The greatest difference between North Melbourne and Essendon wasn't experience, although that was a factor. Nor was it efficiency, even though the Roos tend to score more easily.
It wasn't that the Roos' forwards were superior, or that they had the stronger bodies of the more seasoned side. It wasn't Ben Brown's impressive accuracy.
No, in a match in which the gap was marginal and margin not enormous, Todd Goldstein was the bleeding obvious difference between the victors and the vanquished. North won the game it could not afford to lose on the back of Goldstein.
In a season of rucking renaissance – in which Nic Naitanui and Goldstein have vied for competition supremacy – the North ruckman had one of the season's most outstanding individual performances. Anyone who questions the value of ruckmen and their ability to win balls and influence teammates should watch the tape of Goldstein's game.
His numbers were as imposing as his 201-centimetre frame. In a match that the Dons led until the middle of the third quarter, Goldstein's dominance was decisive – and, eventually, he had enough teammates supporting him. His performance involved not simply an obscene hit-out tally, but numerous clearances and possessions.
Goldstein, of course, wasn't up against the great Simon Madden. His principal opponent, Shaun McKernan, is merely temping in the ruck and undersized. Of the recruiting priorities for the Dons, finding a competitive ruckman ought to be foremost.
North had trailed at half-time by eight points after a spirited first half by the improved Bombers. The Roos assumed control in the third quarter, booting five goals to one and the less-seasoned Essendon lost momentum. The Dons did not take a mark inside 50m for that match-turning term.
Goldstein all but secured the four points for North in a defining passage of play early in the final quarter, when he out-pointed McKernan in a ground level ball on the wing, ran away and found the opportunistic Ben Brown for a gimme goal, stretching the margin beyond three goals. The Dons closed to 13 points following a Michael Hurley goal, but faded at the close.
Brown was probably the best forward afield, taking advantage of mismatches against James Gwilt and Ariel Steinberg and, most importantly, seizing his chances to boot four goals.
Jack Ziebell, too, was important for North, booting three final-quarter goals when moved to the goalsquare - where he was eventually manned by Hurley, who had completely eclipsed Jarrad Waite. Brent Harvey, who started on the ground, was a steady influence in his 399th game and had 34 disposals.
Essendon had been spirited in the opening half. After conceding the opening two goals, the Dons booted six of the next eight to open up a 14-point lead late in the second term. Joe Daniher and Cale Hooker formed a dangerous tandem – Daniher's improved conversion evident in a second quarter goal from near the boundary. The Bombers were strong in the contest and used the ball with purpose. Goddard and Zac Merrett were among their prime movers around the ball.
North, though, had a knack for prompt replies – against the run of play – as they did on three occasions when the Essendon lead stretched just beyond two goals. As half-time beckoned, Aaron Black's untidy snap across his body bounced end-on-end for 30 metres and reduced the Dons' advantage to a more manageable eight points.
If the game hadn't risen to dizzying heights, there was an eruption of excitement and emotion on the half-time siren, when a mass melee broke out, in which the unlikely pairing of Taylor Garner and Michael Hibberd were prominent among the grapplers.
Encouragingly for the Bombers, their first-half edge wasn't all about effort – the teams were dead even in contested ball (66-66), with North marginally ahead in tackles and forward entries. The Dons were beaten in the clearances – where Goldstein was supreme – but rebounded effectively and had two dangerous tall forwards in Daniher and Hooker, albeit Hooker was wasteful. Hurley, easily the club's best player this year, had given Jarrad Waite a bath.
The Dons had the edge for much of the first quarter in play, and applied excellent pressure around the contest, as their 20 tackles to 14 attested. But they did not convert opportunities. They were undone, somewhat, by Ben Jacobs' smothering of playmaker Dyson Heppell, who had just 16 disposals. At the end of this otherwise humdrum match, all that glittered was Goldstein.
NORTH MELBOURNE 2.4 5.5 10.7 14.9 (93)
ESSENDON 1.5 6.7 7.10 9.14 (68)
GOALS: North Melbourne: B Brown 4, J Ziebell 3, K Turner 2, R Bastinac 2, A Black, J Waite, T Goldstein. Essendon: B Howlett 2, J Daniher 2, C Hooker, J Laverde, M Hurley, P Ambrose, S Edwards.
BEST: North Melbourne: T Goldstein, B Harvey, N Dal Santo, J Ziebell, B Brown, B Cunnington. Essendon: M Hurley, B Stanton, B Goddard, D Zaharakis, C Hooker, J Merrett.
UMPIRES: Simon Meredith, Dean Margetts, Nicholas Foot.
OFFICIAL CROWD: 31,025 at Etihad Stadium.