It was a tale of two halves at an empty Marvel Stadium on Sunday afternoon, as St Kilda capitulated late to a fast-finishing North Melbourne outfit.
In Brett Ratten's first official game at the helm, the Saints seized the early momentum but were unable to punish the Kangaroos on the scoreboard.
Amid injury carnage on both teams, Rhyce Shaw's Kangaroos came from 31 points down early in the third term to prevail over Brett Ratten's Saints in a thriller, 8.8 (56) to 7.12 (54).
The Roos showed enormous courage given they were reduced to just one fit man on the bench by midway through the third quarter following injuries to skipper Jack Ziebell (knee), runner Paul Ahern (hamstring) and tall Josh Walker (concussion), while St Kilda's Ben Long received treatment for an ankle injury and star Jade Gresham (knee) sat out the entire second half.
The Saints controlled play in the first half, restricting North to just 2.2 by the long break as their running brigade comprising the likes of Jack Billings, Seb Ross and ex-Swan Zak Jones and former Docker Bradley Hill led North a merry dance.
But against the run of play, the undermanned Kangaroos somehow found another level after the loss of Ziebell to pile on the next five goals to lead by three points midway through the last quarter.
St Kilda's prized debutant Max King regained the lead for the Saints with his second major with five minutes remaining, before Roos onballer Ben Cunnington put North back in front.
The Saints had two late chances to claim the points, but big man Rowan Marshall's set shot from 45 metres drifted right, before a desperate smother on the line denied Paddy Ryder's flying snap.
Long live the King
St Kilda's injection of five recruits in Bradley Hill (from Fremantle), Zak Jones (Sydney), Dan Butler (Richmond) and Paddy Ryder and Dougal Howard (Port Adelaide) added quality on almost every line, but most interest was in a debutant who is tipped to have a long and illustrious career. Lifelong Saints fan Max King finally played his first AFL game after an injury-ruined 2019 and it was always going to be a tough initiation given he was opposed to miserly veteran Robbie Tarrant. King provided one of the early highlights when he slotted the second goal of the day and was mobbed by his teammates. He had other chances to score in second quarter but missed a set shot from the arc and snap in traffic also went astray. After being starved of opportunities as North swung the game, King nervelessly goaled with another set shot after a free kick to put the Saints back in front, before North responded.
Roberton's emotional return
North Melbourne big man Majak Daw's long-awaited return was delayed by his late withdrawal due to a cold, but the contest still featured a player making a heartwarming comeback after a long layoff in the form of St Kilda defender Dylan Roberton. The 28-year-old made his first AFL appearance in almost two years since collapsing on the field with a heart condition. The Saints' leadership group member was immediately into the fray with three touches in the opening two minutes but was possibly a little rusty given that, as he ran with the flight of the ball to cut off a pass, the ball hit him square in the back. Roberton wasn't involved a lot after that but it was just great to see him back out there.
North Melbourne: Big issues for the Roos with captain Jack Ziebell sustaining a right knee injury, Josh Walker suffering concussion and Paul Ahern picking up a right hamstring injury.
St Kilda: Jake Gresham hurt his right knee in the first half, while Ben Long tweaked his right ankle/foot but played out the game.
If round two proceeds, North Melbourne will face Brisbane at the Gabba on Saturday night, while St Kilda will host West Coast at Marvel Stadium on Sunday.
NORTH MELBOURNE 1.1 2.2 6.7 8.8 (56)
ST KILDA 3.3 6.7 6.11 7.12 (54)
North Melbourne: Brown, Larkey, Goldstein, Simpkin, Hall, Taylor, Cunnington
St Kilda: King 2, Billings 2, Steele, Membrey, Ryder
North Melbourne: Cunnington, Polec, Simpkin, Macmillan, Higgins, Dumont
St Kilda: Billings, Hannebery, Steele, Jones, Ross, Clark
Umpires: Chamberlain, Stephens, Brown