Grand Final – West Coast v Collingwood: Pressure

 

What a dead-set corker! One for the ages.

 

Often a scrappy affair can be made to look better than it was by a close finish. 2005 springs to mind. This Grand Final had a ripper ebb and flow, brutal physicality, the game of Aussie Rules evolving before our eyes, great individual stories, efforts, team stories, high marks. There was a beauty to the way the game shaped.

 

It was brilliant.

 

Television and life have changed everything. Gone are the days of Dad creeping up alongside scalpers so I could be standing on beer cans to watch Snake Baker fly. The wife and I drove for four hours from the Mowbray Valley in FNQ, past Cape Tribulation, over river crossings, through Aboriginal communities, into the wet tropics, taking breaks at deserted mangrove-and-croc-lined coves, before turning in at the iconic Lions Den Hotel. A lazy cave of a place in a valley without a town – cold beer and camels in the paddock.

 

And were treated.

 

Blessed.

 

AFL Grand Finals have become about pressure and patterns. Defensive forwards, accountable on-balllers, tackle counts, presses, rolling zones, intercept markers. Malthouse knew, Blight found out. More often than not, it starts with defence. It takes a shitfight.

 

Ugly to watch.

 

Teams releasing out back, transferring to the fat side. Tempo. Maintaining possession has been, for the modern era, the mantra. Each Grand Final there’s a flurry for arms and legs, wads of bodies throwing themselves at each other, then the game settles, and the best pattern wins.

 

This game, this year, rewrote all that for me.

 

Collingwood under Buckley is built on pressure. That is their pattern. That chaotic first five minutes, somehow, lasts the whole game. There is no room. Small forwards lessen their importance. Out wide champions are reeled in. The greats of time and space get pressured enough to… just… miss targets.

 

In a team’s body politic, there’s no soft tissue to run through anymore.

 

Cause and effect, enter the return of the 70s; The slap on the boot! No time for the Josh Gibsons of the world to peel off. Third man up becomes another body still under the pack. Backmen, so good at playing from behind so as to not get muscled under the ball, get found out. There’s little reading of it, the ball comes forward randomly.

 

The CLUNK is back!

 

It took a while to show, though. Collingwood were five goals up early. You could hear the fizzle. Even my ute moaned! A long way to travel for not much… again. The commentators screamed Pie brilliance and that West Coast were too slow. But three of the Pies first five goals were from unforced West Coast mistakes. If they straightened up, there was hope.

 

All it took was a sliding door moment. Magic. Of course, a Rioli. A bobbling ball hitting the back of his shin. The smell of blood and faith. A surge of adrenaline that leads to other goals in seconds. Just like Darren Bewick used to do solo. 5 to 2 at the quarter break was do-able.

 

A flow emerged within the chaos. Team signatures. The coaches manifest on the oval.

 

Collingwood’s forward line, especially midway through each quarter, was much more open, everything one-on-one, a backman’s nightmare, but had too many eggs in the Cox basket. Barrass didn’t try to body him, he leapt with sweet timing and a cracking fist. A bloke born to the game, opposed to one born tall. Take note, Tigers, he didn’t try to zone off and be Mr Everywhere. He did his job.

 

The Everywhere job went to McGovern. He was brilliant at it. But give me a defender with an opponent. Cox got off the leash a bit in the third, but Barrass was just terrific.

 

Collingwood had the skill on the ground. Varcoe is so damn sweet at front-and-centre, finals football. A match winner. Yet the Eagles were there to stomp on him as the ball entered his hands. The same with their other forwards, each beaten by strength and desperation, and fists and outstretched fingernails.

 

The same on-ball with Sidebottom.

 

I was drunk by this stage, a rare treat for a new Dad, but had a bush pub to watch footy in and a cheap donger for the family and me out back. The punters got sick of me getting up to pat Hurn, Schofield and co. on their televised backs as they picked themselves up from another desperate, last line, no hope, heart-in-mouth one-on-one spoil.

 

The premiership was saved, time and again, by those character-filled defensive moments.

 

The West Coast forward line, in contrast, was a warzone. Flooded. Ugly. But their centres delivered long and low, not high. West Coast were bigger, stronger. As long as they lead hard and straight, like forwards pre-Pagan’s Paddock, back to the dawn of time, they couldn’t be knocked off the ball, and there was no air in it to leap and punch.

 

Contested pack marks at top speed, with the other player’s hands on yours, and others backing back, are the hardest thing in football. It’s why we love them. The “Ooohhh…!” of a crunch, as opposed to the “Raaarrr!” of speckies. West Coast started CLUNKING them.

 

If you listened to the mob in the Lion’s Den, one team was always going to win, then the other was always going to win, then back and back again. It was up for grabs, so to speak – anybody’s!

 

Phrases come and go in footy. One that was pumped up to top shelf this year, this game, is: Affecting the contest. There was a time when foot was as Yabby said: They have the ball, or we do, or the ball is in dispute. It’s still true, but now it seems to be as much about bodies and it does the footy. With so many players so fast to peel off and charge to make numbers, the slightest touch, that fraction of impact, can cause that half fumble, that second touch to get grip, the smallest ball deviation on your opponents delivery. That’s all it takes to turn a perfect pass into a ball bouncing two meters in front. To give backmen a sniff. Even the game’s champion of time and space, Pendlebury, dropped from perfection.

 

It made my heart sing to see forwards like Kennedy running straight at the contested ball, knowing they weren’t quick enough to get hands on it. God, they looked slow! But bodies clashed, the ball bobbled. Handballs did centimetre shifts. And, in that, other players came in.

 

Everybody ran in straight lines. Everybody! No violence, just pure aggression. On par with ’89, it was the most fierce Grand Final I have seen.

 

Notably, the only person I saw not affecting the contest once it went to ground was Cox.

 

The best example, and poster-boy for the saying, was the West Coast ruckman, Lycett (and to a lesser extent, his back-up, Vardy).

 

Grundy was the key. The player with the widest gap on his opponent. All-Australian, and deservedly so. A ruck-rover playing ruck, like that other great Pie, Peter Moore, and before him, my late mate Thommo. Grundy’s without their height, but cunning like a fox. In the ruck itself, he’s actually more in the spirit of Silvagni. Getting around his lack of height, making front position, with that quick tug, hold, scrag, that’s almost always a free, and never quite paid. Frustrating, annoying, smart.

 

Occasionally the umps ping him, but not enough to counter his superb taps when they don’t. Grundy got first hands to it, but Lycett never once gave up, never conceded a bee’s dick. He put pressure on Grundy’s palm, and wrist, and balance, and hips. Made sure Grundy’s taps missed their mark. And stopped the Collingwood star’s other great trick by always standing between him and goal. There was almost none of Grundy tapping it to himself and charging.

 

I said to the poor Collingwood supporter being breathed on by me at three quarter time: “It’s almost impossible to keep that defensive rucking up, plus run with such an athlete. If Grundy can get his hands cleanly to a few hit-outs, the job will be done.” (Then, being inebriated, sung him a Monaros song. ‘Toaster.’)

 

First minute of the last, that’s exactly what happened. A ball-up on Collingwood’s edge of the centre circle, a crisp tap over the back, a goal, momentum, adrenaline, another goal. The game should have been won.

 

But West Coast were just too damn weathered.

 

They tried their chip and switch game that served them all year. Collingwood were up to it. Today, chipping only got the Eagles from one side to the other, never forward. But now, in the last, it controlled the tempo, letting off Collingwood’s steam. Gave the Eagles a chance to inhale. Be ready for the next pack when the ball came in long, have numbers at it to counter Collingwood’s flood, then bash and slap-on-the-boot from the middle.

 

Their backline stayed cool, going for their marks ala Lake, rather than panic punch, backing themselves with strength. Their midfield kept slapping it forward, or kicking long and low, their forwards kept clunking.

 

The last fifteen minutes was a constant moment of mightiness.

 

The Eagle’s Ryan has squibbed it just before half time, dropping a mark in the face of traffic – in front of millions.

 

You don’t get that far, at that level, without being fiercely competitive! Obsessive. You sacrifice the prime of your life. The upside is winning, status, character. The down side, in its totality, is showing fear for both teams to see, magnified by the glare of a nail-biting Grand Final. With that obsession, these moments can haunt you as a person for a lifetime.

 

Yet, in the very same game, he got the redemption. A good charging mark in the last, just like the one he fluffed, then, his team behind, 1½-odd-minutes to go, an absolute hanger! Which he kicked to Sheed to put them in front.  

 

As West Coast began to surge, Collingwood’s backline stood backs to the wall, swinging. The ball kept coming in like a World War II firebombing. It was relentless! Yet, when they did get it to ground, the Pies defense stayed cool, repelling, repelling…

 

Cox was finally getting those big pack grabs. A minute left and Darling proved good comedy can have woeful timing, dropping a sealer. Still West Coast pressed.

 

The other side of the oval stayed open for one last Collingwood counter-punch to an open forward line. The win against the tide that happens so often, that great stories are made of. That soccer is built on. Everything, every action, was electric!

 

In the end, less than a goal was in it. As Worsforld once told me of `05 `06; All you can do is throw your hands in the air. No team was better, but one will win it.

 

The siren sounded. West Coast were in front.

 

The fame was theirs, the glory, the lifetime memories, the stories; of the game, the night and weeks after, the spectacular repercussions that will ripple through their lives.

The victory.

 

Ultimately, West Coast won because they had more forwards working harder to run straighter at the ball. Who were stronger, taller. Who CLUNKED each time it mattered most. Collingwood put the numbers back there, but had no answer to long and low, and only one genuine tall to try and match it.

 

A wave crashes, wiping us all out, then subsides.

 

All that was left was the bits that will linger. Those fingertips. Those clunks. The relentless Collingwood pressure. The fact they were a team, with far less good players on the day yet almost always in front. The sub-plots. Buckley going over to hug the Collingwood cheer squad when their banner tore before the team could run through it. His embrace, and words to the chubby lady in tears, shattered at letting her heroes down in what should have been her finest hour, was soul saving. Always respected you as a clinical pro, mate, but now you’ll always have my heart.

 

Jetta consoling Ryan after his squib as they walked off the MCG for the main break. There, in front of everyone, as if they were the only two people in the world. Brother to brother. Too often a player crumbles after that. But, beyond stats, that shows the value of having blokes in your team that have already won premierships. They have a coolness. Yes, the two of them was an Aboriginal thing, and it was magnificent.

 

That Kennedy could go from having a clean sheet in 2015 to being the most influential forward in a premiership. Imagine the relief!

 

The Collingwood runner who got in the way of a Collingwood lead, that was never going to go to the Collingwood player anyway. The kick was a poor option, the intercept there, waiting. People will make a story of it, but ignore them. You’re a servant of the game, mate. Vital. You had no impact. Things happen.

All three of De Goey’s goals.

 

All that was left, for me, was to savour the taste of one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten. West Coast versus Collingwood. Greatness!

 

Then pick up the hungover pieces of me in the morning, find a waterfall to put my thumping head under, and love my wife and child unconditionally.

 

Hawthorn were the champions of their era. They changed the game with their rolling zone, their individuals were spectacular, their coaching sublime. A combination of pressure, maintaining possession out back, and electric small and mid sized forwards. But, sorry, other than the brilliance of Lake and Rioli, the leadership of Hodge, there’s not much I remember about their flags. Maybe they were stiffed. Maybe Ali needed a Frazier.

 

Yet thanks to Collingwood, to Nathan Buckley and his 100%, 360 degree pressure, there was very little maintaining possession. There was far less handballing out back than I’ve seen in decades. There was boot-slapping, there was clunking. There was one-on-one, there were contests of strength. Everything the old timers say they miss. All that pressure, yet the game was much, much more spectacular for it.

 

To watch the 2018 Grand Final was a thing from Heaven.

Old Dog’s Votes

  1.  Buckley
  2. Shuey
  3. Eddy, for having the fortitude to not knee-jerk Buckley out when most were screaming for his head.
  4. Barrass
  5. Kennedy
    Unlucky McGovern

 

West Coast 11.13.79 d Collingwood 11.8.74

 

 

You can read more from Old Dog (aka Matt Zurbo) here.

 

 

Comments

  1. And so it is written. Thanks Matt. You had me there on the edge of my seat/mattress hoping it had the same ending as the game.
    A thing of strange raging beauty. And a joy forever.
    On Sunday morning the Avenging Eagle asked me if that was the best game I have ever seen. I told her I had no idea. I am usually passionate but analytical watching my team play. But perched in the Ponsford Stand on Saturday arvo I have never been so immersed. Embedded in a footy game. Just wanting us to win and marvelling at the raw physicality and pressure and greatness of ALL the players on both sides.
    A culmination of something strange and wonderful.
    It was reassuring to hear and read so many neutrals praise the game.
    What just happened? Dunno – I just hug the Avenging Eagle and think “we’ll always have Sheed”. Hugs to you and yours.

  2. Punxsa-and-the-rest-of-it Pete says:

    That was a symphony, Matt. Magnificent writing.

    The time capsule they sent into space … if only they’d held it off until this game was played.

  3. Matt Quartermaine says:

    Brilliant report Matt. You and the family deserve more than the cheap donger.

  4. Mighty effort, Matt. Every “CLUNK” a masterstroke. Best GF I’ve seen as a spectacle of Australian Football & this a fitting ode. Cheers.

  5. Stainless says:

    Matt
    A report befitting the quality of the game. Both magnificent.

  6. Kasey Symons says:

    This is wonderful Matt, great stuff. Go Eagles!

  7. Bloody awesome.
    Hell of a game. Hell of a breakdown.

  8. Old Dog excellent stunned re the garbage re Maynard v Sheed and Rioli blatant correct decision for mine.
    What a game re pressure and ferocious competition in any game decided by such a small margin the glaring one was DeGoey not competing with McGovern chose the easy option a massive error

  9. Great work Old Dog. As others have said, and I completely agree, this game was a great advertisement for NOT changing the rules.

    The pressure was intense, the skills were severely tested, and the game became a magnificent mystery. Loved it.

  10. Nice work Turbo!

    I watched in a darkened room by myself. Loved every minute.

    Love your account of the day.

  11. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says:

    Beaut Old Dog. Beaut.

    Marvellous effort by both sides this season. I’m still a bit puzzled about Buckley’s coaching on the day. In the post match, he observed correctly that Collingwood allowed West Coast to play the game on their terms for most of the final three quarters, causing his side to revert to “down the line” stuff. Was this apparent to him at the time and if so, did he try to do anything about it?

  12. Phillip Dimitriadis says:

    Fantastic piece of writing MZ. Captured the vibe perfectly. That passage of play – McGovern to Vardy to Ryan to Sheed: Did the footy gods play any role you reckon? It almost seemed too perfect. Ryan wasn’t even really looking at the ball when he marked it. Fate/Choice = The endless dance… sigh …

  13. Matt Zurbo says:

    Thanks all. Matt, love your comedy! Full on!

    Swish, dunno. All his keys were fantastically held by very defensive runners. Even Grundy, so important as an extra link player, barely touched it. And West Coast’s smaller forwards were chasing and tackling everything down on the Collingwood switch. Not sure what else he could have done?

  14. Matt Zurbo says:

    Rulebook, indeed. As said elsewhere, very tired of the bleating ruining such great games. Collingwood were caught holding the ball, dead to rights, about 5 times in the Eagles forward 50 throughout the game, and not pinged once. If all was just, the game wouldn’t have been close. An oval ball’s bounce, a player’s missed kick, umpires are not perfect either. Collingwood were brilliant. Brilliant! Cop it and play the game.

  15. tom cannon says:

    The dance continues …. well written Old Dog! I think u are winning the real game … hold your family close value the moments x

  16. Yvette Wroby says:

    Wonderful as always Matt. Best Grand Final I can remember. Worthy game worthy of your write up. Love to you and yours

  17. Matt Zurbo says:

    Thanks Yvet.

    Tom, feeling for yas brother. Extra hug to my family for me, and to you from us all.

  18. Great stuff, Matty.
    It was a truly brilliant grand final, just a wonderful advertisement for everything that is good about our game.

  19. John Butler says:

    So you had a good time, Matt. :)

    You nailed it. In the end, the CLUNK made the difference.

    Ripper game.

  20. Joe De Petro says:

    Love it Matt. Great piece, really enjoyed your insights. The game is in a wonderful place at the moment and it is hard to see how fiddling with rules will make it any better. If you leave them to it, the coaches will sort each other out simply because they want to win.

  21. Matt Zurbo says:

    Agreed Joe

  22. Stuart Forbes says:

    You state ( I’d suggest erroneously ) that Grundy doesn’t have the height of Moore, P or Thommo.
    At 203 cm you might be surprised. However , he was certainly clobbered by Lycett (same height) and Vardy 3 cm shorter. I’d suggest both Lycett and Vardy were also both taller than Moore and Thommo

  23. E.regnans says:

    Good one, M Zurbo.
    As a rule I never watch a replay.
    And I’m unlikely to break that rule for the 2018 final.

    Travelling through it again here, this Thursday morning, is a small exercise in self-flagellation.

    I like your ideas on the big moments; your reading of the game.
    I saw this one on shades of colour. Impressionist. Heard it as a symphony. Rather than as a collection of notes.

    Your perspective helps. Cheers.

  24. A slight aside: Did you know that Dean Towers has been delisted, Matt? Pity!

  25. Matt Zurbo says:

    Jan, yeah, I knew it was coming. It is. He’ll bounce back. And remain a mate and a champion to me.

  26. Mathilde de Hauteclocque says:

    Hey Matt,

    I’m only just getting to the GF pieces … and as I’ve said on some of the others, the gap in time makes reading these something different. And wonderful. Your hangover was worth it! For our sakes.

    I agree that it was a super GF. And I love every moment of your telling. But I think the bit I love most is the wave subsiding, the morning, the waterfall and the unconditionality.

    Merci.

  27. Just read this again Old Dog. Fine writing. You have the added advantage of having a great idea for the game, the players and the coaches. This will be a highlight of The Eagles’ Almanac.

    JTH

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