Jordan De Goey dari Collingwood diskors selama tiga pertandingan karena menabrak Elijah Hewett

In a battle for the corridor, it was the thriller kings who prevailed on footy’s biggest day

For much of its history, Collingwood was notorious for losing close ones on the biggest stage.

No side has made more grand finals nor won more premierships. No team has also lost more grand finals.

But that was then, before Craig McRae came to the club.

At the end of what was one of the greatest games of Australian Football, and arguably its greatest grand final in living memory, the best team ever in tight games has walked away with the flag.

The 2023 grand final saw ten lead changes with the scores drawing level an additional four times. There was no lead greater than 13 points. There are tight games, there are attacking games, but rarely a combination of the two play out together.

Games like this are why we all watch footy.

Two years ago, McRae took over the reins at Collingwood, entrusted to bring the club back to the top of the competition after a dismal 2021 season.

In just 12 months the Pies went from the bottom four to top four.

McRae has turned around what was once the club Achilles heel, namely losing close games.

Under McRae, Collingwood has won 18 games by two goals or less. No club in the last half century has won more tight games than McRae’s Pies.

Most footy analysis has suggested that success in close games is more luck than skill. Collingwood is single-handedly changing that perception for most fans.

“We’re really proud of our journey. We mentioned during the week that it takes two years to get to this point,” McRae said last week after winning a tight game in the preliminary final against GWS.

“You had two years of doing one-on-one fight sessions — like we’d do it every session. Two minutes of it — tick off. Two minutes — next one. I don’t know how many hours that is.

“You saw how much we’d rehearsed those moments.”

That poise late in games showed through on the biggest stage of them all.

For Brisbane, a couple of missed half-chances means that they are still waiting for their fourth flag as a merged club.

The margins between ultimate success and crippling defeat are sometimes as narrow as an errant knock of the ball forward, or an umpire’s call.

Collingwood put together the closest string of wins ever seen in an AFL-era finals series.

It was truly a masterclass of control via chaos, of seizing the moment when it arose.

This is how Collingwood won a stellar 2023 grand final.

Desire and euphoria

The grand final presented a contrast between two styles making for an intriguing match.

Through the game Collingwood lent on their well-honed brand of footy built on trust, spacing, movement and risk.

When Collingwood is running on all cylinders it is hypnotising, with waves of black and white stripes confounding opponents.

Magpies players ran hard for their teammates at all times on the day, overwhelming the Lions with chains of running handballs and numbers at the contest.

It forced Brisbane defenders to choose between two seemingly unstoppable options. The Pies seemed to find open space where there shouldn’t have been any, finding open marks inside 50.

Instead of clearly gaining possession, Collingwood thrived on knock-ons, taps, ground kicks and fumbles forward to put the defence under pressure.

The Lions generally more controlled when moving the ball — looking to switch and change angles where they could. Where the Pies used chaos to push the ball forward, the Lions tried to use the width of the ground.

The contrast in styles saw a tense contest early, with both teams putting the feelers out early.

But there was one common element — a battle to get the ball in the corridor, and to win the ball in the middle of the ground.

Early on the Pies were able to get their turnover game going, scoring 15 to 6 in the first quarter.

Eventually, the Lions got the dangerous press going, matching the Pies in this area.

Through the first half both sides were able to limit the impact of the taller forwards on the game.

Despite Collingwood losing Nathan Murphy early to a head knock, Brisbane took until late in the second quarter to register its first mark inside 50.

Meanwhile, the Magpies’ struggles for their tall forwards to have an impact may be down to how they deployed them.

Billy Frampton came into the Collingwood side for an injured Dan McStay, and the former Adelaide swingman played a negating role on star Lions defender Harris Andrews.

While Andrews was still able to shape the game from down back, he was thrown out of position more than once by the work of Frampton.

The second half saw more patience from both sides, with the avenues to goals being curtailed.

Both sides put a heavy priority in closing down any attacks from up the ground. The two teams were cautious of each other’s strengths, forcing them to take the long way up the ground.

As the clock wore down, Collingwood switched between its two fabled late game modes.

For much of the fourth quarter the Pies slowed the pace down, killing the clock and forcing the Lions into engaging risk.

For a brief minute it looked like paying off for Brisbane, thanks to Charlie Cameron’s late game snap that saw the Lions take what could have been a match-winning lead.

Then the Pies did what they did best — attack.

They prioritised moving the ball forward, with spaced runners and aggressive taps doing a lot of the hard work for them. In a blink of an eye two black-and-white goals hit the scoreboard.

Brisbane, to its credit, never gave up fighting.

A late goal by Joe Daniher gave them a shot for a heart-stopping win, before a late contentious advantage call took the wind from their sails.

The result was another Collingwood late game masterclass ending with the most famous McRae late game win.

Hill’s day out

On a day full of potential matchwinners on both sides, one stood out more than the others.

Bobby Hill’s journey has taken him right across the country — from his birthplace of Northam on Noongar boodja country to Western Sydney, then Collingwood.

A year before joining the Magpies it looked likely that the electric forward would join Essendon, before being told that the deal fell through while he was in the chair of his tattoo artist.

He’s also battled and beaten cancer, a fair struggle for any 23 year old man.

Hill’s best footy has always been electric and jaw dropping, with his athleticism and footy nous shining through.

The Pies utilised his speed and running ability to its full extent, pushing him up the ground to contests and running him off any potential opponents.

Hill also had inspiration from another great small forward.

“To be honest I was watching Cyril Rioli’s highlights,” Hill said.

“So there you go, Cyril thank you!”

This innate ability saw him find space where there shouldn’t be any. His four first half goals gave the Pies an early edge, and his continued influence through the game contributed significantly to the win.

Team of the future?

In 1990, after their famous drought-breaking premiership, Collingwood great Lou Richards “buried” the “Colliwobbles” in front of a enthusiastic crowd at Victoria Park.

While the curse went into the ground, it may have been more stunned than buried.

Despite a number of veterans with heavy roles such as Scott Pendlebury, Steele Sidebottom and Jeremy Howe, the future seems bright for Collingwood.

It’s easy to see a future where the Pies firmly put their finals struggles in the ground for good.

By the same token Brisbane seem likely to only continue getting better.

The products of their early 2000s success have provided the club with a stream of talented young players, from Will Ashcroft and Harris Andrews to Jaspa Fletcher and Keidean Coleman.

They’ve also become an attractive destination for veteran players looking for club away from the Melbourne footy bubble. They might even be better next year, which is scary considering they were just a kick from the flag.

For all Collingwood players, coaches and fans next year is a world away. For now, there’s a flag to celebrate.

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Author: Russell White