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AFL Grand Final: Eagles claw their way home in a thriller

Dom Sheed, Daniel Venables and Liam Ryan celebrate as the siren sounds the Eagles’ five-point win, Magpie Jack Crisp despairing. Photo: GETTY IMAGES

AFL Grand Final: Eagles claw their way home in a thriller

Rohan Connolly    

West Coast has carried the weight of much scepticism about its premiership credentials ever since fluffing its lines on grand final day three years ago.

Which made for a horrible case of déjà vu on Saturday as Collingwood kicked the first five goals while several feted West Coast players fumbled, stumbled or gave the ball away at the most inopportune of moments.

One more and might have been all over before the Eagles had managed to regain their composure. But this time they didn’t buckle completely.

The resolve kicked in, the resistance gathering momentum, players looking decidedly wobbly in the early going not only finding their feet but becoming pivotal players in a frantic finish.

This is a mentally stronger line-up than that which coach Adam Simpson sent on to the ground on grand final day 2015. And that’s why, unlike that version, this one now has a premiership to show for it.

Given how poorly it started, that is some feat in itself, this win requiring a comeback from the biggest margin winning team has conceded since Essendon hauled back a 32-point deficit in 1984.

There are big moments in any grand final. But this one had several within the first 15 or so minutes. Unfortunately for the Eagles, they were all clangers, and they all resulted in Collingwood goals.

Josh Kennedy had the first, gettable, shot at goal. He missed, and Travis Varcoe soon ran into one for Collingwood and made no mistake.

Then Kennedy and teammate Daniel Venables got their wires crossed and with an easy mark just 20 metres out for the taking, managed to collide with each other, the chance lost. The ball rebounded to the other end, where Jaidyn Stephenson snapped truly on his left.

Worse would follow, when Tom Cole dropped a mark running with the flight and Stephenson pounced for his second goal in two minutes.

Even West Coast skipper Shannon Hurn was getting the wobbles, turning the ball over coming out of defence, the ball ending up with Jordan De Goey, who beat both Jeremy McGovern and Jack Redden, turned on to his right and snapped a brilliant effort.

By the time Will Hoskin-Elliott threaded another from a tightish angle, West Coast was in all sorts of trouble, 28 points down, goalles, key playmakers like Elliott Yeo and Luke Shuey subdued, and as team, according to former premiership coach Paul Roos: “looking beaten already”.

Collingwood was busting the game open with speed, backing itself to win the clinches once it banged the ball forward. Taylor Adams was in the thick of it, Chris Mayne and youngster Brayden Sier, having another ripper in only his 12th AFL game busy.

West Coast needed something out of nothing to stem the bleeding. It arrived via a bouncing ball in the goal square which just happened to flick Willie Rioli’s leg.

A couple of minutes later, the Eagles put together their most coherent passage thus far, Kennedy getting on the end of a pass from Shuey, gradually working his way into proceedings, and this time getting the job done.

The gap was not irretrievable. And thus began a 20-minute long second quarter arm wrestle in which neither side could manage a goal, the ramifications of one growing with each passing minute.

It finally arrived for Collingwood, De Goey brilliant again in banging one home from outside 50 metres, the gap back out again to the best part of four goals and just five minutes left in the first half.

Again, though, the Eagles found something, perhaps taking the cues from their defence, which had largely kept them in the contest during that period of stalemate, Jeremy McGovern and Tom Barrass repeatedly turning the Collingwood tide.

Within 90 seconds of De Goey’s goal, the Eagles responded through Mark Hutchings, who’d not only kept Steele Sidebottom relatively quiet but now hit the scoreboard as well, running on to a handball from Mark LeCras.

Shuey, too, was by now right in the groove. He snapped another and it was back to a 12-point game at half-time, West Coast having kicked four of the last five goals.

What happened thereafter was in stark contrast. For most of the second half, it was West Coast dominating play, perversely though, unable to make it register where it counted most, Collingwood hanging on grimly.

The big men rendered ineffective early began to hit their stride. Jack Darling had had only three touches for the Eagles come half-time. In the third term alone he had seven, dragged in six marks and kicked a goal.

Mason Cox was Collingwood’s Darling. He’d had just one touch to the long break. But he became a constant menace in the second half, threatening every time the ball went forward to reprise his preliminary final effort against Richmond.

They traded grab for grab as the Eagles and Pies went goal for goal, the sequence broken only when a misdirected Taylor Adams pass was cut off by Elliot Yeo on the 50-metre line and he put West Coast in front for the first time since the five-minute mark of the game.

The numbers and the momentum (and an inside 50 count of 20-11 in the third term) suggested that it was the Eagles who would finish off stronger with scores level at three-quarter time. But their “iffy” conversion still left room for doubt.

So did the size of Collingwood’s heart. The Pies knew they were hanging on. But they knew there was one last almighty effort left in the tank, too. And it almost got them over the line.

From the first bounce of the final term, Brody Mihocek elected to stay down as his man flew for the first marking contest. The gamble paid off, Mihocek pouncing on the crumbs and snapping truly.

Just over 90 seconds into the term, Collingwood was again two goals up, after another clearance, a Steele Sidebottom handball and a Jordan De Goey step and roost from the 50.

Nathan Vardy made it a goal the difference, and Cox hit back once more for Collingwood. And perhaps one more might have been enough. But West Coast backed its system, its height, and its skill, and they all paid off in the critical finish.

Trailing by 11 points still, Kennedy’s third goal pegged it back to five. The Eagles “bottled” some more chances to win it, Liam Ryan hitting the post twice. The Pies clung to a two-point lead with just over two minutes to go.

West Coast had been here before. In 2005, a last desperate effort repelled by Leo Barry’s famous mark for Sydney. But this time, it would have the hero.

Dom Sheed’s angle was tight indeed after Ryan found him, 45-odd metres out. Under that sort of pressure, a miss wouldn’t have seen him nailed to the cross. But it’s a moot point now, because Sheed nailed the shot.

West Coast took the lead for one final time, with just one minute 45 seconds left on the clock. There was another flutter as Darling dropped what would have been the sealer with still 58 seconds left.

But this is a tougher, more resilient, more resourceful West Coast than we’ve known previously. They ground down the clock. They willed themselves there. And in the end, got the spoils of that effort.

Collingwood will be devastated. The Pies led for the vast bulk of the game, and were that close to their 16th flag they could taste it. But this has been a great season for them by any measure. You sense the best for Nathan Buckley’s tribe is still to come.

Perhaps that’s also the case for the Eagles. Barely a pundit in the land didn’t have their trajectory headed downwards in 2018. Instead it’s hit heights perhaps even the club itself didn’t believe could be reached.

Speaking about heights, there’s plenty of worrying going on about the state of the game. But this was a top shelf grand final. Perhaps AFL football isn’t in too bad a place after all.

WEST COAST 2.2 4.3 8.7 11.13 (79)
COLLINGWOOD 5.1 6.3 8.7 11.8 (74)

West Coast: Kennedy 3, Hutchings, Shuey, Sheed, Darling, Yeo, Cripps, Vardy, Rioli
Collingwood: De Goey 3, Cox 2, Stephenson 2, Hoskin-Elliott, Varcoe, Mihocek, Adams

West Coast: Shuey, Sheed, Barrass, Kennedy, Hutchings, Schofield, McGovern
Collingwood: Adams, Langdon, Crisp, Treloar, De Goey, Mayne

West Coast: Nil
Collingwood: Nil

Reports: Nil

Umpires: Stevic, Ryan, Rosebury

Official crowd: 100,022 at the MCG


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