For three-quarters of the preliminary final, Collingwood played unfathomably poorly, and the resounding thought was: do they know they’re playing in the game to win entry into the grand final?
This awareness was not on display while the game’s ultimate path was being determined, with the occasion failing to instill much visible urgency in Collingwood.
The Pies were manhandled in the first half, but escaped not just still in the game, but somehow with a lead. Surely, they would make the most of their borrowed life after the break.
But the Giants continued to assert themselves in the third quarter and finally capitalised on their ascendancy with five goals as just rewards.
The Collingwood players were barely present for their own execution, spectators as the Giants midfield – missing four of its five best contributors – were harder and cleaner at stoppages again and again and again.
Under Leon Cameron, the Giants have never played an especially sophisticated brand. They have been easily solvable if not containable.
You know what you are going to get: elite talent and hardness around the ball, two magnificent intercept markers in defence, and a transcendent key forward defining an attack filled with class.
The issue has always been in coherently linking these three things. Melbourne’s skies largely removed that problem for Cameron for a day.
In the wet, the game would be won in the contest, at stoppages, and with territory. Pre-match it appeared that the Giants, absent Toby Greene, Lachie Whitfield, Stephen Coniglio and Callan Ward, would just not have enough to match their opponents’ vaunted midfield and the best ruckman in the game.
But they did. Outside of Brodie Grundy, the five most impactful midfielders on the ground – Zac Williams, Josh Kelly, Tim Taranto, Harry Perryman and Matt de Boer – were all Giants.
Even with all of Greater Western Sydney’s absences and Grundy’s dominance, Steele Sidebottom, Scott Pendlebury, Taylor Adams and Adam Treloar failed to exert any force on the game, muted by the Sydneysiders’ hardness and power at stoppages.
That such a proud and able group failed so magnificently defined the game and could not be overcome.
This Collingwood team is a resilient, admirable and mentally fierce group, so predictably they did not go down without a fight. The comeback was furious and almost complete. With maybe three combined inches added in various directions to Dom Sheed’s kick, Chris Mayne’s set shot and Taylor Adams’ poster, the Pies might be defending a premiership this Saturday.
Football is a game of inches, rapid moments and good fortune in the clutch – those inches not going Collingwood’s way, as brutal as it is, has to be lived with. Where the Magpies will really suffer is in the knowledge that the preliminary final should never have been a game of inches – they should never have let it come to that.
The Giants were immense. They were the better team on the day and deserve their grand final berth.
Nothing broke their way in the lead-up – the inane jokes will come about the AFL giving them everything, but this season circumstance has given them nothing; it has only taken from them.
They are in the grand final not through generosity but through sheer grit, determination, and all the other things they were once questioned on – questions now dismissed.
As good as the Giants were, Collingwood will rue this missed opportunity for however long an eternity is in football.
At the MCG, coming off a bye, as three-and-a-half-goal favourites, against an interstate team that finished sixth and was missing four of their five best midfielders, and had their best defender and captain hobbled from the first term, this was a match that simply could not be lost.
It was, though, in the biggest boilover in a preliminary final since 1999.
As a broken and characteristically incisive Nathan Buckley said post-game: the comeback somehow only made things worse.
Where was that fight in the first three-quarters? Why did it take a five-goal deficit in the final quarter to provoke urgency, instead of the opening bounce?
This Collingwood team is not perfect, although still almost certainly good enough to have won a flag in the past two years.
The defence is outstanding, but Brody Mihocek, Ben Reid and Mason Cox should not be the options to anchor a forward line. Perhaps Jordan de Goey can, but he is needed in the middle.
That was where De Goey’s presence was most missed on Saturday, in a familiar scene this year. The club’s midfield, for all its class and composure, often lacks the necessary quick-twitch grunt that the midfields of Geelong, Richmond, GWS and West Coast possess. De Goey has that, and more time in the middle – should his body hold up – is surely his future.
For now, this is what Collingwood and their fans are left with – hypotheticals and desperately scribbled outlines of potential best 22s for next year. This, instead of fighting for 2018’s redemption in what would have been the biggest grand final in a quarter of a century.
All that is left for now are vacant, dazed minds for reflection – on an impressive year and a catastrophic failure, one from which no silver linings can be gleaned, beyond the easy but ultimate warmth that there will be a next year.