The Pies, finally taking a direct route to goal rather than going via the cape, then booted four consecutive goals to edge within three points, one from a terrible decision that handed a goal to Callum Brown via a not-very-dangerous tackle. Challenged, the Dons booted the next two goals to secure victory – Jacob Townsend converting from a holding-the-ball free against Darcy Moore, and Dylan Shiel, probably best afield, adding the sealer from a snap to make the final margin 15 points.
The Bombers were cleaner, more purposeful and had a greater hunger for the ball, while applying heat for the majority of the game. They had an unexpected hero in Andrew Phillips, the former Carlton ruckman, who rose to the challenge against Brodie Grundy to help the Dons gain an edge in clearances.
The Dons had superior entries and ball use and their defence, marshalled by Michael Hurley and Cale Hooker, subdued a misfiring Collingwood attack, where key forwards Brody Mihocek and Mason Cox were ineffectual – Cox, unsurprisingly, barely touched the slippery ball.
Shiel was superb in the midfield, winning key clearances and gaining territory on an evening when territory mattered, well supported by a steadily improving Andy McGrath. The Dons were better at forcing the ball forward, with scrambled kicks under pressure, while the Magpies often strived for perfection via extra handballs that were turned over. Collingwood had 155 handballs to 99 – as, in the preliminary final, failing to adjust to a slippery ball.
If the Pies missed Steele Sidebottom and Jeremy Howe after seven days of misfortune and folly, this did not constitute an excuse when considering Essendon’s absentees – Zach Merrett, Dyson Heppell, Conor McKenna and the forward the Dons have learned to live without, Joe Daniher.
Adam Treloar gained much of the ball, but did not exert influence as Shiel. Collingwood’s skipper Scott Pendlebury was a little beneath his Olympian standards, while ex-Blue Phillips justified Essendon’s decision to promote him for his first Essendon game ahead of Tom Bellchambers.
Will Snelling, too, was excellent for the Bombers and vindicated the coaches’ faith.
The Dons gained far more return for their forward thrusts – eight goals from their 27 entries compared to Collingwood’s three from 27 to three-quarter-time. Stringer was the most dangerous forward afield, while livewire Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti’s two third-quarter goals were telling.
The fortunes of the two sides were personified by the productivity of Stringer compared to his gifted Collingwood counterpart Jordan De Goey, who threatened in the midfield and forward but never grasped his opportunities.
Collingwood and Jaidyn Stephenson had another explosive opening, the 2018 rising star booting the game’s first goals from marks and conversions from an angle. For the first 10-12 minutes, the Magpies dominated all facets. Their pressure was immense, their ball use cleaner and they were set up well to rebound.
When the vastly improved Josh Daicos snapped a – yes, Daicos-like – goal, Collingwood had the first three majors. The Dons had barely entered their forward half.
But a fumble by Jack Crisp led to Darcy Parish’s open goal and then McKernan cleverly led Moore under the ball from the next bounce. Against the tide of possession and territory, the Bombers were within a goal.
The Bombers owned the period from the late first quarter until near half-time, as Shiel and McGrath won important balls, Hurley and Adam Saad began to mop up in defence and Stringer booted two telling goals. The momentum, once reversed, did not shift again until the final term.
Overall, the difference in the match was a combination of efficiency and desire. In this strange season, it’s the latter quality that counts most.
COLLINGWOOD 3.0 3.1 3.5 7.6 (48)
ESSENDON 3.0 5.0 8.2 10.3 (63)
Collingwood: Stephenson 3, Varcoe, Daicos, Mihocek,
Essendon: Stringer 3, McDonald-Tipungwuti 2, Zaharakis, McKernan, Townsend, Shiel, Parish.
Collingwood: Stephenson, Daicos, Treloar, Grundy, Pendlebury.
Essendon: Shiel, Stringer, Phillips, Hooker, McDonald-Tipungwuti, Snelling, Hurley.
Essendon: Stringer (ankle).
O’Gorman, Hosking, Mollison
Jake Niall is a Walkley award-winning sports journalist and chief AFL writer for The Age.