There was a passage of play in the dying moments of this year's Queen's Birthday match between Melbourne and Collingwood that may be looked back on as a turning point in the season. Fittingly it came in the round that marked the literal halfway point of the home and away season.
With just under two minutes to go, and the teams separated by five points, the Dees cleared their defensive 50. James Harmes ran along the win and put a kick in front of Jack Watts, who had run from centre half back to the forward flank to provide an option. Watts, in the words of Tim Lane, "on tired legs" ran inside 50, took a bounce and kicked a goal to put Melbourne 11 points up.
Collingwood did manage one more goal, but Melbourne claimed the win. At that stage of the season these two teams were separated only by percentage, both one game out of the top eight. That Jack Watts goal was not only a match winner and enough to send a chill down the spine with every viewing, but also put Melbourne inside the eight and they've stayed there ever since. That's seven weeks, the longest stretch they've had in the top eight since 2006.
It would seem Melbourne in the last couple of years are racking up all sorts of accomplishments they haven't enjoyed since 2006, or thereabouts, and the most significant could be around the corner. Melbourne's 10 full seasons without a finals appearance is almost unparalleled in the AFL era. Only Richmond, between 2001 and 2012, spent more time twiddling their thumbs in September. It genuinely looks like Melbourne are about to stop the rot this year, though.
It must be a great joy for Melbourne supporters to watch their team break their many hoodoos. Starting in 2015, when they beat the Bulldogs for only the second time since 2007, beat Collingwood for the first time since 2007 (they have since won their last four against them) and beat Geelong for the first time since 2006, which was also their first win at Kardinia since 2005. The Dees also beat GWS in the final round of 2015, their first win at Docklands since 2007. In that period they lost 22 consecutive games at the venue, this year they have won three out of four.
In 2016 they beat Hawthorn for the first time since 2006 and this year they have beaten St. Kilda for the first time since 2006 and West Coast for only the second time since 2008, also notching their first win at Subiaco since 2004. These are heady days indeed, almost unrecognisable for a great many red and blue faithful.
This week presents the Dees with their best opportunity to break one of their last hoodoos. Melbourne have not beaten North Melbourne since Round 20, 2006, a few weeks shy of 11 years ago. 16 consecutive losses across three states and territories and four venues. For a little bit of perspective, the last time Melbourne beat North their current co-captian, Nathan Jones, was playing his fourth game. North Melbourne's former captain, Andrew Swallow, was playing his 10th.
Unfortunately for Jones he may not be fit this week to take on the Roos and become the only player currently at the club to boast two career wins against them. That is unlikely to concern him though. His leadership over the last few years has helped drag this team from basket case to top four hopefuls and one can be certain that he would enjoy a win almost as much as if he was playing.
While on the topic of injured players, one of Melbourne's great achievements this season has been to weather the storm while some of their best players have been absent. If one were to suggest at the start of the season that the Dees would be without players of the calibre of Max Gawn, Jesse Hogan, Jack Watts, Nathan Jones and Michael Hibberd for extended periods, you could be forgiven for writing them off from the get go.
In their absence, though, other players have been enjoying career best seasons. Their leading goal kicker, Jeff Garlett, is averaging more goals per game than in any other season he has played. He's a good chance to kick 50 goals for the first time in his career and has put himself alongside Eddie Betts, Orazio Fantasia and Daniel Menzel as one of the elite small forwards of the competition. Neville Jetta is following up his stellar 2016 with form that should see him rewarded with an All-Australian small defender spot. Tom McDonald has been transformed from reliable key defender to key forward target, with 20 goals for the season and 16 from his last seven games. He'd never kicked more than five in a season before this year.
Then there is their other captain courageous, Jack Viney, whose numbers are slightly down on last year but whose impact is almost immeasurable. After claiming his first best and fairest last year he was rewarded with the co-captaincy for 2017. Some pundits thought it perhaps an odd move, suggesting that the vice captaincy would've sufficed and he could take over the captaincy when Nathan Jones was ready to pass it on. It has proved a masterstroke though. It is hard to imagine a young player in the AFL (keep in mind he is still only 23) that is more suited to the role.
His performance against Port Adelaide last week typifies his impact and influence. In a game that the Demons were widely tipped to lose, Viney took to the contest only two weeks after having surgery on his foot. Some may say Patrick Dangerfield was brave to carry on with an injured foot against Hawthorn a couple of weeks ago, and perhaps he was, but Viney had his foot cut open and tinkered with and came back two weeks later. The recovery was supposed to take up to six weeks. Viney set the tone for the match with 12 first quarter disposals, dominating out of the middle to finish with a game-high 10 clearances and six inside 50s.
Melbourne now appear a team made in the image of their captains. No longer easy beats who roll over when the going gets tough, they are willing and fierce competitors with a thirst for the contest. Going in to round 18 they have already notched as many wins as they did last season, the most wins they've had for a season since 2006, and out of their last five games they will be favourites in four. With the season as close as it is it may take 13 wins to secure a top eight spot, so the Dees are on the right track. They just have one more hoodoo to break this year by beating those pesky Roos this week.