Where: Etihad Stadium, 7.45pm, Saturday 31st March
TV: Fox Footy, 7.30pm
Radio: 3AW, MMM
Odds: North Melbourne $2.17, Essendon $1.87, Line North +1.5

It’s not often that the first round of the AFL season can be viewed to have such a clear impact on the finals.

Most years, teams are still trying to be worked out. However, with such a tough competition for the lower finals places in 2012, this match could prove critical. Both Essendon and North Melbourne will be looking to kick-start their campaigns in style with a win over a rival for the eight.

This is a battle that will be won by the key players on both sides. In particular, the battle of the captains is one to watch.

Essendon captain Jobe Watson is the heart of the Bombers’ midfield, and will have to be at the top of his game to win the contested ball against the up-and-coming North starlets.

On the other side, new North captain Andrew Swallow’s ability to tear a side apart has been noted before, and neutering his influence will be crucial if Essendon want to come away with the victory.

Further to this is the ruck battle. Essendon head into the game with two of their three towers in David Hille and Paddy Ryder.

North, meanwhile, will look to Todd Goldstein while having Hamish McIntosh available to pinch-hit.

With Essendon wanting superior service due to their relatively weaker midfield, expect the likes of Hocking and Stanton to in fact rove to the ruck-work of the Kangaroos duo, especially if Ryder and Hille are being soundly beaten.

Finally, the North forward presence of Drew Petrie celebrates his 200th game. He’ll look to start his season with a bag, dominating the North forward line.

Key Players
North Melbourne:
Todd Goldstein:
Unlucky to miss All-Australian selection in 2011, Goldstein will aim to start dominating games from day one.

Scott Thompson: Thompson will surely get the job on Michael Hurley, and will need to neutralise him in order to stop any flow of Essendon scoring.

Brent Harvey: No longer captain, but still a huge on-field leader. Boomer can run through the midfield or up forward and damage either way.

Heath Hocking:
The Dons’ number one tagger will have a role on the likes of Swallow, and stopping him will be key for Essendon’s chances.

Dustin Fletcher: ‘Gadget’ may be old, but he’s still good. As much of an onfield coach in the GWS veteran mould as a player, Fletcher will mind a Thomas or Edwards but will watch structures as well as play defensively.

Michael Hurley: He’s got the new contract, now time to show what he’s got.

Final Word
Despite Essendon’s favourite status, I like North’s chances, particularly with their midfield strength and ruck combination.

North by 14.