EMOTIONAL Collingwood players broke down in tears in the MCG dressing rooms last night as the death of former teammate John McCarthy hit home and they willed themselves into a preliminary final for the fourth year in a row.
Several players were crying as they entered the rooms following a gutsy 13-point win in the first semi-final that sets up a Friday night preliminary final against Sydney at Homebush.
Coach Nathan Buckley said the club had been brought together by grief over the death of former player McCarthy this week.
''They've lost a mate,'' he said. ''We've lost a person who represented the club with pride and distinction for his time when he was here. It was important for us to recognise the contribution of 'J-Mac', but the main thing we did was support each of our players, each of our coaches, each of our support staff.
''The fact that you're there and going through it together is in some ways a galvanising part of it. It still doesn't change the tragedy that it is, it doesn't mitigate it, it just is. It's been an up-and-down week for a lot of the boys. Clearly, a lot of them were affected. But they were able to find reasons to perform and they did.''
Collingwood was magnificent, coming back from a four-goal deficit in the first quarter. ''We wanted to go out there and play the way he played, which was hard at the ball, team sacrifice,'' said defender Ben Reid, a close friend of McCarthy's, and arguably best-afield on the night. ''I think all the boys did that tonight.
''I know at three-quarter-time and in the last quarter [I was thinking about him]. You just wanted to hang on and get that win for him, and to the boys' credit, we were able to hang on and win. It's one we'll remember for a long time.''
The Collingwood players are expecting to attend a service to commemorate McCarthy's life on Thursday before flying to Sydney for Friday night's final. McCarthy, 22, spent four years on Collingwood's list before moving to Port Adelaide this season. He died last weekend in an accident in Las Vegas.
The Magpies will go into the preliminary final boasting a record of 11 straight wins, and seven straight at the venue. ''It means we go in with a great deal of confidence against that opposition at that venue,'' Buckley said. ''But the past is the past. Every game we've played against Sydney, we've had to dig in. We've had to work hard. They're a fantastic team on the inside and the outside. We need to earn the right to get the game on our terms every time we've played them. Next week will be no exception.''
The margin last night ensured that there will be less of a controversy over a goal-umpiring video review which denied Andrew Krakouer a goal in the first quarter. Had the Magpies lost narrowly, it was bound to have caused a furore. The goal, Collingwood's first of the night after a slow start, was given the all clear and the players were heading back to the centre when a field umpire called for the review. The replay suggested West Coast's Andrew Embley had taken the ball over the line for a rushed behind, but there was a possibility that a tiny part of the ball had not cleared the line. The review panel overruled the goal umpire's original decision.
Collingwood found a way to win from four goals down and without a functional forward line. It may have further issues in the front half on Friday, with Chris Dawes hurting his right knee in the final quarter and limping to the finish. Dawes, who came back strapped up and hobbling, must be in doubt.
Buckley praised the ''huge'' performance of his defenders against West Coast's forward line, and acknowledged that his men had hung tough when they were struggling. ''We've been building to this kind of performance,'' he said. ''We still feel there's some upside in us. The last three weeks have been probably 10 or 15 per cent [up] on each other, and we need to go again.''
Dale Thomas also won praise for his dynamic third-quarter burst of three goals in seven minutes. ''Like the club itself, Dale's been scrutinised and criticised fairly heavily over the last period of time in particular. Once again, [he has] great quality, a great deal of pride in his performance, the type of guy who loves the big stage and has always played well in finals.''