After three quarters and 16 minutes, Melbourne had just about been consigned to the sort of defeat that can send a team with premiership aspirations spiralling down the ladder.
24 points in arrears to a Brisbane team which had recovered from a nightmare start to comprehensively boss the Demons on their own turf, tear their much-vaunted defence to shreds and look every inch the serious premiership contender Adam Simpson labelled them as a week ago, the gap between the top three and the rest of the competition, Melbourne included, looked stark.
What followed was seven minutes to turn this season on its head. Seven minutes to bring back all the stereotypes about Brisbane’s flakiness on the road. Seven minutes to transform the Demons from clinging to fourth by their fingernails to just a solitary win behind third, with eyes on leapfrogging the Lions.
Seven minutes, most of all, to remind us of one key thing: Melbourne’s best is still terrifying.
There was nothing fluky about their total domination of the last seven minutes at the MCG – just as there was nothing fluky about the last time they pulled off a home-and-away win like this, their ultimate heist in the final round of 2021 against Geelong when they trailed by 32 points at three-quarter time.
This is still a team capable of flicking a switch and playing the most imperious, brutal, brilliant football – and the Lions still a team of spectacular highlights with ball in hand, but all too vulnerable when it’s their turn to defend to within an inch of their lives.
So forget the first three quarters and 16 minutes, a tale of electric Brisbane ball movement, of Joe Daniher making Steven May look like a two-bit VFL hack, of Will Ashcroft and Jaspa Fletcher magic, of Max Gawn and Christian Petracca keeping the Dees in it. This deep dive is going to be all about what happened from the moment Tom Sparrow, with seven minutes and 23 seconds on the clock, took the ball in defensive 50 and kicked it as long as he possibly could.
It’s an option that hasn’t worked for the Demons all evening: with 10 intercept marks between Harris Andrews, Jack Payne and Brandon Starcevich, the Lions’ high defensive press had seen that trio cut off the ball with regularity before it had even crossed the halfway line, leading to territory dominance from the visitors.
Even young Jaspa Fletcher got in on the act with one, the most spectacular of the lot.
This time, though, instead of one of those three being under the ball, it’s Darcy Wilmot and Will Ashcroft, two youngsters, on an experienced body in Jake Melksham. All they really need to do is bring the ball to ground, and with Keidean Coleman close on hand, they’ll have the numbers to get the ball out of danger.
Melksham marks, and knowing time is of the essence, he’s back to his feet in a flash and kicking towards 50, where Kysaiah Pickett has got goal side of his opponent Coleman.
The kick isn’t great, with Coleman able to arrive and spoil; yet again, the Lions have the numerical advantage at the spill, with Wilmot arriving to make it a two-on-one.
Here, though, comes a second moment of brilliance in ten seconds, after Melksham’s contested mark – Pickett keeps his feet where Coleman loses his, then controls the ball superbly to keep it out of reach of Wilmot’s desperate lunge. By the time he gathers properly, his two Lions opponents have gone to ground, the cardinal sin for any defender.
He’s done all the hard work, but you’ll often see players flub the shot for goal after doing so much to set it up: not so Pickett here. Game on.
The Demons lose the next centre clearance, the Lions forcing it forward and pressuring through a behind – at this stage of the game, a handy point is worth plenty. And locking the ball inside 50 has been a strength all evening.
May does what every team does in the dying stages with his team trailing: he goes up the middle with his kick-in, as long as he can muster.
The Lions break down again. Gawn can’t mark, but while Oscar McInerney gets in a spoil, he can’t get enough on it to force it forward. It spills to the most dangerous spot – out the back of the contest, where Charlie Spargo is waiting. This has been what Brisbane have avoided doing for pretty much the whole game, and why at three-quarter time they had 47 inside 50s to just 33.
Here, the problem was Payne, so good all night, arriving too late to the contest to have an impact, and seeing the ball come over his head to Spargo at the spill: suddenly, he’s a long way from home.
Sensing options ahead of him are limited, and with Lachie Neale in the way, he retreats, and it’s here where you can see that the Demons have properly pulled the trigger. Normally a defence-first team in just about every respect, the time has come to run the gauntlet and run in a wave from half-back.
Trent Rivers – we’ll be hearing more about him soon – receives from Spargo via Angus Brayshaw, and his kick is a beauty, finding Melksham lace out about 65 from goal.
Payne and his opponent, Ben Brown, are racing back inside 50, but the talls haven’t been the Dees’ biggest weapon this evening: the two men in red and blue inside 50, with one-on-ones to deal with, couldn’t be more perfect. Melksham looks up and sees Petracca, with four goals to his name, and Pickett as his options.
It’s important to note that not everything was perfect from the Dees late, and this is example number one: Melksham picks the third of two options, waits an interminable amount of time for a guy with two stars as options one out inside 50, and by the time he’s wasted precious seconds going back to kick over the mark, what was a two on two inside 50 has become a three on five.
The kick, too, is a shocker: Payne, Ryan Lester and Deven Robertson have all flooded back to the hot spot, surrounding Brown, and it’s there where Melksham inexplicably directs his kick. This time, Payne impacts the contest, takes it to ground, and while in 15 scrambling second a Lachie Hunter handball leads to a hack outside 50 and quick return, and then Conor McKenna gets pinged for deliberate to give Hunter a set shot from deep in the pocket, the moment to score a goal has passed.
Hunter’s kick goes across the face and is rushed through.
Then comes mistake number two: from Coleman’s kick in, Gawn effects the spoil, and the ball spills to Rivers at the front, who glides to 50, ignores a leading Petracca, and… sprays out on the full. Two wasted chances in 30 seconds, and the lead is still 18 points.
But the change is noticeable in how staunchly the Demons are refusing to allow the Lions an outlet. Brisbane had kicked four goals from defensive half possession chains in the second quarter to take the game by the throat; kicking at 80 per cent for the term, they had sliced the Dees up on the counter time and again.
Look how easily Zac Bailey found an outlet option going across his defensive 50 in this passage of play in the second term, and then how many options Dayne Zorko had further afield when it was completed.
Now, though, Coleman’s only option is to go from the back pocket to the goalsquare and Payne, a worse kick in a worse position for it. There’s not a single Lion to pass to without risk, so he goes for the boundary, as long as he can.
Trouble is, he’s gone in the direction of Gawn, who reads the drop better than McInerney and clunks a strong contested mark. Freed from needing to share ruck duties with Brodie Grundy, the captain has been among the best afield, with the grab his fourth intercept mark for the evening to go with 29 disposals and wonderful tapwork.
He’s always been a beautiful field kick, too: with the Lions leaving a space free in the pocket to lead to, he perfectly hits up Melksham, who marks right on the boundary line.
It’s a tough kick, but on his non-preferred foot, he makes up for his earlier error and snaps truly. With four minutes 45 on the clock, it’s now well and truly on.
The Demons have had only 16 disposals since Sparrow’s kick out, to the Lions’ seven: but five of them have been inside 50s, five more have been shots and two have been goals. The Lions have had just two of their touches find a teammate.
When Brayshaw wins the next centre clearance and drives it forward, it’s all Brisbane can do to hold on; with a bouncing, bobbling ball and Petracca a shark in the water, they’re lucky Brown’s handball can’t find its intended target of Joel Smith. With Alex Neal-Bullen closing, Payne keeps his head and rushes through a behind.
Now, though, the Lions have an issue: where once THEY had the ‘handy point’, buffer, now it’s the Dees with it. Two goals will win it for Melbourne, and there’s still more than four minutes left.
For more than a minute the Lions cling on, keeping control of possession, tackling fiercely and slowing the game down. But eventually, Darcy Wilmot needs to kick long down the wing – where Gawn is waiting.
Again, it’s this type of kick the Lions have either avoided making for most of the night, or have been able to bring to ground. That’s two intercept marks in the last five minutes from Gawn, double his tally all night and as many as any single teammate for the evening.
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He drives the ball inside 50, where the Demons are outnumbered, but with momentum on their side. Sure enough, Brown, quite all evening, rises to equalise a marking contested against Jack Gunston and Andrews, bringing the ball to ground and into Neal-Bullen’s hands. Pickett very nearly gathers, but not even he can escape a five on one, and in the end, he does very well to only concede a ball-up, and a dangerous stoppage.
Enter Jack Viney.
188 games into a career that began at the very lowest ebbs of the Demons’ decade of despair in 2013, it’s doubtful anyone has wanted the footy more in that time except for, maybe, Joel Selwood. This next goal is 100 per cent his own, even more magical than Pickett’s minutes earlier.
Scrapping for the ball with McInerney, who has followed up after winning the tap, it’s the Lions ruckman who takes first possession: but Viney, 27 centimetres smaller and 23 kilograms lighter, is a man on a mission.
Not only does he wrench the ball from McInerney’s grasp, he does it with a spin out that, deliberately or not, turns him into the smallest pocket of space. On his non-preferred, surrounded by Lions, but directly in front and only 20 metres out, he makes the most of it.
The Demons are five points down, and they are all over Brisbane like a rash in every possible way.
It’s McInerney, though, who wins the crucial next centre clearance, whacking it on the boot as he often does and gaining 30 metres along the ground. It’s not inside 50, but with numbers converging, the Lions should be able to hold it up and win a stoppage.
Except… Rivers. Like Viney moments before, the Dees defender’s attack on the ball is just more desperate than anyone else’s. Arriving at the ball first but only soccering it a few metres on, his intent might have been to force the ball into Hunter’s path on the outside; but when the ball takes a wicked bounce back inboard, Rivers turns on a dime, accelerates again, and flows back to the ball.
His opponent, Zorko, was actually closer to the ball when it bounced on, but it’s Deven Robertson who is outhunted for it at the crucial stage. Arriving a second before Rivers, but at a slower pace, he’s able to get his hands on the pill, but finds it knocked out of his hands by the onrushing Demon, who then collects it out of the clutches of Viney, stops again on a dime, sends the oncoming Hugh McCluggage flying past with his tackle failing to stick, and bursts into space again.
It’s as good a five seconds as you will see from a half-back at that stage of the game. It’s the difference between a forward foray for the Demons and the Lions being able to mount one of their own. It’s the difference between victory and defeat.
Rivers’ kick is long enough to well and truly clear the 50m arc, where once again, the Lions fail to organise adequately. Under the ball as it flies, Lester has left Petracca to assist Andrews on Melksham, but between them, neither can spoil cleanly away, with Melksham battling on gamely against a larger opponent. The ball falls to Neal-Bullen, who hacks forward… and in the goalsquare, Wilmot spoils away from Cameron, but crucially, not through for a behind, but rather out of bounds for a throw in.
It’s the Lions who win the clearance and get the ball out of Dodge and out of bounds on the wing. With 87 seconds left, the next throw in will decide the game.
Up steps Gawn again. Grabbing the ball out of the ruck, he manufactures a pass to Brayshaw – I’m not entirely convinced it wasn’t a throw that was never spotted by the umpire, but in any case it was done in a way that never gets players pinged these days – and Brayshaw throws the ball on his boot and inside 50.
It’s a wobbler, landing 40 metres from goal, and it catches the Lions off guard: Gunston, the spare, is at the top of the goalsquare, back in anticipation of a cleaner clearance and more penetrating entry.
Melksham, having read where the ball was going a fraction earlier than Andrews, marks outstretched, just beyond the reach of his opponent.
The Dees’ kicking for goal has been an issue for much of the season, but dissipated against St Kilda a week ago, and for the most part has been solid on Friday night. Melksham, though, has twice kicked out of bounds on the full in the first half. It’s a pressure kick, for him most of all.
It never looks like missing.
There’s time for two more moments of brilliance: Gawn’s tap, from the next centre bounce, is a work of art, palmed just over the oncoming Neale and into space for Viney to gather and kick forward, perfectly choreographed between great ruckman and great midfielder.
Had Jacob van Rooyen snapped for goal when gathering the ball rather than looked to pass, he might have sealed the game, but instead, when the Dees at last force the stoppage, there are still 16 seconds left, and it’s 75 out from goal. They’re not home yet.
Sure enough, it’s the Lions who win the ball forward, tapping and soccering and shunting it forward by any means until finally someone can gather – it’s Gunston, to Jarryd Lyons, who goes for broke and as long as he can.
It’s a two on two underneath the ball, the sort of situation the Dees had been winning for the past seven minutes: the Lions can’t do likewise here. Lever, wrestling with Eric Hipwood in much the same way as Andrews should have been doing with Melksham at the other end, clings onto a one-hander rightly paid to him despite Hipwood claiming it.
To kick four goals in seven minutes to win a game thought lost is extraordinary, no matter how you slice it. To do it to a team in third speaks volumes.
It speaks volumes about Melbourne, a side with more than its fair share of critics over the last 18 months, but one still capable of relentless, brilliant football at crucial stages. They have now beaten two of the three teams above them on the MCG, pushed Port Adelaide all the way at the Adelaide Oval, and are well and truly in this premiership mix. Get Clayton Oliver and Bayley Fritsch back for finals, and they’ll only grow stronger.
But it says plenty about Brisbane, too. With it all on the line, they had neither the composure, nor the desperation, nor the structure behind the ball to hold firm against the Demons onslaught.
It undid all their spectacular work to kick 16 goals and triple figures against one of the league’s stingiest defences. It has cost them any lingering hopes of forcing their way into the top two, and a home final.
And it has demonstrated, once again, that when it matters most, against their fellow premiership contenders, the Lions will let you down time and time again.