A minor grass-fire behind the banked terracing across from the main grandstand at Bob Jane Stadium looked like it would comprise all the second-half action of note until South Melbourne's David Clarkson let fly a 30 metre blaster which scorched Wollongong Wolves goalkeeper Leslie Pogliacomi's hands before flying high into the net. It was Clarkson's thirteenth goal for South in his 151st game, surely testimony to this hard-working midfielder's main role as ball-winner and playmaker, rather than converter.
But his 85th minute goal was enough to enliven a match gone torpid, and restore a South Melbourne two goal margin.
It had all looked so promising after just 24 minutes of play - indeed, most who were present for the previous match at that ground - between South Melbourne and Carlton - were disinclined to leave their seats as history looked likely to repeat itself.
Vaughan Coveny had started the scoring action in the eighth minute, leaping highest to power a ball home at the far post after a well-flighted Paul Trimboli cross from the right wing. It was a header straight from all the coaching manuals - downwards and to the post. Pogliacomi got both hands to it, but not until after it had crossed the line by a discernible margin.
Coveny was burning up the grass himself in these early moments, drawing a foul tackle and a subsequent yellow card from David Huxley in the 12th minute, and just two minutes later started the move that led to South's second. It was Coveny's run down the left and his square ball pass to Goran Lozanovski which led to a defensive deflection and a corner. Lozanovski took the corner, it was aimed perfectly for Michael Curcija whose header also found the net.
But Wollongong fought back, and after 24 minutes had reduced the deficit. David Huxley had made an impressive run down the left wing and sent in a square ball into the middle. Paul Reid had seen the potential, moved into a clever supporting position, and when the ball was only partially cleared, sent the arriving ball low to Jason Petkovic's left from 25 metres.
South's Olyroo Tansel Baser and Fiji international Esala Masi managed to earn themselves a dressing down by referee Mark Shield just after the half-hour, and there were subsequently to be slight niggles in some of the duels around the ground for a while. Masi drew a caution shortly after following a straight-arm tackle on Steve Iosofidis, more appropriate for another football code.
Wollongong took the game up to their more fancied opponents. Just before the break a move involving Reid, Sebastian Sinozic, and Scott Chipperfield looked likely to bring the sides level again, but Chipperfield's blast sailed harmlessly over. After the game, a disappointed Wolves' coach Nick Theodorakopoulos said "It's something we were working on during the last two weeks actually, and what was disappointing is he didn't even get a shot on the goal let alone the target."
In first-half added-time Masi started a move involving Sasha Petrovski then Matthew Horsley, but the Wolves' captain's shot was also too high.
The second half was unspectacular even if it didn't lack industry. Both sides negated each other's creative play, and there was little of the flowing possession football we had earlier seen.
Fausto De Amicis - normally a most impassionate player - threw his hands up in frustration after being dispossessed whilst waiting for his upfield players to make a movement. It was after that moment that South Melbourne coach Ange Postecoglou sent all three of his substitutes on a warm-up.
The usual exchange of substitutions started on the hour, but none seemed to be able to change the shape of the match - then petering out to the extent that the grass-fire was drawing the greater number of eyes.
It was left to Clarkson - South player who had rarely had a moment out of action since the season's start - to bring the contest to a close with a goal of the quality even a regular scorer would recall many seasons later.
After the game Postecoglou said "I'm not singing from the rooftops, but I'm pretty happy we got our second win (on the trot). I thought the first 25 minutes was good - I thought we played really well. We probably won the game in that period. After that, it was pretty scrappy, pretty much up until the last ten minutes."
"Wollongong were certainly making it hard for us, and we didn't get a chance to break them open. That forced the game to be not as free-flowing as it usually is," he said.
Wolves coach Theodorakopoulos said "We certainly applied a little pressure. One of the reason South Melbourne didn't perform to their usual fluid self is because we didn't allow them to. I think our boys should get some credit. South had two half-chances and they were both capitalised. We came to Melbourne, we played the champions of Australia, and we certainly matched them. I know the boys are disappointed because they felt that they deserved possibly to pinch a draw, which would have been a very, very good result for us."
"Now we're looking a long long way up the ladder to try and see where the other sides are."