Ball provides gripping prelude to big dance

 

As published in Collingwood’s 50 Most Sensational Games, 2011.


On paper at least, Collingwood deserved to enter this cut throat final against Hawthorn, the first  between these competition heavyweights in 33 years, as firm favourites.  Yet there were so many ifs, buts and maybes that even several pre-match nerve settlers could not reconcile.

Sure, the Hawks’ style and structure had troubled the ‘Pies in recent years, although as the ringleader of the tormentors, Buddy Franklin always loomed as the key component.  Whilst a transformed version of Chris Tarrant boasted an excellent record on Buddy, nagging injuries and form concerns afflicted what was as invincible a Magpie team as has graced the field since the Depression era.  Although Collingwood exacted a convincing 41 point win in the most recent encounter, albeit against a depleted Hawk unit, fresher in the mind was the Round 24 drubbing at the hands of Geelong where, mitigating circumstances aside, the ‘Pies’ indomitable charge ground to a screaming halt.  The subsequent fight to overpower West Coast in the Qualifying Final was heartening, yet fell short of restoring the faith.

Meanwhile, Hawthorn’s finals form was hardly imperious; losing by five goals to the Cats before a mixed bag semi final win over a gallant Sydney.  But the Hawks had dropped just five regular season games, a none too shabby return.  And with the likes of Franklin, Rioli, Hodge, Burgoyne and Mitchell at their disposal, the prospect of Collingwood achieving the rare ‘feat’ of missing the Grand Final after back-to-back McLelland Trophies was far more real than cautious bookies proposed.

THE GAME:
Reflecting the stakes, both teams played tight and tense football for much of the opening quarter.   Dawes should have kicked the opener but uncharacteristically his close set shot slewed across the face of goal, striking the point post.  Soon enough Dawes redeemed himself, however an edgy backline enabled Lewis to answer with a fortuitous bouncing snap which eluded a diving Maxwell.   Luck swung back Collingwood’s way when a surprising 50m penalty gifted Cloke’s first.  Reinvented All Australian backman Leon Davis racked up 10 first term disposals, although a couple rare kicking errors and (questionable) infringements might have made for a nightmarish start – had the Hawks capitalised.  Paul Puopolo did snag an easy one just seconds before the quarter-time break though, the scoreboard reflecting the evenness of an enthralling show starring the rebounding defenders.

The Magpies threatened to find third gear early in the second quarter, however a clumsy marking contest enabled only Jolly, via a free, to extract any joy.  Some jittery mistakes afflicted the Pies, the most glaring a shanked Cloke attempt on goal.   Hawthorn edged ahead with two Franklin majors and there was little Tarrant could have done to avert either.  Granted there was just eight scoring shots, but the siren, after just 26 minutes, seemed premature.  Pendlebury and Mitchell respectively led the way with a dozen possessions apiece. Davis had another nine touches to add to his nine rebound 50s in the first half – although his efficiency hadn’t improved.  Worringly, Reid was hampered by the same groin injury that kept him out of the Qualifying final.  And even more concerning, the Hawks were hell bent writing their own script to a plot which was foreign to the all conquering Pies of 2011.

When the battle resumed Guerra’s early set shot conversion gave Hawthorn’s momentum a vital kick-along.  Another one to Mitchell just minutes later came courtesy of a Maxwell infringement. Dawes provided a much needed boost, booting his second eight minutes in.   In a brief fightback, Cloke kicked another, running into open goal on the end of a superbly weighted pass by Blair – tellingly after a rare Collingwood flirtation with the corridor.  The Hawks’ simple plan to get numbers around the contest was placing the Pies’ backline under intense pressure though.  Pendlebury, typically working back as a settling reinforcement, had a clearing kick part smothered by Rioli.  O’Brien’s subsequent hesitation eventually led to a pick-pocketing Rioli lifting the gold clad gathering at the Punt Road end.  The last third of the quarter wound down with the Pies on a knife edge, one more to the Hawks threatened to be a season ending event.  The old firm of Swan (twelve touches) and Pendlebury (eight) tirelessly worked to keep Collingwood in touch, whilst Burgoyne’s class shone for Hawthorn.

Down by 17 points, and with the Grand Final firmly in Hawthorn’s sights, to have any chance the Magpies’ had to break the shackles and take some risks.  In an epic last quarter, Collingwood kicked the first when Dawes marked and booted his third.   Within moments of the bounce, a long effort by Davis just carried the journey, lifting the Magpie masses, and his team, to within two points at the eight minute mark.  A captain’s mark and goal by Hodge just a minute later halted the comeback.   Hodge was heroic and Sewell tireless in the middle for Hawthorn, meanwhile Swan and Thomas were both for the Pies.  Swan used his guile to snap one from the pocket to bring the deficit within four points.  Then Cloke proceeded to clunk a massive pack mark and scored his third goal at the 19 minute mark to sensationally put the Magpies back in front.  But with four minutes left in the game, Franklin conjured a miracle dribbler at full pace, from the boundary line, to reclaim the lead.  It wasn’t long before Collingwood put the acid back on the Hawks.  Free of an opponent, Ball made the most of a defensive lapse and curled one across his body to send the crowd into another frenzy.  The Woods had done enough to run down the Hawks, before running down the clock, in what many pundits claimed was the best game of the 2011 AFL season.

MOMENTS THAT MATTERED:
The Hawks often had the run of play, but too often sealed the deal with a miss.  Hale, Whitecross, Hodge and Puopolo were all guilty of fluffing quite gettable opportunities.  It was a fluffed chest mark near the end that also ruffled Hawk supporters’ feathers, Schoenmakers bearing the brunt of their frustration.

Ball touched the Sherrin seven times and won three clearances in a brilliant final term.  And as he had all season, Luke Ball proved deadly around goal by finding space from a stoppage to put Collingwood back in front in what proved to be the final lead change of the match.  Ball had also sealed the Qualifying Final victory in similar fashion two weeks previously.

Thomas had a tremendous year until an ill judged bump elicited a two match holiday at the business end of the season.  After the layoff it appeared to take three quarters for ‘Daisy’ to adjust to the furious tempo.  He turned it on in the last term though, and also in the nick of time produced a stunning tackle on Rioli in the dying moments, with an open half of the ground ahead of him, to seal the win.  Malthouse described the tackle by Thomas as ‘miraculous’.

AFTERMATCH:
Even most Collingwood supporters concurred the better team lost on the night.  Lewis’s ferocity set the tone early, and he finished with 28 possessions and eight tackles.  Mitchell (31 touches), Burgoyne (25) and Birchall (26) were also influential.  Swan and Pendlebury were quiet early, but they rose to the occasion, both finishing with 32 possessions.  Dawes and Cloke played their part with three goals each, the latter finishing in outstanding fashion.  There was precious little room for Collingwood inside their 50, the Hawks’ suffocating presence borrowing heavily on the Pies’ most effective tactic.

Having booted just five goals in three quarters, Collingwood managed five more in the last quarter. The footage of an emotionally spent Mick Malthouse in the coaches box after the siren was on as high rotation as Franklin’s extraordinary goal.  Supporters were in a similar state of disrepair – it was just one of those games.

As Malthouse fought back the tears, the crestfallen figure of controversial Hawthorn President Jeff Kennett after the game was in stark contrast to the ebullient version seen with his wife Felicity cheering the Hawks to an apparent Grand Final berth.  Like Malthouse, this was Kennett’s final season at the helm, and losing to Collingwood was a bitter pill for the former Victorian Premier (whose comments are similarly prone to attracting a headline or two hundred).

THE HERO:
Travis Cloke (Collingwood)
Despite boasting the 2007 Copeland Trophy on his CV and being a key plank in the Pies’ 2010 flag, 2011 was a breakout year for the youngest and most talented of three Cloke brothers.  In a bid to rid himself of the goalkicking yips – the major weakness in his game – Cloke took the radical step of practicing whilst donning headphones to replicate the noise and distraction of a large crowd.  One might have suggested a flawed technique was the pressing concern, but it worked.  Thanks to a far better conversion rate than previous years, by season’s end Cloke’s 69 goals was second on the AFL goalkicking table.

The other knock on Cloke’s game was also put to bed – that his September influence didn’t measure up to that between March and August.  This game proved once and for all that Cloke had not only deserved his first All Australian honours, but that he was now in the very elite bracket of AFL players. Cloke’s final quarter in Collingwood’s half hour of need was simply phenomenal.  His immovable rig’s enormous tank enabled him to impact almost every attacking foray.  Big pack marks and pressure goals were the payoff for a power of hard work and determination.

POSTSCRIPT:
The 2011 Grand Final proved to be a bridge too far for the first Collingwood team in 75 years to be in a position to achieve back to back premierships.

By mid-way through the second quarter, Cloke and Krakouer’s three goals apiece threatened to break the game open.  But by the main break the Cats had clawed their way back from a three goal deficit.  The Woods hung on in the third until the final quarter saw the dam burst and a 38 point defeat.  All Australian Ben Reid’s groin had rendered him lame and in need of a switch that never came, but really it was Ling’s job quelling newly annointed Brownlow Medalist Dane Swan, and the inability of too many second tier players to make up the slack and provide the forwards enough ball, which caused the cup to slip from Collingwood’s grasp. And unlike the hobbled Jolly and Reid, Steve Johnson’s powers of miraculous recovery was the sting in the Cats’ tail.

Besides the overhyped speculation over the Malthouse-Buckley succession saga, a number of factors conspired against the Magpies in 2011; suspensions and injuries to key players throughout the year, culminating in a scenario whereby for various reasons selectors were hamstrung by limited fit and capable options.  Meanwhile, in contrast to Collingwood’s latter season four wheel driving, a fit and in-form Geelong enjoyed a relative practice lap against a West Coast team that had similarly expended far too many petrol tickets the week before.  So despite an unprecedented season, the planets aligned for Geelong, who were worthy premiers in any case having won the same number of games, and been the only team to best the Pies all year (three times no less).

So Malthouse finally bowed out in suitably dramatic circumstances after a dozen years in charge and 40 continuous seasons as player or coach at the highest level.  It was a strange juxtaposition for the Club; the end of an era, of sorts, at a time where the playing stocks would suggest more a Geelong-like changing of the guard.  And if the resolve shown in Malthouse’ final victory as coach is a guide, new coach Nathan Buckley will be steering a tight and talented side capable of avenging 2011’s  disappointing finale.

WHAT THEY SAID:
“I don’t think there’s another player on this planet who could kick that goal.”
Mick Malthouse on Franklin’s other worldly goal that might have been one of the greatest matchwinning efforts in finals history.  Rather than dwell on the fateful blow, Malthouse was more concerned about getting the goal back too quickly, and not being able to run down the clock.

”I don’t want to hear about any pride or bad luck and all that sort of rubbish that’s going to come our way. We should have won a game of footy and we miss out on a grand final because we just weren’t hard enough and tough enough for long enough. Bottom line, you need to do it for four quarters in finals footy and we didn’t.”
Alistair Clarkson’s post match conference was compelling viewing.

“You can’t help getting emotional about it because they’re just wonderful players. I’ve worked with some of these blokes for 12 years.  I didn’t shed a tear.  Almost.”
A proud Malthouse typically wore his heart on his sleeve.

“We paid the price and it’s a bloody hard price to pay when you’ve got a side on the ropes and you just don’t deliver the final fatal blow.”
The Magpies were indeed on the ropes, and Clarkson was filthy on the opportunity lost.

“I thought we tightened up a bit and went into our shell.  I thought we were very predictable in the way we played.”
Captain Nick Maxwell provides a succinct explanation of Collingwood’s Preliminary final struggle.

“I’ve lost elimination finals in the past and you’ve got your whole life to think about what happened and what could have been, and that’s what happens when you lose those games.”
Six weeks later and Shaun Burgoyne was still coming to grips with the loss.

“It’s still a long way away, but probably the whole pre-season will be based around attacking them Round 1.”
Scheduled to meet Collingwood first up in 2012, Liam Shiels talks of the players burning desire for vengeance.

Collingwood  2.3.15  3.5.23    5.6.36  10.8.68
Hawthorn       2.4.16  4.7.31  7.11.53  9.11.65

VENUE: MCG
DATE: Friday 23 September
CROWD: 87,112
UMPIRES: Ryan, Rosebury, Meredith

COLLINGWOOD
B          Davis, Tarrant, O’Brien
HB      Shaw, Reid, Maxwell
C          Thomas, Swan, Wellingham
HF       Sidebottom, Dawes, Beams
F          Krakouer, Cloke, Blair
FOLL  Jolly, Pendlebury, Ball
INT      Toovey, Johnson, L Brown, Didak
COACH  Malthouse

HAWTHORN
B          Murphy, Gibson, Guerra
HB      Stratton, Schoenmakers, Birchall
C           Smith, Hodge, Sewell
HF       Osborne, Hale, Burgoyne
F           Puopolo, Franklin, Rioli
FOLL  Bailey, Lewis, Mitchell
INT      Shiels, Whitecross, Bateman, Suckling
COACH  Clarkson

BEST
COLLINGWOOD – Cloke, Swan, Pendlebury, Ball, Davis, Thomas, Tarrant
HAWTHORN – Hodge, Lewis, Mitchell, Burgoyne, Birchall, Franklin

GOALS:
COLLINGWOOD – Cloke, Dawes 3, Davis, Jolly, Swan, Ball
HAWTHORN – Franklin 3, Guerra, Hodge, Lewis, Mitchell, Puopolo, Rioli

Collingwood’s 50 Most Sensational Games, an ebook by Jeff Dowsing.

Free sample or download full version here.

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