Footy Fix: The eight key mistakes at the death that saw Crows cop Magpie heartbreak… again

5Adelaide aren’t the first team to get their hearts ripped out by Craig McRae’s Collingwood. It’s not even the first time it’s happened to them. They’re certainly not going to be the last, either.

But even though the pain is a familiar feeling now for the Crows, this one will surely sting keener than all the rest. Not just for the controversial, technically correct but rarely seen free kick paid against Izak Rankine for running too far in the final 20 seconds, which may or may not have cost them the game but certainly snuffed out their last hope; but for the fact it came after a last quarter in which they did nearly everything right against the kings of the tight finish.

The Pies have had all manner of close wins in the last two and a half years. They’ve stormed over the top of a flagging opposition like, in Gerard Whateley’s immortal words, the Grim Reaper; they’ve held on for grim death against an opponent trying to give them a taste of their own medicine. They’ve found a way through clutch set shots, or via their rivals flubbing theirs.

But aside from the famous game against Essendon in 2022 when Jamie Elliott goalled after the siren, this was about the only time in this golden tight-match run that I’ve felt like the Pies have genuinely pinched one, so comprehensively were they outplayed in the final quarter.

The stats are remarkable: the Crows, neck in neck all day, had 35 more disposals in the fourth term, while they won the inside-50 count a whopping 16-9. Having been battered all day at the stoppages by Scott Pendlebury and Nick Daicos, they even claimed the clearance count 10-8, with Rankine shifting to permanent on-baller and grabbing the match by the scruff of the throat. Three of the last four centre clearances went their way, too, having been unable to buy one in the early stages at the MCG.

The Pies, so often able to find the calming goal, the steadying passage of play, in such situations, were struggling to even lay hands on the ball. And the man they turn to so often in these situations, Scott Pendlebury, was paying the price for his own outrageously good first quarter, a comprehensive clamp from Ben Keays forcing McRae to shift him permanently into defence in the last term in a bid to add another cool head in a vulnerable spot.

For all intents and purposes, the Crows were doing to Collingwood what the Magpies have done to everyone else: fast-paced, ultra-aggressive footy, playing on at nearly every opportunity with overlap-running half-backs and targeting the corridor wherever possible. And in the role of Nick Daicos, step up Mitch Hinge, who with 13 disposals and a superb goal, plus two other score involvements, was the most crucial player on the ground.

They even had the Daicos-esque moment of magic that so often stymies other teams from ‘doing a Collingwood’.

Rankine’s incredible go-ahead major deep into the last quarter, perfectly timing his run past a boundary throw-in in the forward pocket to shark Reilly O’Brien’s tap, burn off Josh Daicos and run past Nick, and dribble it through from the tight angle on his opposite foot, was a moment of skill outrageous enough that you can watch it ten times and still be in awe.

A worthier match-winner you could not find – and when a few minutes later, Jordan De Goey sent a set shot wide he’d normally swallow, precisely the sort of late-game inaccuracy the Pies have avoided while watching it swallow up many an opponent, it felt symbolic.

But all Adelaide’s dominance, all the possession, all the territory, all the effort, had brought them was seven minutes with which to hang on, against an opposition you know won’t go quietly into the night.

And with 3 minutes and 40 seconds left, things started to go wrong; slowly at first, then all at once.

The first sign of the horrors to come came, as they often do, with a ruckman.

Reilly O’Brien is a fascinating case study, both as a footballer and as an experience for his supporters: Crows fans will deride his reckless kicking forward from clearances without stopping to think, or his hitouts that seem to benefit the opposition as much as his own teammates; but at a critical flashpoint, as Brodie Smith bombs long down the wing, he shows why Nicks has only ever briefly toyed with Kieran Strachan as an alternative: in a forming pack, he reads the drop better than Darcy Cameron, gets his sizeable mitts up, and plucks a telling, powerful contested mark.

It’s not like it’s a game-winner, with more than 200 seconds remaining: but it is an opportunity for O’Brien to calm things down, go back, soak up a few seconds and gain as much territory with his kick forwards as possible, and trust his teammates to lock it in and force the ball-ups and stoppages that really start to get that timer ticking down.

So what does O’Brien do? Why, he handballs to the running Josh Rachele within milliseconds of bringing down the mark, without even a look to see whether he’s selling his teammate into trouble. As you do.

Rachele has had a more than solid day, impressing with his ferocious tackling pressure and repeat defensive efforts especially: with two goals, he’s also satisfied his innate desire to impact the scoreboard.

O’Brien’s handball finds him racing by, 65 metres from goal, at full tilt, with only John Noble in his way. His first instinct, as the Pie approaches, is to try and send a pass inboard; he makes to kick, but at the last moment reconsiders, perhaps trying to make Noble overcommit with an attempted smother, while jinking towards the boundary.

The Pies, chasing the game, don’t have a spare behind the ball: the only players ahead of Rachele are Isaac Quaynor and Lachie Murphy, both racing hell for leather back towards the goals, and wingers Chayce Jones and Josh Daicos, some 10 metres further back but in a prime central location.

There’s a perfect option here, one we see the Pies and even Carlton these days take and hit more often than not: pass the ball inboard, trying to hit up Jones. If Rachele chooses to pass, the open 50 means he can basically kick the ball wherever he likes and get Jones to run onto it: with Daicos a good five metres forward of him, he’ll be flat-footed.

Instead, Rachele not only takes the low-percentage option of going for home, from 50 metres out, hemmed in on the boundary line; he barely even considers any other option. Never mind that giving the ball back to Collingwood is the very last thing Adelaide want to do, or that at this stage even an extra point to lead by two is hardly a game-saving extra edge.

The Crows have had two chances to slow the game down, control their entry inside 50, and make the right decision. Instead, they’ve continued to play as they have done for the three and three-quarter terms beforehand: hell for leather.

Rachele’s kick drifts across the face for a behind. The Pies have back possession.

Still, the Crows seem to have all the cards: a superb contested mark is snaffled at half-back from the kickout by the developing Luke Nankervis, whose composure and sureness with ball in hand are eye-catching even this early in his young career. He, unlike O’Brien, chooses to go back and take his kick.

A ball-up ensues right on the Crows’ 50, as Nankervis’ kick long is spoiled back inboard in desperation by Billy Frampton, before numbers converge to force the stoppage.

Collingwood’s strategy in such situations is simple: lock it in, don’t let it out, pack more and more numbers over the footy and soak up the clock in 10-second intervals.

But the Crows have a fatal flaw with their structure, that become clear in the nine seconds between the umpire’s whistle and the ball being thrown in the air.

There is no one within 20 metres of the goals, for starters: someone on whose head a quick kick from this ball-up can be sat on. Closest to goal is Darcy Fogarty, with two Pies, including Darcy Moore, on him, ready to pounce on that kick: Elliott Himmelberg, meanwhile, is stuck in no-man’s land, too close to the stoppage to claim a mark from it yet too far away (and facing the wrong way) to impact on the contest.

It’s not a structure for which O’Brien can safely do what he does: grab the ball at ground level after jostling with Cameron, lumber a few steps forward, and bang it on the boot, slipping over as he does.

Once again, it’s just not the percentage play from the big ruckman: he’s done the first part right, tapping it right at his feet, but his best move if he were to gather the ball was either to cannon straight into a tackle then pretend to try and force it out, or give it to a teammate in a similar spot. Hell, in a few minutes when it’s Collingwood’s turn to hold onto a lead, Moore genuinely tackles Isaac Quaynor himself in such a loose-ball scenario.

O’Brien’s kick wobbles forward, staying in, and the Pies, with the extra behind the ball, are the first back. Moore gathers, but it looks like the Crows will again avoid catastrophe through sheer desperation: Ben Keays has busted a gut to sprint back, arrives just moments after the Magpie captain, and lays the tackle. Moore gets his hands free, but his handpass is off the despairing variety, to no one in particular and with Adelaide jumpers converging fast.

It’s here where the biggest, and costliest, mistake of them all comes: Ned McHenry gathers the ball at ground level and dishes to Keays, who… wheels around and has a ping at the goals.

There are two reasons this is such a baffling, scrambled decision from a player who had a rush of blood. One, the Crows don’t need to score, and a behind here, the likeliest outcome given the difficulty of the shot, lets the Pies have the ball back. And two, within metres of Keays are two Crows in a paddock of space, Rory Laird and Jake Soligo. Give it to Laird, for example, and Rachele, in space 30 metres out in the pocket, is a legitimate passing option.

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Keays’ kick is smothered by the onrushing Quaynor, and the ball is flung into dispute again: and this time, luck is on Collingwood’s side. A ball that could have ricocheted anywhere lands with Harvey Harrison, who dishes to Quaynor, who has continued to run towards the ball and left his man, Rachele, free. The Pies are, suddenly, away, and up the middle.

It might seem harsh to criticise Keays, or Rachele, or O’Brien, for such split-second decisions at the end of an exhausting match. But on the other side of the coin, you only need look at what Jack Crisp does next to see how such minute details can decide games of football.

Receiving from Quaynor, Crisp dashes straight down the middle as fast as his tired legs can carry him, taking a bounce in the centre circle. He’s fully aware that Jordan Dawson, in the midst of a slashing final quarter, is hot on his heels, willing himself on to make one last decisive captain’s play.

Ahead of him are four Magpies and four Crows: Lachie Schultz and Bobby Hill are going full pelt towards the goals, Max Michalanney and Hinge matching them stride for stride, while Mason Cox lumbers down the wing some 10 metres behind Jordon Butts. And inside 50, isolated with Mark Keane but still more than a full kick away, is Jordan De Goey.

Under such heat, Crisp could have, and many players would have, blazed: tried to gain as much territory as possible, and hoped to force a stoppage somewhere further afield. But it would have required a De Goey miracle, with no chance of him marking the ball and Hinge closer to the play than Schultz to try and mop up, with Butts as the outlet option should either he or Keane gather.

You can actually see the wheels turn in Crisp’s head, and he realises that he can’t bang the ball on the boot, nor will Dawson allow him to run the extra metres so his kick will reach De Goey. His solution is to stop in his tracks and wait for the overlap runners to arrive: his method of execution is to decelerate, jink slightly to the right, and go to ground, avoiding Dawson’s despairing lunge.

It’s a brilliant bit of quick thinking, if bizarre to look at: but it is a decision borne of trust as much as anything. Crisp will look a goose if he turns around and sees only Crows coming. But fortunately, the Pies are ready.

First in line is Nick Daicos, who – another Crows mistake – has run in Crisp and Dawson’s slipstream without an opponent. It’s him who Crisp sees, on hands and knees, and him who receives the handpass.

And you’d want nobody else delivering the ball inside 50.

Calmly, still at full pace, Daicos runs on, with Dawson – and here’s another error – choosing to follow Harrison back towards goal and prevent the over-the-top handball rather than press up on the No.35. With Butts the extra man ahead of the ball, having run on ahead of Cox, that’s a risk that had to be taken, if the smallest and least egregious error of the whole flock.

It means when Daicos does head inside 50, he does so in clear air, able to weight his kick to perfection: out in front of the leading De Goey.

McRae has forecast before the game that his star on-baller will be redeployed into more of a forward role, in response to the flood of injuries that have sent most of Collingwood’s goalkickers to the casualty ward.

It’s a luxury he has because of the names he can replace him with: because Pendlebury has wound back the clock so spectacularly in a first quarter featuring two goals and two more goal assists in the four the Pies managed, because Crisp, on the midfield periphery all year, can slot seamlessly back on-ball and provided the contested grunt of the injured Tom Mitchell with more leg speed, because Nick Daicos has taken up the mantle of stoppage master, the man once derided for only winning cheap outside ball racking up 22 contested possessions and 14 clearances for the afternoon.

Were it not for them, maybe it would have been someone else Daicos was kicking to in this final, match-deciding play. Someone smaller, or slower, or just plain not as good: someone Keane, who remember, took down the monstrous Charlie Dixon in the Showdown a fortnight ago, won’t be outmatched by.

Someone who wouldn’t have made Keane panic, scrabble for contact, and lose his feet entirely in the process, to mark 30 metres out.

Someone who, having missed a similar shot a few minutes before, with the game on the line and a stadium of people holding their breath, might not have held his nerve and kicked the winning goal.

Having held this game by the throat, just minutes away from a famous, season-defining win, Adelaide left the door ajar. And of course, Collingwood barged their way through it.

The focus will, of course, be on the free against Rankine, the intricacies of that rule, and yet another case of the umpiring leaving the Crows jilted late in a thriller.

But none of that would have happened had Adelaide not already sacrificed the lead they’d worked so hard to take from Collingwood. And no doubt it’s that which will keep Nicks up a night this week.

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