draw inspiration from pre-season.''
It was North's fifth win in a row and the eighth in the past nine games, which is some record. While their spot in the top eight is not strictly secure yet, it is all but done.
The Roos were heroic in the circumstances, with two players down and another, forward Lachie Hansen, knocked out momentarily in the first quarter.
But this North team has some bottle. They are dangerous and Harvey can see it in their faces. ''Right now there's a steely look in the eyes. It's a fantastic feeling, I can tell you. It means that we're going forward.''
Lachlan Hansen must have one of the hardest heads in football. The Roos forward was flattened in the first quarter in a collision with Bomber Nathan Lovett-Murray. Charging in with his head over the ball, Hansen took the full contact in the face and his head hit the ground hard. He was down for several minutes before getting to his feet and staggering off. He returned about 10 minutes later, and finished the game with three goals.
PRICE TO PAY
You have to admire Leigh Adams' courage. But sometimes it comes at a cost. The Roos paid that price last night when he again injured his left shoulder in the first quarter, forcing his team to make an early substitution. Adams was playing his first game back after injuring the same shoulder against Melbourne two weeks ago. He is booked in for post-season surgery, but the Roos could yet make it sooner. North also lost star on-baller Daniel Wells with a knee injury.
LICENCE TO THRILL
Precious few players have a licence to pull the trigger on the torpedo, but Dustin Fletcher has earned the right. Last night, he unleashed a couple of beauties, one that almost turned into a goal in the second quarter from 65 metres out. - MATT MURNANE