THE GOOD, BAD AND UGLY – COLLINGWOOD 2020 POST-COVID PREVIEW

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Well, it’s been a few months since I wrote our season previews, and after getting one game away, the season was cruelly taken away from us.

Time to reboot, time to start looking forward, and time to update and adapt this preview to cover Round One, and look forward to the rest of the season with what we now know.

I’ll be updating the extensive season previews for all 18 teams in this format because… well, it people seem to like the Good, Bad, Ugly format for game reviews and I thought why not?

So, the Pies have been thereabouts for the past couple of seasons – a shock win in the 2018 Prelim was countered with a shock loss 12 months later, and here we are looking at a new season; Nathan Buckley’s ninth year at the helm.

Nine years… it’s gone by so quickly.

And looking at that nine years, what have the Pies achieved? One Grand Final appearance and minutes away from a flag is something supporters hold onto, but in reality, Collingwood have created an art form of losing Grand Finals over the years, and only a flag is good enough from this position.

Will 2020 be the year the Pies break through, and Nathan Buckley leads this enormously talented squad to the premiership? They started pretty well. Let’s explore.

 

WHAT DID ROUND ONE TEACH US?

I don’t know if the Pies were excellent, or the Dogs were atrocious, but what we saw in the season opener for these teams was one team of men beating up on a team of boys.

The Pies were dominant, shutting down the Bulldogs’ prime movers and running rampant through the middle of the ground.

Taylor Adams destroyed Marcus Bontempelli, whilst Josh Dunkley and Jack Macrae, two players who finished the season in blistering form, combined for 41 touches. Meanwhile, the Pies, without the injured Adam Treloar, saw the usual suspects rack up touches at will. Mayne had 29, Adams 26 with 12 clearances (four more than the top three Bulldogs combined), Sidebottom had 26, and Pendles had 25.

Jeremy Howe was dominant in defence, allowing Darcy Moore ample opportunity to get better position against an underdone Aaron Naughton when the Dogs finally managed to bypass him and get the ball deep into attack. Moore held Naughton well in check, whilst Brodie Grundy absolutely molested Tim English in the ruck yet again, giving the young tall an absolute bath in the first half before dropping his guard with the game well in hand.

Grundy’s performance reminds me of a story I heard about NBA legend, Wilt Chamberlain.

Apparently Wilt faced off with a talented young pro named Walt Bellamy (who is a half of fame centre) and proceeded to block every shot the young fella took in the first half. As the teams lined up for the second half, Wilt wandered over to Bellamy and said “Okay, you can shoot now,” and Bellamy was able to get a few shots off in the second half. The game was over, and Wilt had made his point.

And Grundy had made his point against English in the first half. It was a complete and utter domination, and if you were a Pies fan wondering whether signing him for seven years was a smart move, I reckon you felt a little better after this game.

So, to answer the question – what did it teach us?

Round One taught us that the Pies were ready for the season to commence. They looked hungry and ready. They sensed weakness in the Dogs and went to town on them. They saw what GWS did to their opponents in the finals and adopted the same (if a little more controlled) aggressive style, and they bullied the Dogs into submission early.

Collingwood sent a bit of a message in Round One, and other teams would be wise to heed it. They mean business.

Here’s the link to our full Round One recap of the Pies v Dogs

The Good, Bad And Ugly – Collingwood V Western Bulldogs

 

THE GOOD

 

PENDLES RETURNS TO FORM

I remember listening to former Herald Sun Chief Football Writer, Mike Sheahan talking on Melbourne radio about Pendlebury in 2018. After a couple of ordinary games by his standard, Sheahan decided to make the claim that the Collingwood captain was no longer an A-grader.

I almost swerved off the road and ran over an Essendon supporter. I know what you’re thinking – almost isn’t good enough!

Seriously though, I couldn’t believe how quickly he’d jumped off Pendles. It turns out that Pendlebury was carrying a back injury that prevented him from undertaking every day activities. Listening to him talk, it’s amazing that Pendlebury was able to get up for games at all.

Fast forward  12 months and the smooth-moving Pendlebury was back close to his best form, picking up his sixth All-Australian selection in the process. In terms of the year as a whole, it was not his peak, but he turned the clock back in such a manner that anyone questioning his status in the game should get a royal foot up the ass.

As it stands, Pendlebury is comfortably in the top ten in all-time disposals, tackles, clearances, contested touches, uncontested touches and goal assists. By the end of 2020, he could very well be the all-time leader in handballs in the history of the game. I look forward to seeing just how good he can be… again.

More on Pendles and his ascension into upper echelon of AFL greats in the members section, below.

 

THE EMERGENCE OF BRODY MIHOCEK

This was one of the good stories for the Pies in 2019. After a year that saw such a plethora of goal kickers in black and white, I wonder what sort of money you could have got on Brody Mihocek leading Collingwood being the highest goal scorer for 2019? I’d like to have my time over again and plonk a few dollars on it.

In 2018, Collingwood had blokes everywhere slotting goals. Jordan de Goey (48), Jaidyn Stephenson (38), Will Hoskin-Elliott (42), Josh Thomas (38)and Mason Cox (25) all had solid years in front of goals, but all of them fell away in 2019 except for Mihocek.

He had 29 goals in 2018 and lifted in 2019 as others fell around him to finish with 36 for the year. An old-school half forward, Mihocek finished the season on an absolute low note, with his worst individual performance of the season in the Preliminary Final loss to GWS. That should not completely detract from the season he had to that point.

Whilst the focus of Collingwood opposition continually went to others, Mihocek was the one sneaking under the guard. In only his second season with the Pies, he became arguably their most important forward. Is that a silly thing to say? Allow me to elaborate a little.

When I watch Collingwood, I see players like Jamie Elliott, Jaidyn Stephenson, Will Hoskin-Elliott and Josh Thomas. If you take one of them out of the side, it doesn’t falter – the others can play a similar role. I don’t think anyone else can play the role Mihocek did in 2019. He runs hard, has great hands and is the kind of player you could term a “good, honest footballer”.

And in a team of highly-skilled stars, a blue-collar player like Mihocek is worth his weight in gold.

 

THE MOST UNDERRATED BACKLINE IN THE GAME?

When I think of great current backlines, my mind immediately wanders to Richmond, with Grimes,, Astbury, Broad, Houli and Vlastuin, or West Coast, with McGovern, Sheppard, Hurn and Barrass, but taking a look at Collingwood… damn they’re impressive on paper.

Jeremy Howe has made one of the most startling transitions since David Neitz went from being a great defender to a Coleman Medallist in his role in the Collingwood backline. I can remember hearing that he was going to become a defender and writing it off immediately. The flashy Howe, with his penchant for sitting on the head of unsuspecting defenders, wouldn’t be able to temper his high flying instincts, would he?

It turns out he didn’t have to, instead demonstrating a discipline to fly at times, and keep his feet on the ground at others. A basketball coach of mine use to implore me to pump fake against athletes – “jumpers want to jump,” he used to say, and that’s what I thought would be the case for Howe as well. He’s proven me wrong, and in the process become a fantastic defender.

His efforts as an interceptor in Round One were right up there with some of the best you’ll see, and if teams do not give him proper respect, he will continue to disrupt offensive forays all through the season.

But the others down there are just as good. Jack Crisp is a midfielder cast in the role of a defender, racking up stats at a career-high clip (25.58 per game) in 2019, whilst Brayden Maynard played the role of lockdown mid-sized defender. His work against Gary Ablett in the finals was brilliant, and can adapt to cover both small forwards and the stronger, mid-sized operators as well.

The addition of Jordan Roughead was one of the most unsung acquisitions of 2019, but his efforts in retraining the best key forward on the opposition were key to Collingwood’s success. In just about every Pies game I watched last season, he did his job exceptionally well. One of my Collingwood-supporting colleagues claimed he was too slow, and was dismissive of him at times, but by the end of the season, he’d well and truly come around on him.

Throw in Darcy Moore, who when fit, is as good as any player in the game at judging the ball in flight and taking intercept grabs, and you have the makings of an elite defensive unit. Moore’s health may end up being key to Collingwood in 2020… but we’ll get to him a bit later.

The loss of Tom Langdon in that backline is a cruel blow. He emerged as a high quality defender during 2018, but his 2019 season was cut short by injury, and with retirement being floated as a very real option for him, it would be a huge blow to the depth of the club, not to mention the career of a player with so much potential. Do not discount the impact his absence could have on this team as we progress through the year.

Throw in names like Matt Scharenberg, who has been so unlucky, and the emerging Isaac Quaynor, and the Pies are looking very solid in defence again in 2020.

 

STEPHENSON’S LESSONS

Talk about owing the team…

Yes, Stephenson was permitted back in time for finals in 2019, but his suspension was disruptive to a club that, due to injury, needed consistency from its team. He wandered back into the side for the Qualifying Final, and whilst he was serviceable, was not part of the Magpies’ best on the night.

It was the same story in the Prelim.

Stephenson would have Nathan Buckley’s eyes burning a hole in him every time he joked, or goofed off at training this pre-season. He’d want to make sure those instances are few and far between. Injury is one thing, suspension for an on-field incident is another, but gambling…

… far out, that was dumb.

So, how to atone for such a sin?

Despite the suspension, Stephenson was actually in the midst of improving on his Rising Star-winning season of 2018. The Pies looked to isolate him at times as the deepest forward, using his speed to beat his opponent back to goal. When it worked, he looked incredibly dangerous, but in the grand scheme of things, we saw nowhere near enough of it – probably the story of the season for the Collingwood forward line.

Stephenson was +3.33 in disposals in 2019 and will likely need another jump like that to satisfy those who still frown when his name is mentioned. That said, I have really loved the way he teams with de Goey in the forward half, and when those two combine (they do seem to look for each other often), the Pies look at their best. If de Goey is on, I want it to be Stephenson feeding him in 2020, and once the big dog has eaten, Jaidyn can have a bit of what’s left.

If he can start to edge closer to two goals per game in 2020, and lead the team in score involvements (he was fourth on averages in 2019) then the debt will be paid.

Until then, head down and bum up, Jaidyn. You owe the club.

 

 

THE BAD

 

THE INJURIES AND CONTRACT SITUATIONS

The Pies are in a real bind here. The contract situation of Brodie Grundy has put to bed, and wouldn’t Brodie be a happy camper to be sitting there with a long term deal under his belt without the situation we now have where the goalposts have been shifted significantly?

However, the current situation throws a lot of shade over the contracts of Jordan de Goey and Darcy Moore as we head into the remainder of the 2020 season. I can actually understand Collingwood’s reluctance to commit to long term deals with either of them even before all this COVID shit happened; we’ve just come off seasons where these two, at just 23 years old each, had a lot of trouble staying on the park, and now that the landscape has shifted significantly in the past few months, the chances of a long term commitment for either look remote.

Moore has now had two seasons where his hamstrings have done pretty good imitations of old rubber bands, and the explosive kind of game de Goey employs looks as though it is a soft-tissue disaster waiting to happen.

Where do the Pies go from here?

Whilst it seems as though the days of exorbitant contract offers may be reined in quite a bit in the wake of the cash crisis that Covid-19 has wrought, this may not deter other ambitious teams from attempting to lure these blokes out of Collingwood. How this current scenario impacts de Goey and Moore in terms of value and length of contract offers remains to be seen, but to speculate it will cost them several hundreds of thousands of dollars is not a stretch at all.

What could have looked like a bonanza for an uncontracted player just a few short months ago is now looking more akin to fool’s gold. Will the Pies be able to afford them in the current climate? With potentially smaller lists and the tightening of belts, if another team opted to better an offer by the Pies, could we begrudge either of these guys taking it?

This season has made apparent just how tenuous the professional life of a footballer is. Whilst we all love loyalty and one-club players, seeing their salaries slashed and their workplaces closed may see players having a bit of a rethink about loyalty, earning-capacity, and timelines. Is there a case for either, or both of these guys to test the waters elsewhere if it means securing a better deal? You’d almost have to explore the option if you were either of the two, wouldn’t you? You’ve just had a direct demonstration as to the uncertain nature of your career, have taken a significant pay cut and are likely to have to sign a contract worth substantially less. It would be prudent to maximise your earnings right now.

I’ve spoken with a few Magpies supporters who think de Goey and Moore both should have been re-signed by now, anyway, but part of me agrees with the conservative approach undertaken by the Pies here. They are dealing with unreliable players at the moment, and we’ve now hit uncharted waters in terms of what they can, and will offer. De Goey has been afforded the title of superstar without ever really earning it, and Moore shows exactly what he is capable of before he has to sit out weeks, injured.

This is a dangerous time for Collingwood. You would have to wonder how players are feeling overall, with less money and people they have known and trusted at the club let go. Of course, that applies to all clubs, but we’re not writing about all clubs just yet, are we?

Do they have the box seat to re-sign Moore and de Goey, or will this be the last hurrah for either, or both in black and white?

 

AN OFF-SEASON OF… NOT MUCH

The Pies didn’t add too much in the off-season, did they? They re-signed Jamie Elliott after he used a trip to Brisbane to ensure the Pies knew he was serious about jumping ship – do you think if he’d toured Freo or Port Adelaide they’d have been so keen to hold onto him? Going to a fellow contender… maybe that sparked the Pies into action.

They picked up Darcy Cameron as a small amount of Grundy-insurance, but in terms of gains this off-season, the Pies really must have felt as though they have the pieces in place to win a flag and are ready to go. James Aish is exploring opportunities out west, and they’ve had a few retirements, but the nucleus of 2019 remains intact.

The problem here is that  other teams… you know, kind of got better. West Coast added Tim Kelly, Brisbane have picked up a couple of borderline best-22 players, Geelong have compensated for the loss of Kelly with the addition of Jack Steven and Josh Jenkins.

And the Pies really added nothing.

It will be interesting to see how things play out.

 

MASON COX DETERIORATION

There are players who make their mark over the course of a career, and there are those who dine out on the exploits of one game, or one moment. Whilst Leo Barry was indeed a star, it will be that one moment in the closing moments of a Grand Final that forever define him. It’s a nice way to be remembered.

Mason Cox didn’t quite have that Grand Final moment, but what he did have were several Preliminary Final moments that elevated him to cult hero status in 2018. Newspapers and websites in the United States were covering Cox’s rise to prominence in the AFL, half a world away.

My guess is that there hasn’t been many stories written about him since in terms of his play. Yeah, he got on the Pat McAfee show and that was nice, but in terms of his actual value to the Pies, where is he at?

The purpose here is not to denigrate Mason Cox at all, but rather to point out that after the highest of highs, it is easy to fall back to earth. Since his Preliminary Final demolition job of the Richmond tall defenders, Cox has not approached his output from that day again. His 11 marks remain a clear career-high, as do his eight contested grabs. He did snare six contested marks against the Bulldogs in Round Four last season, but when injury ended his year after Round 20, many actually thought the Pies would be better off with a smaller, more versatile attack. I’m not so sure about that.

When picturing Cox in 2019, my mind drifts to his duel with James Sicily in Round 16. The undersized Hawthorn defender gave Cox a complete lesson in body work and genuine footy nous as he collected 28 touches and 14 marks. Cox managed six touches for the game, with Sicily continually using slight nudges and positioning to keep Cox out of the contest. It was a footballing masterclass.

So, does Mason Cox get better from here? Or have we seen him play above himself on that one occasion in 2018, somehow heightening our expectations? We know Buckley is a fan. We know Cox doesn’t lack for confidence. He had a decent outing in the first game of the season without dominating, and I reckon by three or four games into 2020 we should know whether we are going to see an improved Mason Cox, or the bloke that goes missing as often as he shows up.

 

BEAMS

This is a touchy one, so I’ll try to look at it pragmatically, without being an absolute dick about it.

Dayne Beams was supposed to be the icing on the cake for the Collingwood midfield, but his ongoing battle with mental health issues have gotten the best of him. Beams retired prior to the start of the season, leaving the Pies with a spot on the list filled with a non-player.

In short, Beams’ return to Collingwood has been an unmitigated disaster.

The initial trade of Beams to Brisbane netted the Pies Jordan de Goey – a huge win, but time will tell what it cost them to have him return to the fold. The Lions picked up Ely Smith, who is yet to debut for the club and also picked up a future first in the 2019 draft that was used in a trade with Port Adelaide. If the Lions paid overs for Beams in the first trade, they got plenty back in return this time around.

Sadly, it has not paid dividends for the Pies at all.

Beams managed just nine games in 2019 and despite showing signs of the player he became with the Lions, looked more like the fifth wheel in the Collingwood midfield. He leaves a hole in the Magpie line up that was supposed to be solidified with his presence. The Pies are blessed in the midfield, with Treloar, Adams, Pendles, Sidebottom and Rupert Wills adding the underrated grunt to the equation, but losing Beams is a blow.

A financial blow, and a blow in terms of quality of the team. I don’t like to point fingers, but whoever pushed to reacquire him from Brisbane should have some questions asked of him. The Pies took on a player with known mental health issues, paid overs for him, and have got bugger all for him.

That is a shocker, by anyone’s definition.

 

THE UGLY

 

HISTORICAL DISRESPECT

I’ve put this in the ugly section because I reckon it is an ugly reflection on the state of the AFL media in regard to the way they form an opinion and refuse to change it.

Did you know that Adam Treloar wastes the footy? You did? Did you hear a flippant comment by a commentator that watched him a few years ago and hasn’t paid much attention since? Because that’s how I reckon most of them have formed their opinions on the Collingwood running machine, and they’ve failed to update them as he has changed and refined his game in recent seasons.

Allow me to plagiarise myself here from our Pre-Season Player Power Rankings.

Does anyone else feel as though Adam Treloar gets a little disrespected in AFL media circles? I’m well aware that when he was learning the AFL caper, he’d tend to throw the ball on the boot and damn the consequences, but in recent years I have seen a more poised, more considered player tucking that ball under the arm and lowering his eyes a lot more than he used to.

Yet still, the amount of times I’ve heard people comment that he wastes the footy is probably just the perception they’ve maintained from the version of him they saw years before.

So, I suppose if I am going to write that sort of stuff, I should attempt to back it up, right?

Here goes – at 32.9 touches per game, Treloar ran at 71% disposal efficiency. That’s the same as Andrew Gaff… you know, the Andrew Gaff that gets the ball on the outside and runs with it and supposedly hits targets? Gaff has over 22 uncontested touches per game. Treloar has under 19 uncontested touches, yet Treloar’s the one wasting it?

I don’t buy it – not anymore.

How about Dion Prestia? Everyone raved about his season (and rightly so). He ran at 68%. Brad Crouch? 64% Clayton Oliver? 69% Dangerfield? 67% Bont? 69% Cripps? 71%

So explain to me how Treloar wastes it?

Yep, when you look at it, he doesn’t. Despite what people will tell you.

Add in players like Jaeger O’Meara, who travelled at 61% last season, and you can plainly see that Treloar is carrying the baggage of a young player who used to hack the footy when he was learning his craft. The fact that plenty in the AFL media have not, and have basically refused to reassess their critiques of this bloke is an indictment on them.

Yes, there are other players who are more creative with the footy – if Treloar is being compared to Pendlebury, that is vastly unfair. And yes, there are others who might looks sideways a little more than him, but if you’re looking for meaningful run and carry, there are not many better at it in the modern game than Treloar.

And this version of Treloar is better than the one lazy commentators remember.

 

 

THE PERSONAL PREMIERSHIP DROUGHT

It’s interesting – I wrote an article about the perception of Patrick Dangerfield and his lack of finals success recently. I asked whether the lack of a premiership impacts his legacy as a player. The responses were mixed, as you’d expect. As I wrote, I started thinking about Nathan Buckley, and how his pursuit of a premiership as a coach has become one of the consistent stories over the past several years.

In the Dangerfield article, I stressed that others have been haunted by their team’s inability to get the job done on the biggest stage, but have done everything they could, personally, to achieve success. Buckley has a Norm Smith Medal to prove it. Dangerfield has bugger all. Therein lies the difference.

But as much as I like Bucks, enjoy his takes on modern football, and I want him to succeed, I don’t think having his pursuit of a premiership medal as a continuous story is great for the players. I know there’s not much Bucks can do about it – he doesn’t write the articles, but it was indicative as the siren sounded to end the 2018 Grand Final and the cameras did not swing to the jubilant scenes in the West Coast coaching box. They focused on a despondent Nathan Buckley; the runner up again.

He has been such a figure in the game, such a magnet for attention that he almost has his own gravitational pull for the media. Whilst the attention should be on the players and their drive for a flag, just as many stories about Bucks and his relentless pursuit for a premiership were given air time. It can almost be a little distracting.

In a recent tweet, Buckley said the following.

“Leadership is hard. Put your hand up and accept what could have been done better, by you and by others. Then accept the vitriol, the hurt and the pain. Listen, understand and empathize. Then take action. Firstly for today and then for tomorrow.”

Buckley’s words were in response to the leadership amid Australia’s bushfire crisis, but it is interesting to apply them to his team. After being so close in 2018, and then falling a step shorter in 2019, what action have the Pies taken? What action has Buckley taken? For 2020 and beyond?

Nathan Buckley casts a huge shadow at Collingwood. Not quite as large as that of his president, but large enough that it looms heavily over the playing group. Another year of heartbreak for this team, and perhaps it is time the Pies start taking action.

Firstly for today and then for tomorrow.

 

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