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Finals Fix: The Pies were down and out in the prelim. How they turned it around is the stuff of greatness

22nd September, 2023
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22nd September, 2023
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When Toby Greene snapped this wonderful goal two minutes into the second half of Friday night’s preliminary final, Collingwood’s season was on life support.

Forget that the margin was still only 16 points: after a frenetic start thanks to some overwhelming pressure that suffocated GWS at every turn, the Giants had spent the next one and a half quarters systematically strangling the life out of the Magpies’ ball movement, and ruthlessly exposing all their weaknesses on the counter.

Dominating the hard ball away from clearances, where Jordan De Goey was in the midst of perhaps his best and certainly the most impactful game of his career, and impenetrable in defence with Connor Idun and Jack Buckley proving just as difficult to get around as Sam Taylor, the Pies, whose attacking, no-holds-barred game style has made them utterly captivating to watch under Craig McRae, had two goals to their name after a half and change. Their goose, it seemed, was cooked.

How they turned it around to book a grand final berth anyway isn’t just their finest achievement of an already remarkable 18 months under McRae – it’s the stuff of footy greatness too.

Because the Pies didn’t do it in fits and spurts, didn’t grind their way back into the contest in the way most finals are by necessity played. They didn’t take advantage of a tiring opponent, or slowly but surely work their way on top. They did it in the most Collingwood way it was possible to do it.

There are two way the Magpies first overwhelmed and then outlasted the Giants in a preliminary final that might not have, strictly speaking, been great, but was undisputably gripping from start to finish.

Let’s start with the first: a third quarter that, from the moment Greene’s snap curled straight through the middle, encapsulated everything that is good about the Magpies, and hell, our game in general.

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Having kicked two goals in a half, sprayed shots everywhere early and looking less and less likely with every passing minute to even score, the Magpies casually piled on five goals in 15 minutes… and four of them were from chains starting in their defensive half.

Keep in mind that the Pies are the best team in the competition at scoring from defensive half turnovers – that army of rapid half-backs given licence to run and gun – and they average 17 points per game from that source. With their season on the line, having looked just about gone, they mustered 24 points from it IN LESS THAN FIFTEEN MINUTES.

Ordinary sides just don’t do that.

It was the turning point of a fascinating tactical battle between McRae and Adam Kingsley surrounding the Giants’ forward line. Kingsley had a plan to try and curtail the Pies’ famous ball movement and dare coming out from defence – he’d consistently have at least three, and often four, forwards stationed deep and then leading up to the ball when it was presented.

In the first half, the Giants dominated that battle of contrasts, most obviously when Jake Riccardi pulled the winning lottery ticket by marking in the goalsquare with a teammate right next to him and no Magpies in sight; but it made them consistently threatening forward of the ball against a team which has dominated intercepts all season long.

Their one goal amid the Magpies’ third-quarter surge was the perfect example: when Daniel Lloyd kicks long from the wing, the Pies’ outnumber ahead of the ball is only a single extra defender.

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The odds are even enough that when Jesse Hogan does wonderfully well to prevent Darcy Moore from marking and brings the ball to ground, the Giants can work their magic: Toby Bedford gathers, handballs ahead to Callum Brown, who has remained five metres ahead of Mason Cox throughout the play, and kicks the goal.

The Magpies’ choice to set up as they usually would – aggressively – was about as death or glory as footy at this stage of the year gets: 16 points down to start the third term would, for a normal team, have been a sign to change their structure and set up a little deeper to compensate.

The Pies don’t do compensation.

What’s noticeable about the first goal in their game-turning run is Darcy Moore’s positioning. Hogan is his nominal opponent, and up until now has done wonderfully to keep the Magpies captain in check, but with the Giants surging at half-back he has snuck out the back and is calling for the ball long, in a dangerous position if Lachie Ash can get it to him.

Ash decides to pinpoint a lower pass and turns it over to Darcy Cameron: it’s not Moore who intercepts, but his aggressive positioning means he can win a handball receive from the ruckman, and now with 20 metres’ worth of space on Hogan, he can freely swing into the corridor and wobble a kick to Dan McStay at centre-half forward. It’s ugly, but hey, fortune favours the brave.

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From there, McStay goes over the top and to a free Bobby Hill, who marks at close range. Goal. It’s exactly the sort of play the Pies had been unable to implement in the first half.

Barely a minute later came, for me, the defining moment of this match. Finn Callaghan breaks clear of the Giants’ defensive 50 and pumps the ball as long as he can down the wing. The Giants, as they have done all night, have even numbers ahead of the ball, and two of them – Brown and a sprinting Bedford inboard – are goal side. Alarm bells are blaring for Collingwood.

It’s Oleg Markov this time who goes for death or glory: with the ball bouncing ahead of Brown, and the speedy Brent Daniels to guard, he makes an instinctive choice, born of the Pies’ attack-first approach, and abandons Daniels to try and force a turnover.

He gets a touch lucky – the ball doesn’t sit well for Brown, instead bouncing inboard – but again, fortune favours the brave. Brown, with Daniels in a paddock ahead of him, tries to tap the ball on, but he’s too close to Markov, and the Pie is able to block the ball’s path, keep it ahead of him, and in one fluid motion turn defence into attack.

The result? Well, see for yourself.

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Other teams wouldn’t encourage Markov to take a risk like that, one that just about guarantees an opposition goal if it doesn’t pay off.

But this is the rock on which McRae has built his church: so encouraging has he been of these sort of plays in his 18 months in charge, so forgiving of the times when it doesn’t work, that Markov approaches that contest with no fear of failure. It’s remarkable what elite athletes can achieve when the little voice in their heads that warns of impossibility is silenced.

If by this point it wasn’t clear that the game had turned, it was when Beau McCreery put them in front mere minutes later.

Yet again, it started with supreme boldness: Jeremy Howe, from half-back, executing a flawless kick into the corridor with the risk ultra-high. He hits it perfectly: Bobby Hill marks, gives to the passing Scott Pendlebury, and the veteran drives it long to the perfect spot.

McStay does his job – he brings the ball to ground on the best defender in the game in Taylor, as he did all night – and then follows up with a perfectly timed block on Lachie Whitfield. It gives McCreery all the time he needs to gather the front-and-centre, snap, and give the Pies the advantage they would retain for the rest of the match.

Some teams go into their shell in preliminary finals, especially when facing a deficit. A lesser team would have begun to doubt their plans, their willingness to take risk, and dialled it back a bit; perhaps to their detriment.

Call the Magpies lucky all you want, but they are professional roulette players. At every turn they roll the dice, and more often than not the chips are falling their way. There is everything to admire in their bravery to continue to risk it all.

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Then, having turned a 16-point deficit into a four-point lead at three-quarter time – and somehow held out a series of Giants launches in the dying seconds of that term – the fourth quarter showcased the other side of the Magpies.

I’m not exaggerating to say, with a maximum lead of seven points in that final quarter, that it never looked remotely likely that the Magpies would lose it.

Brody Mihocek celebrates Collingwood's preliminary final win.

Brody Mihocek celebrates Collingwood’s preliminary final win. (Photo by Robert Cianflone/AFL Photos/via Getty Images)

Sure, they had to scrabble and scrap and defend to within an inch of their lives as they had to against Melbourne in the qualifying final – but the Giants had three shots for the quarter, two of them goals and one a Greene snap that fell narrowly short. With time ticking and the most ferociously speedy team in the game needing to go full bore, the Giants could hardly get themselves a look in.

Let’s focus in on the death: from the moment Greene’s ambitious snap is marked by Steele Sidebottom right on the goal line, with exactly four minutes on the clock, and the Pies in front by one point.

Sidebottom chips to Howe in the pocket, who goes long to a contest: from that moment on, the Giants would never go inside 50 again.

The Giants’ first chance to attack comes as Harry Perryman takes an intercept mark inside 50, with still 3 minutes and 20 seconds on the clock. His kick wide is a beauty to find Xavier O’Halloran, the fresh-legged sub, who marks defensive side of the week, turns and goes, and kicks it long.

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The Pies are prepared for this, though: part of the reason McRae has long been in favour of playing two rucks is so, late in the game, one can drop behind the ball. In this instance, it’s Cameron, charging across in front of Greene and Brayden Maynard: the Pie has the wherewithal to legally impede the Giants captain enough to give his ruckman free access.

Over the next 25 seconds, the Pies would execute a perfect game of keepings-off: Cameron chips to Howe, who in turn passes down the line to Josh Daicos, who heads inboard to Mitchell.

Any of them could have chosen to take maximum time off the clock and go back to take their kick, but all played on just about instantly. Why? Because they saw a spare player, and backed their kicking skills, Howe especially, to find them, allowing both territory gains and more time milked.

Had Howe not chosen to pinpoint Daicos down the wing and gone long, the result may have been a stoppage, giving the Giants a chance to reset, and taking minimal time out of the game. Instead, by the time Mitchell has it, the clock is down to 2:45 left, and the Pies have gained a handy 40 metres.

Mitchell chips too – across to a free Pendlebury, with the Giants stacking numbers behind the ball in the hopes of a slingshot when the long kick comes. The Pies are determined to not play into their hands for as long as they can.

Ditto Pendlebury; he takes his full time, gestures as if to go long, and then right as he’s about to kick, notices Nick Daicos in enough space on the wing, 15 metres away, to pass to him and wipe some more time out.

It’s Daicos who needs to take the long ball eventually, after nearly a minute of tempo footy; and what happens next instantly proves the Pies’ method right.

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From the spillage, it’s the Giants who swarm over the footy, winning it back and looking to move it on deserately: too desperately. Callaghan’s handball forward to no one is precisely the sort of panic the Magpies have hitherto avoided: when Mitchell gathers and gives back to Nick Daicos, he knows that the option is to get the ball as long as he can, and make it as hard as possible to mark.

The result? A torp.

No one can mark, but that’s not the point: the Magpies swarm, and lock up Idun to force a ball-up inside 50. 1 minute 58 left.

The Giants once again win the clearance and begin to surge forward – but where they had cut Port Adelaide to ribbons last week with their run and carry, this week they are facing a team that can match them for speed.

Callaghan charges out of 50, handpasses to O’Halloran, who tries to give it back in front of the GWS wingman… but with every step, Josh Daicos is hot on his heels. The result is Callaghan’s attempted handball back to O’Halloran goes awry, and by the time he’s gathered, the Pies have closed ranks again. A Maynard tackle means another stoppage, the Pies desperate to keep the ball in tight, the Giants doing everything to force it loose.

From the ball-up, a Crisp soccer forward, close enough to a teammate to avoid a deliberate call, means a precious 15 metres gained and a boundary throw-in. And more time off the clock.

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When Pendlebury gathers the clearance, he tries to hit the roof with his kick: long and high, almost impossible to mark but wasting seconds with every climbed metre. It takes three seconds to come down, and all the Giants can do to first clear, and then prevent Moore from intercepting at half-back and force another ball-up.

In all of this, the Giants have hardly erred. 59 seconds remain.

Two repeat ball-ups ensue as the Pies again keep the ball in tight: a Lloyd clearing soccer just moves the rolling maul into the Giants’ forward half, but a maul it remains.

From the next ball-up, Sidebottom plays it brilliantly: losing possession of the ball and with Perryman all over him, he taps the ball in between his feet, maintaining control without picking it up; only after another second is wasted does he grab it, careful to keep his feet and not dive on top, and allow himself to be consumed by the Giant.

Another ball-up. 33 seconds left now.

From a bobbling ball, it’s Jamie Elliott with the first clean hands on it: he knows the Giants will have numbers just behind the ball, making any attempt to hack it forward a risk in the manner of Jack Viney’s turnover in the Demons’ loss to Carlton last week.

So he goes sideways: out in front of Josh Daicos, who has maintained his width on Kelly, and is the first two arrive.

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He gathers, and instead of kicking as long and as quickly as he can, he gathers the ball and then chooses to evade. Running backwards and then jinking around a flagging Kelly, he gets enough space to get onto his right foot, and with it weight up the kick that seals the match: down the light, perfectly executed, to Will Hoskin-Elliott.

14 seconds remain. Hoskin-Elliott milks some more time, then again goes slightly backwards to a free Bobby Hill. Even then, with the game won, the Magpies want to retain possession rather than gain territory.

Siren.

Call the Magpies lucky all you like, but no team is better drilled at the close finish. It’s borne of repeat exposure to these sort of games under McRae as much as it is on the training track, and with every passing thriller the Pies claim it becomes harder and harder to take one of them off him.

Under the most smothering pressure, with everything at stake, and the smallest of leads in the last minutes where a single Giants score would have at least forced extra time, the Magpies played it utterly perfectly.

When they had the ball, they kept it for as long as they could, willing to take risks to guarantee retention rather than playing it safe and trying for repeat stoppages. Then, when stoppages did ensure, they time and again stopped the Giants from winning any space at all, closing ranks repeatedly and forcing yet more stoppages.

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The Pies turned the game in the third quarter by embracing death or glory: they held it in the last by adapting to the game and finding a solution perfectly suited to the occasion.

That’s why they’re into a grand final. And it’s why, for the last fivemonths at least, they have been premiership favourites.

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