Brisbane finally seize moment in one of all-time great AFL finals against Richmond

Heading into Thursday night’s elimination final, it felt like the football world had given up on Brisbane. For all the big scores and easy kills, they weren’t a team you could trust. Too much lip and swagger. Too brittle down back. Too prone to leaking, and to switching off at critical stages. Sure, when everything was going well, and when the game was on their terms, they were capable of scintillating football. But when the heat was applied, they’d wilt.

This week, it had been all bad news and long faces in the Brisbane camp. They’d coughed up a spot in the top four. Their injuries were mounting. They were forced to throw a debutant into the finals furnace. The coach was cranky. A grandfather, he was probably asking himself why he wasn’t at home building cubby houses. He didn’t need this kind of stress in his life. His team had drawn the short straw in Richmond – for so long their tormenters. Dustin Martin was back. Tom Lynch was in menacing touch. The Lions were on their final warning.

But they didn’t wilt. They went goal for goal with Richmond. They reorganised themselves after Oscar McInerney was concussed and subbed out early. They hung in there all night. After so many heart-breaking finals losses, they finally caught a few breaks, finally seized their opportunities and finally managed their moments. This was one of the great finals, and despite all the controversies and the inordinate number of lead changes, the Lions were worthy winners.

Earlier this year, they hired a breathing expert who had previously worked with the Navy Seals and Golden State Warriors, to help them remain calm during stressful moments. There were certainly plenty of those. There’s a sign on the wall at the Gabba – “Rather the pain of discipline than the pain of defeat,” it reads. This is not a team renowned for its iron discipline. They give away pointless free kicks. They cough up big leads. They’re personified by Joe Daniher – so maligned and so infuriating, but so talented. You take the good with a lot of bad with Daniher, and when he scrambled the winner, all his trespasses were forgiven.

The win was largely on the back of an extraordinary game from Lachie Neale, who finished with 39 possessions, 21 of them contested, and 15 of them clearances. “It was one of the great finals games you will ever see,” Chris Fagan said.

Richmond did so much right. But they just couldn’t clamp down on a man who may well win his second Brownlow medal in a fortnight’s time. As he belted the turf in celebration, the person manning the Gabba public address system – whose repertoire had ranged from John Denver to Rihanna to Rick Springfield – belted out the first few bars of the Tigers’ theme song.

We could all do with a breathing expert after sitting through that. The focus now shifts to the MCG, where more than 170,000 people are expected to file through in the space of 12 hours. Melbourne has lost its past three games at the ground. They go in as warm favourites, but will have their work cut out. The Swans have peaked at exactly the right time. They pretty much have a full list to choose from. They’ve beaten Geelong, Melbourne, Fremantle and Collingwood. They play the MCG well. They have an incredible record against Melbourne. No team moves the ball like them. They’re so crisp, so assured in the way they create overlaps, and slice their way through zones.

David King – to a collective groan from Lara to Lorne – says only a “freak event” will prevent Geelong from winning this year’s premiership. On form, on stats and on paper, they should romp in Saturday’s qualifying final. But their recent record in week one of the finals is abysmal. In their past four qualifying finals, they’ve managed a total of 22 goals. Throw in the 2018 elimination final, where they kicked six, and you get the picture.

Besides, something is happening at Collingwood that cannot be explained, or graphed or easily quelled. Collingwood relish the thrill of the chase. And right now, there’s no bigger thrill, and no bigger challenge, than mowing down this Geelong side. The Cats finished two games clear on top. Their percentage was 14% clear of the second placed team, and 40% ahead of Collingwood. The pressure on them is enormous. Collingwood has a free swing. Their entire year has been a free swing. Saturday’s twilight game is sold out and it will very much be Collingwood’s crowd. If the Pies start pegging a few back, that crowd will feel like it’s closing in on Geelong. Those senior Cats, who have been in this position more than most footballers in the history of the game, will tell themselves not to be ridiculous, that they’ve been the best team all year, that they’re a 10-goal better side than Collingwood. But they’ll have seen the replays. They’ll know what Collingwood are capable of.

Saturday night’s elimination final has been robbed of two stars. Nat Fyfe has carried Fremantle for so long, and just when they’ve come good again, he’s gone amiss. But the loss of Tom Liberatore, who has an outstanding finals record, arguably hurts the Western Bulldogs more. Thunderstorms are forecast for Perth on Saturday, and this Dockers side certainly don’t relish heavy tracks. They’re such different teams. The Dockers are defensively sound and move the ball with caution. The Dogs are a lopsided, very flawed, rather baffling side, but loaded through the midfield. They’ve won just three out of 11 games against top eight sides, and all those wins came indoors. Without Libba, and in front of a febrile Fremantle crowd, it’s a big ask. But if anyone can pull a rabbit out of the hat in those circumstances, it’s Luke Beveridge.