Pies and Dons put on an ANZAC showpiece
Darren Jolly of Collingwood celebrates while Patrick Ryder (L)_ and Dustin Fletcher of Essendon show thier disappointment as the final siren soundsduring the AFL Round 05 ANZAC Day match between the Collingwood Magpies and the Essendon Bombers at the MCG, Melbourne. (Photo: Michael Willson/AFL Photos)
The city of Melbourne seemed intent on replicating wintertime on the Western Front in the lead-up to the traditional ANZAC clash between Collingwood and Essendon. The MCG was pelted with three days of unrelenting rain.
As if playing this grand fixture is not tough enough – a game that Leigh Matthews said can intimidate some participants but inspire others – the AFL ensured each player would understand more fully what it was like to be a soldier on the battlefront when it gave each of them a five day turn-around.
You wouldn’t have known though. The ground as usual looked as dry as a wrestling mat and the bloodletting began almost immediately.
Nathan Brown was welcomed back to senior football with a smashing tackle, and I remember Steele Sidebottom copping something similar.
But then Monfries was crunched by the powerful Swan. It was an ominous sign that the Pies may have recovered from their mauling at the hands of the Blues a fortnight ago and were coming back to the style of game that won them a premiership.
The Dons were the first to enter their forward fifty which they did on three successive occasions but they were messy excursions. Under extreme pressure they were forced to hack the ball towards goal, turning it over each time to a spare Collingwood defender.
After the third attempt Collingwood executed their dreaded rebound, not via the flanks as in previous years but up the middle. “Where are their opponents?” I imagined Bomber fans screaming at the television on which only one-third of the ground is visible, hiding the lazy ones and the opportunists who wander off in search goals and glory. With a minimum of fuss and seemingly spare men everywhere they entered their forward zone for the first time and coolly slotted a goal.
I must admit I hadn’t seen much of this Essendon side, and made assumptions based on previous seasons that they were young and tough, but lacking in pace and class. Heppell and Zaharakis were beautiful users of the ball and Watson is a delight to watch when he performs the lost art of the flat pass.
They were certainly bigger than I remember which is a result of a concerted pre-season weights program. That same program has apparently led to an overabundance of soft tissue injuries and it was suggested by commentators that defender Hibberd’s torn hamstring late in the first quarter was proof of this.
It is more likely that the cause was the short turnaround. Which brings us to the question of which team was in the worst position as a result of that situation.
There is no doubt Essendon were the more fatigued. Their inspirational skipper Watson was resting on his meaty haunches throughout, and during the last quarter young Melksham’s legs had become rubbery tubes of lactic acid.
They had played like demons against Carlton on Saturday, whereas Collingwood had used the time against a lesser opponent to work on their structures and to attain a mental equilibrium after the trauma of the previous round.
It was appropriate given the occasion that the Bombers shrugged off their disadvantages and fought gallantly. At times they made the carpet of the ‘G’ look like the uneven scrub of ANZAC Cove as they kicked the ball blindly out of defence.
Their skilled small forwards Jetta and Davey struggled for possession. The skittish Davey was annihilated in the first half by a close-checking but free-running Johnson. Stanton was having little influence and their goalkicker Crameri was forced to break tackles and handball away from his goal.
The Dons midfielders struggled to get any run through the centre. When they marked they often had to stop because Colllingwood’s relentless runners had picked up their opponents. But they would snap a major here and there, and find an avenue to goal occasionally, to stay in the contest. Unbelievably they were only two goals down at the last change.
Collingwood’s dominance was never reflected on the scoreboard because of the desperate Bombers defence and poor set shots. During the first quarter they had nineteen inside-fifties for a paltry two goals. As Goldsack lined up for a relatively easy shot it was remarked that “He doesn’t kick many goals”. He proceeded to show us why.
The final quarter began with a tough get and brilliant snap for goal by Beams who was playing a Daisy Thomas-like game in that player’s absence. Surely Collingwood’s class and fresher legs would see off the Bomber challenge now I thought. Sinclair then danced from a hobbling Melksham but missed the sticks. It’s only a matter of time now, I thought.
With ten minutes to go the out-of-sorts Davey took a superb mark falling onto his back in front of goals, and it was only eight points. What?
Nine minutes and twenty seconds to go, and a scrambling Bellchambers kick failed to do a leg break and made it seven points. Suddenly it was all Essendon at their goal front. A Lonergan snap missed, second-gamer Dell’Olio’s kick was touched on the line. It wasn’t pretty but it was tough.
Then with four minutes remaining Davey was suddenly on his own in the goalsquare (where was Johnson?) and the scores were level.
From the bounce Sinclair waltzed around the gangly veteran Fletcher and missed… again! There was a point in it!
Two meagre minutes left. The only significant thing I’d seen Stanton do all match was hang off Swan for a professional free to prevent him kicking another goal, but he snapped truly to give the Bombers a five-point lead.
One minute twenty, and Blair literally toe-poked a goal. So slightly, it required a video referral.
Forty four seconds to go and it wasn’t over yet. Essendon, on the forward flank, centred the ball nervously straight to a Collingwood player! A Pies’ player was then tackled from behind for a holding-the-ball decision. Instead of taking the free an Essendon player picked up the loose ball and poked it toward the forward pocket boundary.
The siren sounded with the ball, appropriately, in the hands of the brilliant Swan.
Although neutral followers would have liked to have seen a draw – a repeat of the inaugural ANZAC match in 1995 – or even a victory for the gallant Bombers, the better side won.
Essendon clearly have a lot to look forward to. Perhaps not this year but soon.
And despite failing to put the Bombers away, Collingwood are beginning to look more like their dominant old selves again.