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Okay, let’s try and unpack the greatest game of footy ever played. Controversy and all

Not every road needs lead to the grand final. Sometimes, the beauty of our game is more important than whether it’s a stepping stone onto the path of something greater.

There will be enough talk about that controversial finish, and whether Tom Lynch should have been awarded what in the end would have been surely a game-sealing goal. We’ll get to it here.

But much like in another contentious finish to a Tigers game this year, against Sydney in ‘the Chad Warner game’, that shouldn’t take any gloss off one of the greatest football matches ever played.

You’d have a fair case to be aggrieved if your heart bleeds yellow and black. There will be time to grieve. You probably won’t care about the result of this game.

Equally, Brisbane – and the same would have been said of Richmond, had it been they who had ended the best match of the season with their noses in front – probably can’t win the flag with the way they play. But this was so compelling, so brash, so phenomenal to watch, that is just doesn’t matter.

No Lions fan right now gives a damn about a flag right now. They’ve had the privilege of watching an absolute classic, a game as captivating, thrilling, frenetic and magnificent as this sport gets; and thanks to being on the winning side, get to watch the replay again and again and again.

This game had something to watch for everyone: injury strife for the lovers of chaos, electric footy for old-school fans, stacks of goals for Channel 7, and intriguing tactical battles and match-ups for nerds like me. And, of course, a finish to drive the content wheel into overdrive.

It would have been compelling viewing, if not quite as memorable, if one team had taken the match by the scruff of the throat early on and kept the advantage all the way through. Instead, we got seven thousand lead changes (okay, 17) and an edge-of-your seat finish that could easily have gone the other way with five extra minutes.

We’ll unpack it in just a second, but if you can’t look at Charlie Cameron weaving his way through traffic and snapping a beauty, of Maurice Rioli making a very good opponent in Keidean Coleman look an absolute goober with the tiniest of sidesteps, of Trent Cotchin winding back the clock and lacing out targets inside 50 like prime Scott Pendlebury, of Jack Riewoldt threading the most high-pressure set shots in the final term with the coolest of heads, and not think our little game is the best thing on the planet, then I have questions.

Sparking it all was the Lions’ newfound desire to play like, well, prime-era Richmond; and the Tigers’ desire to play as they have all year, like 1990s Geelong with a bit more system and a slightly better defence. Both sides had the utmost confidence that their strengths could outmuscle the other by the end, never relenting from the frenetic, all guns blazing approach that made this match so watchable from start to finish.

Often after an eight-goal first quarter, the coaches stiffen up the structure, one team or the other or sometimes both strive to lock the footy down and keep things in tight, and scoring dries up. Damien Hardwick and Chris Fagan, and their charges, looked at that and thought ‘Nup. Dial it up to ELEVEN!’

I’m not sure enough credit has gone to Hardwick’s ability to get a team with so many premiership heroes on their last legs playing such freewheeling, dashing footy, reinvigorating some and opening up the rest to the pure enthusiasm of youth.

He’s known all year, and most of last, that the titanic, intercept-marking backline that led to three flags in four years just isn’t what it was: Alex Rance is long gone, Dylan Grimes hamstrung and well past his prime anyway, Nick Vlastuin now often encumbered by punching above his weight against a taller opponent, as he was on Thursday night with Eric Hipwood, and Noah Balta hasn’t quite been at his best after they spent much of the first few months of the year trying to turn him into a forward.

His response has been to turn the Tigers into slingshot kings of a different kind. No longer do they just whack the ball on the boot and back the next bloke to win or neutralise a contest, then do it all again until the opposition cracks. The ball movement is sharper, the play more inclined to take a high-percentage option slightly further afield or sideways than go for broke, and they look for the sensible kickers – think Daniel Rioli or Jayden Short – with great frequency.

The reasons are obvious: the Tigers’ defence is now vulnerable enough to be scored upon heavily, especially with a weak midfield (we’ll get to Dion Prestia’s influence in a sec), and the forwards a sizeable upgrade from the ones that netted them a hat-trick of flags.

Shai Bolton of 2022 might be the best player in the game. Instead of Jason Castagna and small-forward Dan Rioli, fine but limited pressure players, there’s Noah Cumberland and Maurice Rioli Junior, who do everything the others do in terms of harassment but have magic at their fingertips too.

Tom Lynch is in the form of his life as a contested-marking, straight-shooting colossus, and Riewoldt’s incredible final quarter made me recall 2020 when he could scarcely kick over a jam tin and wonder just how he’s managed to flip Father Time the bird.

The results weren’t always obvious – for a side with that many attacking weapons, such speed of ball movement, and against a shaky Lions backline without Marcus Adams and Noah Answerth, and kicking 16 goals from 63 entries feels like a pretty low ratio.

But it was an absolute truth that whenever the Lions looked to have cracked the game, the Tigers would respond with a goal. Within seconds. Nothing summed it up more than Brisbane busting a gut in the third quarter with seven of the first eight inside 50s, finally securing the go-ahead goal Daniel McStay, only to watch the Tigers crash through out of the centre square, have the ball spill into the hands of Kamdyn McIntosh, who made a difficult snap look exceptionally easy.

The other secret to the high scores was the Tigers’ incredible accuracy. They booted 10.3 from set shots, with Riewoldt’s stellar twin strikes in the final term the peak. Throw in the menace of Bolton and Rioli Jr whenever the ball hit the ground – the threat was always in the air, like a shark in the water – and if anything, the Lions did well to hold their opponents to ‘only’ 16 goals.

As interesting as Richmond were, though, the Lions’ style, particularly in the first half, was doubly fascinating. Faced with underdog status due to their horror finals record under Fagan, as well as the twin suspensions to Answerth and Cam Rayner that saw Darcy Wilmot called up for a rare finals debut, Brisbane decided that their best hope was to meet fire with fire.

It was the ultimate ‘whatever you score, we’ll score one more’. Ditching their usual high-kicking style in favour of handballs aplenty, largely through the corridor, and keeping the ball moving at all costs – sometimes to their detriment – the Lions were able to shift the momentum whenever the Tigers, the better side for most of the evening, broke away, and when it was their turn to hold the upper hand were frightening.

Their only downside was a tendency to get caught up in the moment and blaze away with that crucial final kick inside 50: none of Joe Daniher, Eric Hipwood and Dan McStay are monsters in the air like Lynch, especially with the latter required in the ruck following Oscar McInerney’s early-minutes concussion.

The result was, too often, Cameron as the one man underneath the high ball against a sea of Lions, which never ended well. When they lowered their eyes and hit up targets, the results were far better: even when unable to mark, Hipwood won a pair of free kicks late in the first term against the outsized Vlastuin and the out-speeded Balta; he’d flush both straight over the goal umpire’s hat.

Equally, their desire to move the ball on at all costs came to their detriment at times, with the Tigers’ breathtaking speed on the counterattack a damaging beast to give turnovers to. After winning a holding the ball free kick on an attempted Bolton sidestep, Zac Bailey summed up their approach: quickly moving to play on, he attempted to hit up Callum Ah Chee with about half a millimetre of space on Vlastuin. He couldn’t mark, Noah Balta arrived to lend support, the Tigers switched the play wide, and it would result in a goal.

The Lions played chaos footy, with Lachie Neale in the engine stabilising the whole thing. You’ll struggle to find a better, more impactful performance by a midfielder in the modern game. Without a recognised ruckman, the Lions could easily have been overwhelmed out of the guts; instead, barring a brief period in the second term, they kept a clearance ascendancy throughout the evening.

Neale had 16 of his own – one short of the all-time AFL finals record. While to start the game, he was mostly contained to handballing to the likes of Hugh McCluggage on the outside, he ended with more metres gained than any Lion bar that man and Daniel Rich.

Neale had a hand in four of the Lions’ seven goals from stoppages. He won them the game. Everything that they did started with him. Everything.

A chasedown tackle on Bolton near the end, a game-saving play, was the most fitting of conclusions.

Helping matters even further was the loss of the one Tiger that could fight fire with fire against Neale; Prestia had been the prime factor in the Tigers surging back into the game in the second quarter, when the Lions had surged to an 11-point lead.

With seven of eight clearances, booting three quick goals as a result of the territory domination, the Tigers instantly retook control. Prestia had three of them by himself, plus four inside 50s. His loss after half time with a latest hamstring injury felt crucial then, and was crucial at the end.

Would the Lions have ended with a 47-41 clearance differential, a small but vital edge, with the Tigers’ best midfielder in the guts? We’ll never know.

Bizarrely, the final five minutes saw with it more calm than for the rest of the match. Both sides made deliberate efforts to slow the play, not be gung-ho, and replace madness (glorious madness, but madness still) with method.

In the end, it came down to a score review. Another brilliant Lynch mark right on the line, a checkside right over the goal post – or just to either side of it, depending on who you ask – and a score review to decide the game.

Despite the on-field call of goal, the ARC – showing a conviction that would be admirable at a normal time, but would of course lead to debate regardless of the decision here – found sufficient evidence to overturn it. The cowardly call would have been to wash their hands of it, and divert to the on-field call. Whatever you make of the decision, kudos must go to the review system being confident enough in itself to make it.

From there, the Lions worked it forward, ending in the hands of Zac Bailey – no stranger to the clutch himself. His kick was touched, and it was there where the Tigers, for the misfortune that befell them at the other end – made the decision that truly cost them the match.

THREE Tigers – Jack Riewoldt, Toby Nankervis and Noah Balta, plus an onrushing Robbie Tarrant – flew for the ball. All got some measure of knuckles on it, but could only spike it in the air.

Enter Joe Daniher. For much of the night, aside from a crucial 55m bomb in the third quarter just when the Tigers seemed home and hosed, his timing had been woefully out. A moment in that third term, jumping over Tarrant about a year too late and giving away a hugely embarrassing ‘unrealistic attempt’ free kick, pretty much summed up his evening.

This time, he arrived a second too late to impact the contest, as he had all night… and saw the ball leak out the back, just past the Tigers trio, just to his side of Tarrant. He had a second to get his left foot (he was on the perfect side of the goalsquare for a lefty, too) to ball. He produced it.

With a minute to go, there was still time. But Balta’s head in his hands told the story as much as the Lions’ joyful celebrations. It was done.

Much will be made of that score review, of the Tigers’ defensive blunder at the end, of the silly 50m penalty against Liam Baker for gobbing off in the second term, that gave Wilmot his first goal and proved one of a million crucial moments that led to it.

But there will be time for an autopsy later. Instead, look at Chris Fagan’s beaming smile, his embrace with Lachie Neale after the match, as the weight of five finals defeats, four of them at home, two of them by under a goal, was lifted from his shoulders. Look at Joe Daniher – a finals victor at last, after maybe the worst big game he’s ever played.

Damn the controversy. This was one of the greats. We were all lucky to have witnessed it. If everyone played the game like Brisbane and Richmond just did, there’d be no need for heaven; we’d already be there.

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