If you follow sports for the possibility of a perfect moment, then what Robbie Gray and Mitch McGovern did on the weekend was vindication.
McGovern rose up towards the night and Gray kicked long into it. Both teams stole results for their teams with plays so remarkable that you forgot that crimes had been committed.
Collingwood allowed a 51-point advantage to disappear in a half and St Kilda let a 10-point lead slip with a minute remaining in the wet. You can decide which is the greater disaster.
Every collapse is a series of unfortunate events. On Saturday night, the Saints made several costly errors. Seb Ross failed to keep touch with Gray at the decisive stoppage, Jack Billings casually waited underneath the ball as though the lead was four goals instead of points, and Black Acres, who was supposed to be filling defensive space, was needlessly sucked into the contest, giving Gray … paddocks to run into.
Collingwood’s breakdown was more subtle. Jamie Elliott dropped a difficult mark and Tyson Goldsack dropped an easy one. Daniel Wells, the best player on the ground, played the penultimate marking contest as though the ball was inside his attacking 50, and not on the edge of his defensive 50. Every Collingwood player near the scene had a man except for him, as he stood and waited nonchalantly to crumb from a contest that never came, as Jake Kelly took an uncontested mark in front of him, the prelude to the final moment.
McGovern’s mark that followed, from the leap into the pack from the side, to the timing, to the eerily similar photographs that followed, might be the closest facsimile of Leo Barry’s grab that we’ve seen. He had the perfect sit, timed his run, and elevated. There weren’t enough Collingwood players there to contest, but it may not have mattered. Ben Reid was slightly underneath the kick, and McGovern was universes on top of it. He leapt, gripped it at its apex, turning strangely, magnificently side-on as he controlled it, and then landed calmly on his feet on the way down, as though the grab were uncontested, which it almost felt like it was.
He visibly grimaced as the siren went, and one Collingwood fan took this as a sign that McGovern was going to miss. He did not, sneaking the ball inside the left post, but striking it with enough conviction that it was never really going to miss from twenty-five metres out directly in front. The kick wasn’t perfect, but it didn’t need to be, because the mark was.
The goal after the siren might be football’s most romantic idea, but the perfectly timed tap to a streaming midfielder is its most immaculate passage. There is something so poignant and special about the purity of that connection, which through timing and deftness breathes space into a game often defined by congestion and brawn.
When I was younger, I played in the ruck. When I stopped growing, I played as a rover. Nothing, not a goal from the boundary, a chase-down tackle, or a pinpoint pass, feels as absolute as directing a perfect tap for a player to run onto or being that player on the receiving end. It’s the moment where skill and possibility intersect, where the dimensions of the sport change rapidly, and everything is an opportunity. Everyone on the field is suddenly off balance except for you, and with that leverage you can do anything.
Robbie Gray is an expert at ‘anything’. With nineteen seconds left and a top four spot likely that long away from being gone, Gray waited for the boundary throw-in. His run was textbook, slowly backing away from the drop of the ball, then accelerating around the ruck contest just as the ball reached the ruckmen. By the time Paddy Ryder was ready to give the perfect tap, Gray was in perfect position, behind Ryder and already on the move in space.
He received the ball cleanly and burst towards 50. He quickly looked behind, as though he couldn’t believe that the tap-and-receive had worked so flawlessly. When he saw that Billings was nowhere near him, and Ross, his man, was even further back than nowhere, he focused, steadied, and drilled the match-winning goal.
For a moment, it seemed to Gray and to us that the ball might have been touched on the line. Perhaps things can’t always go so perfectly. But then it turned out that they can, and that is why we watch.