SEMI-FINAL victory hurt so good for Collingwood at the MCG last night. In yet another epic of football as tug-of-war, the Magpies dug in their heels to beat West Coast by 13 points.
It was a victory achieved by hearts at once big and hollow, for they had dedicated this night to the memory of former teammate John McCarthy, who died in a tragic accident in Las Vegas last week.
When it was done, the MCG was littered with spent bodies; it looked like the scene of accident. From some Collingwood players, the tears flowed, mostly in mourning. Uniquely, the mood in the winners' rooms was as sombre as in the losers'.
Bittersweet victory: Magpies Sharrod Wellingham, Jarryd Blair and Dayne Beams shed a tear for John McCarthy. Photo: Paul Rovere
The Magpies' prize is what will doubtlessly be another pitched battle against Sydney next Friday in a preliminary final. Beyond, tantalisingly, awaits another grand final. History would not be denied, twice over. Again, Collingwood proved an impenetrable force field for the Eagles. And again, the season's top four becomes the final four. History informs next week's speculations, too: the Magpies have won their last 11 matches against the Swans.
This contest was won and lost by a series of mighty wrenches. The Eagles kicked the first four goals of the game, at which point the Magpies were tottering. Daniel Kerr scarcely bothered to celebrate the fourth; it was no more than a formality at the time. Actually, it was merely the opening gambit.
It took Collingwood until after half-time to haul themselves back to parity. Then, the mercurial Dale Thomas made Collingwood's ascendancy his personal business, kicking three goals in seven minutes in an effervescent burst at the start of the second half.
In such a meeting of irresistible force and immovable obstacle, this was a contribution from another dimension.
But the Eagles redoubled their efforts, and early in the last quarter inched back into the lead. Once again, the Magpies had to reach deep within; once again, they did. But if this match had lasted another minute, the rope surely would have snapped.
Between convulsions, this match was always twitching this way and that. Pre-match, the talk was all of the Eagles' big bodies, but this night they would be cut down to size. The Eagles made what has become the traditional West Australian flying start in these finals, and then were rampant. Collingwood’s only riposte, a goal snapped by Andrew Krakouer out of a goal-mouth frenzy, was belatedly struck off when a replay showed that Andrew Embley had rushed the ball over the line beforehand. It seemed ominous then.
But the Magpies, nothing if not resilient, elbowed their way back into the match. The second quarter was a 1-1 draw. Collingwood had the preponderance of possession, but not penetration. The Eagles threatened constantly on the break. At half-time, the Magpies led on almost every vital sign except the scoreboard.
Thomas, a bystander last week, singlehandedly gave the match a violent lurch at the start of the third quarter. In a draining contest, the Magpies seemed to have found a new store of energy, perhaps by plugging into the crowd, or into their memories of McCarthy.
Again, the Eagles spent the rest of the quarter taming the Pies. They did not kick a goal for themselves until after the three-quarter time siren, but added two more within five minutes of the start of the last quarter to seize the lead and and sent a shiver around the MCG. None of the 65,500 crowd could have known then that Eagles would not score again in the match.
Both sides now were playing on heart alone; all their physical reserves were spent. Typically, the Magpies gathered themselves and kicked the last five scores of the night, but widely spaced. They even summoned up a last burst of running to keep the ball out of the Eagles’ reach. The Collingwood crowd roused itself for one last chant, but it died away quickly. No-one at the MCG had a breath to spare.