All year, Craig McRae has spoken about “taking the stairs”. He was in London over summer and saw a man at a Tube station eschew the escalator and bound up the steps. McRae photographed it, sent it to his players and has used it as a hook all year. It’s a variation on Allan Jeans’ “pay the price” speech at half-time in the 1989 grand final. McRae even had the entire playing list and staff running the stairs at the MCG prior to the Boxing Day Test. He took them to the top of the Shane Warne Stand. “If we don’t take the stairs this year, we’ll be sitting here on grand final day,” he told them.
They certainly took the stairs last night. They did it the hard way. It was the most nerve-shredding of finishes. They were in all sorts of trouble in the second quarter. The visitors had set up a giant wall across half back and the Pies just couldn’t circumvent it. Toby Greene was in menacing touch, bringing dead balls to life, and even sharking Mason Cox’s tap for his second goal.
As well as stairs, McRae talks a lot about moments – “we manage our moments”, “we move on from bad moments”, “we seize our moments”. This was the most marginal of preliminary finals, but ultimately it came down to dozens of moments that Collingwood handled that little bit better.
It was Jamie Elliott, who’d had just one possession halfway through the third term, and who had the yips earlier this year, converting from the 50m line. It was Oleg Markov taking the punt, leaving his man, and causing a game-turning turnover. It was Brodie Mihocek, not always the most twinkle-toed of footballers, turning Jack Buckley inside out a few minutes later. It was Darcy Cameron getting a fist in on the last line of defence. It was Mason Cox – bandy legged, begoggled, dorky, lippy and floppy – but the surest of set shots. It was Nathan Murphy’s lunging spoil. It was Nick Daicos’ delicate little incisions. It was Jordan De Goey’s rottweilian attack on the ball. And it was Scott Pendlebury, in a maelstrom of bodies at the end, providing the cool head and the clean hands. Everyone always bangs on about his basketball, but he’s more like a champion quarterback – the eyes in the back of the head, the calculus, and the orientation.
And so, in a marvellous mess of a finish, it was the same moment on repeat – scunge it forward, outnumber, force another stoppage, buy a few more seconds. It’s precisely what the Giants did to them four years ago.
The Giants lost no admirers last night. Their goals were greeted by a mostly sullen silence. In previous finals, they’d turned up the wick in the second term – slamming on eight in a row to sink the Saints and five goals in seven and a half minutes to end Port Adelaide’s season. They were all over the Pies in the second quarter last night. But they also squandered their share of chances.
McRae turned fifty yesterday. When he was coaching Richmond’s VFL team in 2019, they had an incredible record in close games, including the grand final. They trained those scenarios repeatedly, and had a lot of confidence in what they were doing. Many of his early wins at Collingwood were complete burglaries. But this wasn’t one of those wild cavalry charges of earlier in the year. It wasn’t one of their perfectly executed heists. And it wasn’t a case of the opposition being spooked by the Collingwood Army. This was as hard-fought and well-earned as finals victories come. They took the stairs, seized their moments, and won a classic preliminary final.