Brisbane show their best side as they slice and dice way into AFL grand final

Brisbane looked less than leonine in the opening term of their preliminary final. They were tentative, reactive and in serious danger of being blown off the Gabba. It wasn’t supposed to be like that. Nathan Brown, Sportsbet’s “market analyst” (I ask you…) reminded us thrice hourly that the Lions were warm favourites. Their ground was a fortress. Their opponent was supposedly banged up.

But for 25 minutes, that was bunk. The Lions were rickety, the Blues were in irresistible touch and Robbie Williams was warming up the vocal cords. If not for the furious fisting of Harris Andrews, it could have been an insurmountable Carlton lead.

Related: Brisbane roar from behind to overcome Carlton and reach AFL grand final

The gap between Brisbane’s best and worst is bigger than any other team. When they’re even slightly off, they’re next to useless. But when the ball’s pinging, when the deck is fast, and when they’re slicing and dicing their way down the Gabba with their bullet-like, 30 metre passes, they’re a sight to behold. That’s what they unleashed on Port Adelaide a fortnight ago. And that’s what Carlton copped in the second quarter.

Josh Dunkley’s job on Patrick Cripps (just half a dozen touches in the first half) was pivotal. Dunkley was the youngest member of the Western Bulldogs’ 2016 premiership side. He played in a senior premiership as a 15-year-old for Sale in a strong country league. Lachie Neale says he’s the best two-way runner in football, and it’s hard to disagree on last night’s performance. Between Brisbane’s goals, Neale was spruiking for Cash Converters and carrying a tray of sundaes for McDonalds. It’s all a bit grubby but his game was as clean and crisp as ever.

Their forwards were the beneficiaries of the pair’s hard work. This Brisbane forward line asks all sorts of questions of opposition defenders. Tall, medium and small; fleet of foot or giraffe like; in the air or on the ground; high up the field or sneaking out the back – they can get you any which way. Their battle with Collingwood’s much vaunted back six may well decide next week’s grand final. They’ve won 13 from 13 at the Gabba this year. It will be their first grand final appearance in nearly two decades.

Related: AFL 2023 preliminary final: Brisbane Lions beat Carlton Blues – as it happened

When they drew the wrong ruck lotto card, gave away a 50-metre penalty, and forfeited a goal within the first 10 seconds of the second half, it would have been easy for Carlton to curl up their toes. The Lions were on a tear. Keidean Coleman (seven score involvements and 10 intercepts) led a queue of Lions picking them off across half back. But the Blues kept presenting. When Harry McKay goaled halfway through the final term, they were still a fluker’s chance. He was desperately unlucky not to be awarded a free kick a minute later, but most of the eight umpires swallowed their whistles this preliminary final weekend.

By the time Jack Martin got a late consolation goal, the travelling Blues fans had been drowned out. They’d been price gouged. They’d dared to believe in the opening term. They’d ridden the wave for more than three months. They’d raised the roof at the MCG. But their boys were banged up and had met their match. It was time, as John Denver reminded them for the umpteenth time, to taste their misty moonshine and make the long trek home.