“It’s probably the best I have seen in a group since I started footy,” Brayden Maynard, the Magpies’ swingman, said of the team’s belief.
“The will to win, being 20 points down, we don’t want to be there, but if we do get caught in that position, we know how to get it done.”
Added skipper Scott Pendlebury: “I feel we are pretty present in those moments, we know what we have to do.”
That comes from detailed training sessions where the Magpies split into two teams – one winning, one losing – and practice how to handle the final minutes of a close game. This is as much a mental test as it is physical, with the Magpies also using data to help their cause.
We watched in almost disbelief when the Magpies went coast to coast against Essendon, leading to Jamie Elliott’s mark and post-siren winning goal. Against the Demons, the Magpies, having rallied from 23 points down, were able to wind down the clock through clever defensive play, and forced stoppages. Against the Blues, it was run and overlap.
“There were a few moving parts to it,” McRae said of Sunday’s final-minute tactics.
Ten of their past 12 wins have been by 11 points or less, nine by seven points or less. Practice makes perfect.
Alastair Clarkson has likened McRae to four-time Golden State Warriors championship coach Steve Kerr for how both men have overcome adversity in their lives, this tenacity filtering through to their players.
Admittedly, there is an element of luck. The Blues had a 20-11 advantage in inside 50s in a mesmerising final term on Sunday, but managed only six points because of poor kicking and terrible decisions which will haunt Michael Voss and his men through the summer.
“The reality is, we have managed this as good as I have ever seen a team do it. Funnily enough, we have been in that position so many times – no other team is having to do it every week like we are,” McRae told Fox Footy.
A deeper dive into the ladder shows that while the Magpies finished fourth and have the double chance, they have a 3-5 record against their fellow top-eight finalists, with a percentage better than only the Brisbane Lions and Western Bulldogs. However, overall since the bye, they are 8-1, bettered only by the unbeaten Cats – their opponent in a qualifying final on Saturday week.
Many Magpie supporters, still in disbelief from the club’s record rise from 17th last season, say they are just happy to have made the finals, and any win from here is a bonus. But McRae, referring to how his Lions mentor Leigh Matthews once put it when they were part of three flags together, doesn’t see it that way.
As McRae points out, the Magpies are only three wins from what would be the club’s 16th – and potentially most unlikely – premiership.
“It’s a lot closer than it was 10 weeks ago. We will have the ability to reflect a little bit in the coming days and we’ll reset ourselves for what’s to come,” he said.
“In my time as a player, we were never the best team in the home and away, we never finished top. But you have to be the best team in the finals, and we were that. And we are aiming to do something similar.”
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