AFL grand final 2023: the advantage call that wasn’t

In a game of centimetres and seconds, and less than a kick in it, it mattered: With one minute and 18 seconds to go, Lachie Neale was legged by Oleg Markov. And then the whistle blew.

No one heard it. Zac Bailey, who’d kicked two incredible early goals, grabbed the ball and hoicked it forward.

The umpire called advantage, but there was none, and Bailey’s ball landed harmlessly. The game played on.

Half an hour later, in the Brisbane Lions’ rooms, children ran amok – playing kick-to-kick across the room, heedless of the adults in various states of mourning around them.

Lachie Neale embraced his wife, Jules. He was quiet, but his body shook with sobs. To his own surprise more than most, he’d won his second Brownlow Medal early in the week.

He’d played in one grand final before – as substitute, for Fremantle in 2013 – but the biggest prize still eluded him.

By the far wall, his co-captain, Harris Andrews, lay on the floor, staring at the ceiling. When he had composed himself, he stood taller than ever after a superb season – his back straight and chin up.

“It was a fantastic game. I thought the boys really rallied hard,” Andrews said. “We’re obviously really hurt from this, but we’ll come back next year with a bit of fire in our belly. Our boys need to soak that up, know how that feels, and use that power next year.”

He said he was confident his team had the mental resilience to come back.

“Yeah, absolutely [we do]. We’ve shown in years gone by, we’ve gone out in straight sets in finals, [and had] disappointments in preliminary finals. We acknowledge that we’ve fallen short.

“We understand our own journey. If we push it under the carpet as if it didn’t happen, that’ll leave us in a bad place. But that’s what this group’s done really well – our ability to learn from our mistakes. At the end of the day, we’ll come back ready to go.”

Coach Chris Fagan wasn’t buying into the controversy over the Bailey advantage call. “I haven’t seen that, I haven’t seen it. I didn’t know the whistle had been blown, to be honest,” he said.

“You blokes have got a better feel for that than what I’ve got – I’d have to see the replay.”

Fagan was generous in defeat. “I think the team that won today probably is the team that should have won, given they had more shots.

“People always talk about this in finals – moments. They kicked a goal at the end of the first quarter; they kicked a goal right at the end of the second quarter. Those sorts of moments.

“And when you lose by four points, you look back at those things, and go if only we’d defended a bit better then.

“[Still] even down to that last minute and a half, there were some moments there where maybe, if things had’ve gone our way, we could have won that game.”

But Fagan, like his captain, was undaunted. “There’s lots of teams in the history of the game who have lost close grand finals and gone on to win premierships.

“The Hawks lost a close one in 2012, and then won three in a row. Geelong lost in ’08, and won in ‘09. West Coast lost to the Swans in ’05, and came out and won the next year,” he said.

Fagan also believed his club, despite being around the mark for five years, was only just entering its premiership window, with a group of players entering their prime years.

“We had a lot of quite young players out there today, 23 years or younger,” he said. “We’ll have Will Ashcroft come back from his knee injury, [and] we’ve got his brother coming a year after that.

“I think we’ve only just moved into the window. The banter has been that, maybe, we were going to miss our window; I don’t believe so. I think we’re just moving into it.”

And in the rooms, the kids played on – footballs still flying, shepherded by their player-parents. Cans of beer were cracked. The sun was setting, but not on this group.

It will come up again tomorrow.

First published in The Age, 30 September 2023

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