WARRNAMBOOL had booked itself a spot in the grand final.
Two late goals — and a lot of behinds — had allowed the Blues to overcome a gutsy Cobden outfit in a four-quarter slog at Koroit.
They had shown mental resolve, produced composed football when it mattered and defied everything the Bombers had thrown at them.
But still coach Scott Carter wouldn’t smile.
Past experience — notably last year’s grand final defeat — had taught him victory in Saturday’s second semi-final was no reason to celebrate.
The win, rather, was a stepping stone to a greater goal.
“We’re back in a grand final, it’s our fifth consecutive grand final,” Carter said after the Blues’ 11.16 (82) to 10.9 (69) win.
“We’re very happy to be there, no doubt about that, we’re excited to be there.
“But as I said to the players after the game, the biggest game of the year, the hardest game of the year to win, is still to come.
“The job is nowhere near complete.”
Relief was the overriding emotion in the Warrnambool rooms after the 13-point victory, and Carter admitted Saturday had been “a tough day at the office”.
The Blues had done brilliantly to concede just two goals in the first term against a strong breeze and hit half-time with a 17-point lead.
They extended that lead to 23 when Jake O’Donnell goaled shortly after the restart.
But a game they were in control of soon started to unravel. Cobden kicked six of the next seven goals and were seven points up when Zac Merrett goaled after a costly 50-metre penalty on the three-quarter-time siren.
Warrnambool eventually regained the lead midway through the last term through a piece of Jason Rowan magic.
But Tim Horan returned fire almost immediately with a set shot, against the run of play.
The Blues — kicking with a four-goal breeze — still trailed as the clock ticked into time on and became desperate. They had a lot of the football, but the Bombers’ defence was holding firm.
Eventually Travis Graham found space to mark on the lead 30 metres from goal.
The wind carried his high kick through for a goal, and a sense of relief flowed through the small group of Warrnambool supporters.
Six consecutive behinds followed — Brendan Moore’s wayward shot put the margin beyond one kick — before Rowan goaled from the boundary to seal the win.
The Blues’ two key forwards had a collective two goals to the last break.
But they showed why they could lead Warrnambool to a premiership with match-winning displays when the game was in the balance.
Such was their up-and-down match, their direct opponents — Bronte McCann on Graham and Paul Hinkley on Rowan — could hold their heads high. Defensive general Aidan Cole also had an effective afternoon down back.
Ruckman Levi Dare was super, Paul Foster was the pick of the onballers and Merrett was lively up forward.
But overall, Warrnambool’s better players played well for longer.
Best-on-ground Josh Walters was exceptional at the contests and relished the wet conditions.
Rob Bright was well beaten in the taps but came as close as anyone to matching the influence of Dare, particularly early.
Tim O’Keefe also had a major say with three second-term goals after following his opponent, Tim Horan into the Warrnambool forward line.
And returned VFL footballer Liam Hoy had a captivating contest with Joe Dare, with the Blue ultimately taking the honours.
“I think most people would agree it wasn’t a pretty game of footy, conditions were tough,” Carter said.
“Obviously second semi-final day, the stakes are high and so the pressure of the game is up.
“Definitely it was a stressful day at the office.
“As I said to the boys before the game, you get to second semi-final day, you get to preliminary final day, no one is going to hand you a spot in the grand final.
“You’re going to have to earn it.
“To Cobden’s credit, we absolutely earned everything we got today.”
Cobden coach Wayne Robertson said he was disappointed not to win, but was upbeat about the display.
“Disappointed we lost the game but pretty proud of the performance,” he said.
“You can’t question the way we responded in the third quarter, that was really good.
“And the way we defended in the last quarter, we knew we didn’t have enough on the board to be comfortable, we knew we had to defend really well.
“We’re super disappointed we lost the game but we still think we take form into the next game.”