The Irish Warriors, playing in Men's Division 1 of the 2017 AFL International Cup, can consider themselves very unlucky with the way their tournament has panned out.
Facing New Zealand at Ransford Oval, Royal Park win Tuesday the Irish men had their fate in their hands. If they won, they would take on New Zealand in the Grand Final at the MCG on Saturday. Lose and their place in the final would be taken by Papua New Guinea thanks to their superior percentage.
In the end it all came down to the last kick of the day, after the final siren......
The final day of Pool matches was set up beautifully. New Zealand were more or less assured of a Grand Final berth, going into the final round undefeated with a percentage above 400. Their opponents were still to be decided though, and could come from one of four teams: Ireland, PNG or USA.
The USA revolution needed the most chips to fall their way. They had won two of their first three games, but their percentage was lower than both Ireland and PNG. The equation went something like this: The Revos needed to beat their final opponents, France, by around 100 points, PNG to beat South Africa by less than 60 (or lose), and NZ to beat Ireland.
For their part the Revolution did everything required of them, beating France 19.18.132 to 3.1.19. It was an all-round team effort with USA having 10 individual goalkickers, led by David Restrepo who kicked five, as well as Bryan Dragus and Jason Wilhelm who kicked three each. Having put away France by the best part of 19 goals, they now needed to hope that everything else would fall into place.
Spoiler Alert: It didn't. PNG went into their game against South Africa needing to boost their percentage by about 35 to overtake Ireland in second spot, which meant winning by at least 10 goals. They did that and more, keeping SA goalless and putting through 16 of their own. The final score was PNG 16.17.113 to SA 0.4.4. Emmaus Wartovo kicked four goals, Hewago Paul Oea kicked three and Laurie Logo was named their best player. They'd done enough to pass Ireland on percentage, not they needed them to lose to NZ or else go through the Pool stage undefeated and into the Grand Final.
Ireland's situation was simple. Beat NZ and they would finish on top of the table with four wins from four games, securing their place at the MCG. New Zealand's was even more simple. Thanks to their massive percentage they were certain of finishing in the top two regardless of the result. If the Kiwis didn't care about winning, though, they sure didn't show it.
It was a tight, close contest from the first bounce with Ireland having the best of it early. They led at 1/4 time 2.2.14 to 1.1.7. Their lead didn't last long though. Only minutes into the second quarter NZ scored through James Kusel to take the lead, 2.3.15 to 2.2.14. NZ kicked another two before a late reply from Ireland and went into halftime with a five point lead.
When NZ came out after halftime and kicked the first two goals it looked like they might have taken control of the contest. That was until late in the quarter when Irish big man, and former Geelong rookie listed player, Padraig Lucey soccered the ball out of a pack for a goal. He followed that up a couple of minutes later with a set shot from 50 metres out that split the middle. Ireland went into 3/4 time trailing NZ 6.4.40 to 5.6.36.
So the fates of three teams rested on the last quarter of a nail biting contest. One minute into the last quarter it looked as though the luck of the Irish might prevail with Lucey again taking a leading mark and kicking truly to put the Warriors in front. Only a few minutes later Lucey found himself one on one in the goalsquare. Using his height to advantage again, another mark, another goal. His fifth for the match and 14th for the tournament. The Irish led by eight points with 12 and a half minutes to play.
NZ kicked back thanks to a 50 metre penalty to Andy Christensen, from the VAFA's South Melbourne Swans. He slotted his third and cut the margin to two points. The next six minutes of play could well be described as slogfest. Both teams desperate to score, trying to find space with handballs but being swarmed by the opposition. It seemed whenever either side could get a clear kick away it would be marked by the opposition and sent back again.
With less than 30 seconds left on the clock the New Zealanders worked the ball to the middle of the ground and, thanks to wonderful vision from Andrew Howison, the ball found its way to the forward flank and the waiting arms of William Gregson. He played the percentages with 10 seconds left on the clock and kicked to a pack inside the forward 50. No mark to NZ but the umpire did manage to find a free kick for chopping the arms, much to the chagrin of the Irish defenders. Then the siren went.
With NZ two points down Barclay Miller calmly went back to take his kick. A miss would mean the two teams would meet again on Saturday, a goal would put Ireland out of the running and the Grand Final would be an all South Pacific affair between NZ and PNG. From virtually straight in front, about 20 metres out, Miller kicked the goal. The Kiwis were victorious by four points, 8.5.53 to 7.7.49.
Not only had the Irish snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, but had the umpire been on the other side of the contest he may well have paid a free kick to the Warriors for a push in the back. All of this on top of the fact that Ireland actually beat PNG in the first round of the tournament in a gutsy wet weather effort. Sometimes footy is a game of luck, though, and in 2017 there was no luck for the Irish.