When Patrick Cripps missed the snap that would have extended Carlton’s lead to three goals, 20 minutes into Saturday’s final term, it was the prod to waken the sleeping giant.
The sleeping Magpies in this case, who laboured through an odd afternoon at the MCG, a quintessential letdown game that featured an abundance of letting down.
Collingwood play in bursts, though, and they opened the final quarter on one that looked like it would end the game.
Carlton’s slim lead was devoured and Collingwood was suddenly everywhere. It felt like there were 34 Magpies on the MCG surface, space closed down as soon as it briefly appeared, an onslaught of manic tackling swallowing up the ground.
Exiting defensive 50 for the Blues was like trying to sit an exam in a burning building, with players trying to remember the plan, or how to be cool, as mean bodies kept on flying at them from every angle.
They would hurry tame kicks forward out of defence, either out on the full or into waiting Magpie arms. Then the Pies would bombard the ball forward again, and the process would repeat until a goal eventuated.
A tightly contested game suddenly became one where Collingwood chalked up 15 of the previous 16 inside 50s. It felt like a run that would end the competitive portion of the game.
But then Carlton, through the monstrous brilliance of their captain, kicked a goal against the run of play and embarked on a run of their own. They never killed the game, though, because Cripps missed, keeping the door ajar.
Collingwood burst through that door and slammed it shut, kicking the last five goals of the game.
This time the burst was too relentless, too ballistic. The Magpies bodies flew around the ground, with violence and composure, a bit of artistry to go with the body-crushing.
Whether it’s true or not, when Collingwood are on, their best feels like the best in the competition. The Cats and Eagles, the Pies’ two biggest concerns, are defined by the strength of their defensive structures and how impenetrable they seem at times. The Magpies are defined by how ridiculously perfect at football they can look for stretches.
The pace and spread that Collingwood play with makes their brilliance more appetising and mainstream than the integrity of indie defensive set-ups.
Their small forwards – a crew of not-failed midfielders set free as a mosquito fleet in the front half – in Will Hoskin-Elliott, Josh Thomas, Jaidyn Stephenson and Jordan De Goey give the team its identity and menace.
The backline is quietly the best, most trustworthy part of the team, with intercept marking extraordinaires in Darcy Moore and Jeremy Howe complemented by the toughness, savvy and dash of Brayden Maynard, Tom Langdon and Jack Crisp.
Ironically, the one area of the team that is most concerning is the midfield, which has been lauded by many as the best in the competition. When the Magpies break down, though, it’s in the midfield, where at times they can look too one-paced.
The burrowing, explosive brilliance of Tim Kelly, Patrick Dangerfield and Joel Selwood is only really emulated by Adam Treloar, with Scott Pendlebury, Dayne Beams and Steele Sidebottom, champions in their own right, different types of players.
De Goey is the swing-piece, of course, and how he’s deployed, and at which moments, could determine Collingwood’s season. If Jamie Elliott can stay fit and in form – doubtful over the course of a season – De Goey will be more freed up to play in the middle, where his grunt, strength, speed and general walking brilliance complete the midfield mix.
This team is not yet a juggernaut, like its 2010 and 2011 predecessors. Geelong are the best-performed team in the competition right now, and if Collingwood play West Coast in a final no Magpies fan will feel confident.
But Collingwood’s bursts remain the most devastating in the competition, and they are tough enough and well-drilled enough that they can endure between the bursts, until suddenly the game becomes a black and white stage, and everything becomes frenetic and inevitable.