Undermanned Roos in stunning AFL comeback

Shayne Hope
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AFL KANGAROOS SAINTS

Ben Cunnington (2L) has led North Melbourne to a thrilling two-point AFL opening win over St Kilda

Ben Cunnington has starred for an undermanned North Melbourne who have staged a classic second-half fightback to overrun St Kilda in a stirring two-point AFL win.

The Kangaroos were three men down soon after halftime on Sunday afternoon at an empty Marvel Stadium after losing Jack Ziebell (knee), Paul Ahern (hamstring) and Josh Walker (concussion) to injury.

They trailed by 29 points at the main break before tough midfielder Cunnington led the turnaround in the third quarter.

North piled on the next five goals and took the lead early in a see-sawing final term before debutant Max King put the Saints back in front.

But Cunnington bobbed up in unfamiliar territory deep in attack to claim a clever contested mark and kick the final goal of the match to give the Kangaroos an 8.8 (56) to 7.12 (54) win.

St Kilda still had chances to pinch it at the death, but Rowan Marshall missed a late set shot and Roos defender Jamie Macmillan laid a brilliant diving smother on Paddy Ryder in the defensive goal square.

"Our players just grit their teeth and we knew we were better than what we produced in the first half," Kangaroos coach Rhyce Shaw said.

"We fell asleep at the wheel a little bit in terms of what we were doing and just wanted to get back in the contest.

"A few guys put their hands up early in the third (quarter) and got us going and that changed the game for us."

Cunnington finished with 25 disposals, six clearances and two goals and had plenty of support from Shaun Higgins, Jye Simpkin and Todd Goldtein, who was superb in the ruck opposed to Saints twin towers Marshall and Ryder.

North were also well served by youngsters Tarryn Thomas, Nick Larkey and Cam Zurhaar.

The revamped St Kilda line-up featured all five recruits from last October's boom trade period and another three existing senior players who didn't manage more than five games last year.

It clicked early, with the Saints piling on six goals to two before halftime.

King kicked an early goal and finished with two as trade acquisitions Brad Hill and Zak Jones helped to steer the Saints into a strong position.

Dan Hannebery and Jack Steele were also strong contributors.

North's Jasper Pittard will face scrutiny on Monday from the match review officer for appearing to trip Dan Butler by sticking out his right leg during the second quarter.

Majak Daw was a late withdrawal pre-match through illness, meaning the North Melbourne defender's remarkable comeback was put on hold for at least another week.

The 29-year-old had been selected to make his first AFL appearance since 2018, after suffering serious hip and pelvic injuries in a fall from the Bolte Bridge.

He was replaced in the team by Tom Murphy.