Carlton's Tom Bell warms up with coach Mick Malthouse. Click for more photos

Round 2: Collingwood v Carlton

Carlton's Tom Bell warms up with coach Mick Malthouse. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo

Mick and the Magpies never did cross paths at the MCG on Sunday. Before the game, while supervising Carlton's warm-up, Mick Malthouse spared the Collingwood players not even a backward glance as they jogged by. Counterpart and former collaborator Nathan Buckley steered a diplomatically wide berth.

After the game, both Malthouse and Buckley made themselves publicly scarce, neither wanting to make a scene or steal one. Tacitly, they reaffirmed their constant message, that Collingwood versus Carlton will always be bigger than any two men.

Their sides crossed paths; oh yes, they did. With no beg pardons, nor "after yous", at last they played a blockbuster that busted the block. Collingwood won it with a seven goals to three last quarter, the epic way to triumph. Specifically, diminutive Jamie Elliott won it with five goals, plus a handball to Steele Sidebottom for the clincher, and so claimed a place in the folklore of this rivalry that will be remembered when the Malthouse-versus-the-Magpies meme is long forgotten.

Collingwood's Scott Pendlebury celebrates his goal that sealed the match.

Collingwood's Scott Pendlebury celebrates his goal that sealed the match. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo

This damp and at times apocalyptic evening became the day of the small forward, exploiting the hither and slither. All but three of the Magpies' goals were kicked by players shorter than 185cm; the lumberers had no impact. Equally, Chris Yarran and Jeff Garlett had looked likely to win it off their own low-slung boots for the Blues, until Collingwood's withering last quarter burst. You could argue that the Magpies jumped out of the ground to win this.

Carlton's supposed advantage was that Malthouse knew Collingwood inside out. But one of football's joys is that sometimes teams do not even know themselves, until chance and circumstance reveals it. Did Malthouse anticipate Elliott's five goals? Did Buckley? Both will tell you they knew it was possible; it was why they had drafted him. He was always highly rated in Magpieland, but in 15 previous games had kicked a total of six goals.

For both Malthouse and the Magpies, this was both the day they dreaded and yet could not come too soon. Everything that preceded it during a somewhat hysterical week was a game; this was THE game. The cheer squads up the ante. Collingwood's banner reprised an old theme about the club it loves to hate. At the Carlton end, a maverick group unfurled an unoffical banner that read: "Welcome MM, from the club of scum to club No 1." It was quickly folded away.

Malthouse cut a decades-long familiar figure in the middle of the MCG. In his bearing, he always looks taut and tensed up, even on days off. Almost certainly, he is; coaching is not for the happy-go-lucky. With a football tucked under each arm, he picked out players here and there for last minute instructions, micro-managing, the wont of coaches everywhere. Buckley was no less intent, but did take a moment to test those infamously hamstrings one last time. But once the match began, both were lost to mind and sight, except on television. Here was the moral of the day, and week, and of the last six intriguing months. These were the ringmasters, not the acrobats, the puppeteers, artful but invisible. Out there, it wasn't Malthouse and the Magpies, but Murphy versus Maxwell.

After Andrew Walker gave Carlton a three-goal head-start, a deluge swept the ground, changing the terms and conditions. Simultaneously, veteran Collingwood ruckman Darren Jolly suffered a ribcage injury, made a grey-faced and valiant attempt to return to the fray, then was whisked away in an ambulance.

On another day, this might have decided the match, for although football and footballers are more robust than ever, their eco-system is delicate and the balance of it easily tipped. Collingwood adapted, via Quinten Lynch, playing two men in one. Lynch was not at the club when Malthouse was, nor, admitted Buckley, was he recruited for this locum role. Again, he was a factor outside the agency of the coaches, yet was match-winning.

Three times, Carlton chiselled a lead of nearly three goals, each time threatening to bolt, and each time was dragged back by Collingwood, in the manner of a desperate defender clutching at jumper. At three-quarter time, it was 10 points. Football has no more war-like aspect than the last break in a blockbuster, each team gathered in tightly-circled encampments, touching distance apart, but separated by a metaphorical trench.

Two forces well known to Malthouse animated the last quarter: Collingwood's relentless football, which he taught them, and the gale from the stands, which once blew for him. For once, knowledge was not power. As Carlton coach, Malthouse could not circumvent the Magpies on the field, nor silence them in the crowd. The club was bigger than individual after all.

At day's end, this much can be concluded: football, like art, frequently is greater than its artists. For this enormous canvas, Malthouse and Buckley could do no more than supply the brush-strokes, then perhaps marvel with everyone else at the image emerged. But football protocol knows only the determinedly prosaic. Later, Buckley said all that mattered to him was that the Magpies won. Malthouse's reaction channelled Ned Kelly's. "It's life," he said.

None the less, a new chapter in this old rivalry was written: This was Mick versus the Magpies, and the Magpies won.