This might as well have been a Collingwood greatest hits album.
Three goals down at three quarter time and having been almost completely outplayed by a Port Adelaide outfit at the very top of their game, the Magpies did what they’ve now done 12 separate times (out of 16) under Craig McRae, and stormed home for a famous victory.
Well held for the first three quarters by the dour, desperate tagging efforts of Willem Drew, and a Power-wide initiative to deny him any opportunities to run the ball forward, Nick Daicos found a way regardless to have a telling say on the outcome, a critical last-quarter lift highlighted by an ice-cool goal.
And most of all, Jamie Elliott. Has there ever been a man more made for the big occasion? Given two opportunities in the last quarter, both perilously difficult shots from the boundary line with a wet footy and a 50,000-strong crowd baying for his blood, the Magpie matchwinner had what might just be his most famous turn yet.
In short, this was everything Collingwood have done to capture the minds of the footy world and the hearts of their fans forever, distilled into 30 minutes of pure Magpie magic. Port Adelaide are far from the first and certainly won’t be the last team to cop the inescapable, unstoppable momentum of a team that knows whatever the deficit, whatever the odds, they can do it.
It was belief as much as anything concrete that sunk the Power on Saturday night at the Adelaide Oval: belief in their system, belief in their teammates, belief that the previous three quarters of slowly increasing Port control meant nothing more than the slightest of advantages for the final sprint to the finish.
But to say it’s only something intangible that drives this does the Magpies, and what they do every time they’re headed at the final term, a disservice. There are only so many times they can show us their magic act before the onus is on us to try and solve the riddle rather than just stare in amazement.
It’s important, though, to first set up exactly what the Power had done right for the first three quarters, and how and where it went wrong in the last.
Port brought pressure with a capital P throughout the evening, tackling, harassing and roughing up the Pies at every possible opportunity.
Ken Hinkley has been coaching the lights out all season in no small part because of his willingness to adapt the Power’s style to suit prevailing conditions. Port are aggressive and silky under the roof at Marvel Stadium – at least, they were until copping Carlton last week – but they can also be tough, tenacious and desperate when conditions get a little less perfect.
In greasy, and eventually outright rainy, conditions in the city of churches, that meant constant attack. Few Magpies players, with the exception of Scott Pendlebury around whom time has stood still for a decade and a half, had any time to breathe, least of all Nick Daicos.
As with most players, the Brownlow Medal favourite thrives in open space, where he can put his laserlike kicking skills and incredible footy brain to use. He was afforded neither by Drew throughout the evening, though the job to clog up his space and deny him his usual fare of loose balls – only he and Oleg Markov among Magpies finished the game with zero marks – was a team-wide one. And for three quarters, it worked a treat.
It was a game, and a task, perfectly suited for Drew, the Kevin Jonas to Connor Rozee and Zak Butters’ Nick and Joe. With 16 tackles, he had double what any other player on the ground could muster in conditions that required the toughest of souls, and a good chunk were wrapping up Daicos.
With 11 disposals – only six of them effective – to half time and gaining only 142 metres, Daicos was down enough on influence that he even resorted to the trick a lot of people still think he does as a general rule – he went to full back and took a kickout to get himself into the game. Throw in two free kicks against for insufficient intent, and he was having about as close to a shocker as he’s had so far, and a big reason why the Pies’ kicking efficiency at three quarter time was an ugly 51 per cent, a season low for the ladder leaders.
The Power likewise had a plan to defuse the danger of Darcy Moore behind the ball: chaos footy going inside 50.
It’s a method Hinkley has gone to in the past, famously taking a prime Jeremy McGovern out of the game with ‘dirty ball when kicking inside 50 in a famous road win over then-reigning premier West Coast in 2019.
It’s relatively simple: by hook or by crook, get the ball forward, win subsequent contests, and keep the footy in a state of perpetual motion. The kick that set up their third goal of the game, Connor Rozee into the open square, was the perfect example.
Brisbane did something similar, though in more classy fashion, to tear through the Magpies’ formidable defensive structure earlier this season, while Adelaide achieved it too, though only for a one-quarter burst in each of their two thrilling losses to the Pies.
As a result, Moore mustered just two intercept marks for the evening; Isaac Quaynor, the Moore equivalent when the captain was kept in check against the Western Bulldogs, could only grab three. Keeping the Pies to 13 intercept marks for the game, considering Port’s territory dominance, is a huge advantage.
Then, once it’s inside 50, unless an option presents itself, tackle like maniacs, force a stoppage, and keep the ball in there until something or someone cracks. With a whopping 13 tackles inside 50 to three-quarter time – the Pies, in contrast, had two – they certainly did that, with Jason Horne-Francis epitomising their success with this superb chasedown on Brayden Maynard.
It meant Port, despite dominating inside 50s 45-31 to the final break, had just one extra mark inside there (seven to six) but seldom had trouble finding a score – and given their struggles all night at converting set shots, getting 17 stoppages in attacking 50 to try and sneak a goal was just about the optimum strategy.
Now that that’s out of the way, it’s easy to see why Port found themselves 17 points to the good at the final change: now it’s time to decipher how the Pies stole it from them.
Let’s begin with the easy bit: the kicking. From botching one of, on average, every two kicks for the first three quarters, the Pies started nailing their targets as if it was a dry day.
It manifested in their set shot accuracy – the Magpies had five of them in the final quarter, none of them easy, and casually sunk every single one.
Under the pressure of a match riding on just about every kick, it’s incredible that they could nail so many low-percentage shots and make it look this easy. But whether it was Steele Sidebottom, or Josh Daicos, or Nick, or especially Elliott, goal after goal sailed through the big sticks, making Port’s earlier inaccuracy look all the costlier.
But it wasn’t just for goal – I would like to put forward Beau McCreery’s kick to Bobby Hill with 11 minutes to go, where he burned off Ryan Burton on the wing, kept the ball moving, picked his option superbly, and weighted a pass across his body that literally drew Hill to the hot spot for an uncontested mark, as the best field kick of season 2023.
It was honestly unimprovable – Taylor Walker did a similar one in an elimination final eight years ago and he’ll always be remembered for it.
As brilliant as it was, though, what’s important to notice is how open the 50 is, with Hill and Elliott the only Magpies in there when McCreery first picks up the ball.
The Pies do this quite a bit when things get tight: Brody Mihocek, and whoever of Dan McStay or Billy Frampton or Ash Johnson are picked as the other talls, will drag their opponents – in this case, it was Aliir Aliir – up the ground, and almost serve as decoys.
It’s underrated how quick Mihocek is, which suits this perfectly: as McCreery streams down the wing, he has made 10 metres on Aliir, and by the time the number 31 kicks to Hill he’s made his way inside 50 to present as another option.
The other thing the Pies do better than anyone else is, in the immortal words of The IT Crowd, try and walk it in. What I mean by this is that they do exactly what McCreery does in the above play, and what Scott Pendlebury does to set up Jamie Elliott for the eventual match-winner a few minutes later: run as far and as fast as they possibly can, handball through dangers to get them closer, and avoid bombing it in unless there’s no other option.
McRae has assembled, in my view, the quickest team in the league, a side with enough leg speed that they’ll back themselves every day to create an overlap somewhere along the line, which demands every single opposition player do their bit to stop them.
Pendlebury only kicks to Elliott – another outrageous pass into the pocket pretty well directly over the boundary line, the only place he could have possibly kicked to him without giving the bigger Trent McKenzie the chance to spoil to safety – when Horne-Francis has just about borne down on him. Earlier, McCreery too had held his nerve longer than many other players would have, and only when he’d drawn Aliir close enough to him to take him out of the play (but not close enough to impact the kick) did he pull the trigger.
The comparison to the Power’s continued plan to get the ball forward by any means necessary, dirty or otherwise, was clear. When, with a little under two minutes to go, Connor Rozee gets a handball from Travis Boak on the wing and sets off towards goal with Nick Daicos in hot pursuit, he has no teammates riding shotgun from the stoppage.
With Nick behind him and Josh ahead of him, there is no hope of an overlap: he does exactly what the Pies had so efficiently avoided doing in the last term, and bombs long. Between Moore and Maynard, they take it to safety.
Then, of course, there are the moments of individual brilliance that decide games, of which Sidebottom had two in the last term: his left-foot beauty for the first goal of the quarter to spark the Pie run, bookended by a clutch spoil of Kane Farrell, the Power’s best kick, directly in front with 84 seconds on the clock.
Even the clutchest of teams need their sharpest minds to deliver, and Sidebottom, veteran that he is, is most assuredly that.
If these two teams meet again in the grand final – and honestly, with respect to Brisbane and Melbourne, it’s never looked likelier than it does right now – we are in for a treat. And maybe the last Saturday in September will bring better fortune for the Power: maybe that Pendlebury kick to Elliott will sail a millimetre more to go out on the full, or the million other line-ball, random rolls of the dice that give one team victory by two points and leave the other with bitter defeat.
But Collingwood have something very dangerous: the skills and gameplan to make any three-quarter time deficit achievable, and the belief, borne of now a dozen successful heists, that they can win from anywhere. Dynasties have been built on less.
As for the Power, if things are still tight on grand final day in the dying stages, and it’s the Pies they’re facing… well, they now join a whole list of rivals with their own set of Magpie scars.