It may seem to some as strange to say this, but a home-and-away fixture usually played in Round 5 or 6 is the best game of the AFL season.
Anzac Day, April 25, is the day on which Australians and New Zealanders honour those that gave up their lives almost a century ago on the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey.
Despite the many comparisons that are made between the battles of football and war, this day encapsulates what those soldiers fought for all those years ago – freedom and mateship.
Visionary Essendon coach Kevin Sheedy came up with the idea to honour the Anzacs with an event game involving Collingwood and Essendon in 1995. Importantly, Sheedy gained the buy-in of the Returned and Services League, which gave the event credibility.
The first match, played in front of almost 95,000 people, sealed the tradition. The teams played out a thrilling draw. The tension in the crowd as Collingwood midfielder and current coach Nathan Buckley went forward looking for Saverio Rocca with scores level was spine tingling.
Throughout the early years, Rocca dominated the Bombers. That swung back in the early 2000s as James Hird, the exiled current coach, led his side to win six out of seven Anzac Day clashes, winning three Anzac medals in the process for the best player on the ground.
No matter where the teams are on the ladder, they always get up for this one, such is the stage and the importance of the occasion.
The lead up to the match is befitting of what we are all there to honour. The parade to the Shrine of Remembrance, the cavalcade of veterans around the MCG, the Last Post, the minute’s silence and the teams running out through a combined banner, all make this a special occasion.
Then there’s the game between two clubs that are heated rivals, with a packed crowd of fans of both teams. Something that grand final day can often miss.
Going into the 2014 edition all signs pointed to a Collingwood victory. The Pies came in on a two-game winning streak, after solid victories over finals contenders North Melbourne and Richmond.
In contrast, the Bombers were on a two-game losing run, being belted by Fremantle in Perth before one of their most disappointing losses in years to St Kilda.
When Jake Melksham snapped the first goal of the second quarter at the two minute mark, the Dons led by 37 points and it looked like being the day of the red and the black. The Bombers had played an irresistible brand of football in the first quarter, kicking five unanswered goals, largely due to controlling the ruck and midfield and applying immense pressure around the football.
The game completely changed after that Melksham goal, almost like the teams switched jumpers. Collingwood took control of the game to even the scores at half time. The 50/50 balls that had been falling Essendon’s way suddenly fell to the Pies. Steele Sidebottom kicked three second quarter majors, all running into an open goal.
The second half belonged to Dane Swan, who added three goals to finish with four for the day and win his second Anzac Medal in the last three years. Nobody in the crowd of 91,731 will forget his daring dash around Bombers defender Cale Hooker to slot his second goal from the left forward pocket.
The Bombers had their chances in the last quarter. A Jackson Merrett shot, which looked a goal all the way until it hit the post, would have put them back within four points at the 18-minute mark. But the Pies steadied from the ensuing kick in and Swan iced the game just over a minute later.
Essendon will once again rue their inaccurate goal kicking, particularly in the first quarter when they controlled the game and only had five goals from nine shots. But Collingwood ran out deserved 23-point winners to take an 11-8-1 lead in the nineteen year history of this clash.
Anzac Day is without doubt the best day of the footy year, not just for football reasons. It must stay as an important even on our calendar and stay between these two great clubs, who have done so much to respect and honour the past.