As the clock in an odd, arrhythmic, finals-like final between Collingwood and Geelong dripped away, Patrick Dangerfield threatened to make things suddenly epic.
Until the unlikely, tense finale, the game had followed a predictable path.
Collingwood got the jump, Geelong steadied briefly, and then the Pies reasserted themselves, crafting the match-defining buffer by halfway through the second term.
A rout threatened, as Collingwood played a brand of football that had eluded them for the second half of the season, seamlessly intermixing breakneck pace and no pace at all. On the counter and from stoppages they were lethal – in all other situations, controlled.
Their pace spreading from stoppages, switching the play in defence on the MCG’s expanses, and at spillages inside 50 rattled Geelong early, and built what should have been an insurmountable lead.
It was insurmountable, as it turned out, but it wasn’t easy. After halftime the game simply died.
Geelong never play with pace, and Collingwood consciously took their foot off the gas, taking fewer risks (virtually none whatsoever) as they looked to nurse the clock to zero. A grind resulted – the match descended into a series of stoppages followed by intercept marks, with Tom Stewart, Jeremy Howe and Darcy Moore the defining actors.
The lead, which never really stretched beyond four goals, wasn’t immense, but it felt safe, because of the way the game was flowing (or rather, wasn’t flowing), and how meek the Cats looked in attack all night.
Until the final stanza, Geelong were devoid of creativity or life, committed to playing slow and kicking to contests along the boundary over and over again. Collingwood handled that Plan A, and there was no Plan B.
Plan C was Dangerfield’s cape. With the game ambling towards its conclusion, Dangerfield turned the night on its head. All evening – even with Scott Pendlebury’s decisive class, Steele Sidebottom’s guiding hand, and Jeremy Howe’s foray-destroying leaping and grip – Dangerfield loomed as the game’s most dominant figure, and in the final stages he became everything.
He snapped the goal to give the Cats a sniff and then started winning every clearance. The highlight-reel West Coast-era Chris Judd bursting through stoppages at full pace element of Dangerfield’s game has receded – now his brilliance is more profound and ever-present: he’s just too powerful to ever subdue in the contest.
If he is near the ball, he will muscle his way into possession, and there is too much strength and explosion in his body to prevent him from creating space to deliver the ball to a teammate.
He can still read a tap at pace and stream towards goal with a booming kick – including the one that nearly made the game erupt last Friday night – but his talent is in the smaller, pivotal moments: extracting a ball that should have stayed locked in, and finding a handball outlet that never should have existed.
Geelong’s comeback felt like one man’s stand – against the outcome of the match, but also against the way his team outside of him had played. Dangerfield brought the Cats back into the game by doing things that Geelong had tried to suppress in itself all night, like being unpredictable and bold.
Dangerfield started doing stuff. He barrelled torpedoes into the centre square, smashed kicks through the corridor and took opponents on. The textbook was shoved in the fire, and the music finally came on.
In the end, it wasn’t enough. The final margin was made respectable – which might hurt the Cats going forward by making them believe they can win the most meaningful games playing this conservatively. Geelong dominated virtually every statistical category and not for a second looked like winning.
Collingwood were battered in the contest and in territory but they played with pace when they needed to, spreading from the contests they did win and linking up telepathically with magnetic handball chains. That coherence of rapid movement was the game’s defining difference.
The Cats are disciplined, well-structured, dominant in the contest, clean with their disposal, and elite at intercept marking – they just haven’t found out a way to move the ball from one end of the ground to the other yet.
Dangerfield’s chaos and unpredictability is Geelong’s greatest attacking weapon – unless it spreads to his teammates, the Cats’ season will quickly be over.