A game billed in several quarters as the match of the round turned out to be a fizzer as the equal premiership favourite Magpies flexed their considerable muscle and returned to form against a lacklustre St Kilda at the MCG.
These are five talking points from a clash where the two teams revealed their respective credentials for the season ahead.
ST KILDA’S RECRUITS
St Kilda’s decision to launch a full-scale attack on the trade and free agency period last year was viewed as a curiosity by those external to the club. In addition to acquiring Hannebery the previous year, the club landed Zak Jones, Brad Hill, Dougal Howard, Paddy Ryder, Dan Butler and Ryan Abbott to a list most considered a long way from the Promised Land. Each of the first five were highly influential against the Bulldogs last week, Jones with a best afield showing.
However, against the Magpies, despite reasonable statistics their ability to affect the result was dulled by an extremely well drilled opposition. Jones was the victim of a heavy tackle midway through the first quarter courtesy of Grundy and thereafter lacked his usual spark. Hill was prominent, especially late but his 25 possessions only gained a modest 330m and the majority of his touches were around back half where his precise skills were less likely to impact the scoreboard. Howard battled manfully in the under-siege backline, but was beaten by the workhorse Mihocek, while Ryder suffered a similar fate in the ruck.
Former Tiger Dan Butler played a lone hand up forward and was the best for his side compiling 16 disposals (eleven contested), two first half goals, four tackles, six score involvements, and gaining 364m for his club. His importance was demonstrated most in an outstanding one on one ground ball win in the third quarter where he feigned inboard but then raced boundary side and delivered with precision to Jack Steele in goal scoring range. I expect Damian Hardwick would have looked on with some regret as Castagna and Rioli again turned in shockers on Thursday night.
THE RUCK BATTLE
Much of the interest in this match centred around the matchup between the behemoth Brodie Grundy and the player many consider to be the heir apparent, Rowan Marshall. Teaming the St Kilda rising star with the most capable Paddy Ryder is an interesting choice, with some questioning the capacity for success against the negative impact on the younger player’s development.
Leading into this match Brownlow fancy, Grundy had returned 19 disposals and 37 hit outs and 15 & 33 respectively in the first two rounds, versus the cumulative 24 disposals and 26 hit outs and 16 and 49 last round from the two-headed Saints ruck.
Ryder started on the ball, with Marshall matched up against a rotating Darcy Moore and Jordan Roughead, and despite an horrific early mistake by Grundy that led to a Butler goal, the Magpie big man quickly gained ascendency, far too mobile around the ground for his older Saints counterpart.
While statistically the combined production of the Saints big men almost matched Grundy, many of Marshall’s touches came late when the sting was well and truly out of the contest. When Callum Brown was the beneficiary of Brad Hill turnover in the defensive fifty to extend the lead to 39 points midway through the third quarter, Collingwood had dominated the centre clearances 10-2, much of that on the back of the superlative work by their tireless follower.
The match stats ended up with the Magpies ahead 32-21 in clearances and 17-4 when Grundy was directly matched to Marshall; a resounding victory to the Magpies’ big number 4.
While the final numbers evened out over the course of the four quarters, with Collingwood returning a disposal efficiency of 77% and St Kilda at 74%, when the game was still a live contest in the first half the picture was very different.
At quarter time with the score reading 5.3.33 to 2.1.13, the Magpies had cut the Saints to ribbons with 86% efficiency as they utilised the full width of the ground, always choosing the right avenue to attack. Conversely the Saints were repeatedly forced to the Southern Stand wing, where their Magpie counterparts were able to pick off the ball with ease.
To add to this malaise each of Howard, Gresham and Jones were pressured into turning the ball over by foot in their back half leading to Collingwood scoring opportunities, where their efficiency was deadly throughout the game. The second quarter was not much better for the Saints, with Coffield and Hannebery both giving the ball away as they prematurely attempted to centre the ball.
Meanwhile, Collingwood’s exceptional skills were on show for all to see, the back six all running at over 80% disposal efficiency for the match, leading to a stunning 60% efficiency inside forward 50, compared to a lowly 38% for the Saints. When added to the 5.2.32 to 0.0.0 scored from clearances the turnovers ensured the contest was over at half time.
Led by All-Australian in waiting, Darcy Moore with a game leading nine intercepts and two contested marks, the Collingwood backline unbelievably conceded their highest score of the three-game season against St Kilda – a measly 37 points. Coach Nathan Buckley was at pains to describe in his press conference and on-field interview the importance this defensive structure plays in their ability to attack and win games of football.
100-gamer, Brayden Maynard turned in another solid performance, with 23 touches and six intercepts. It was a quality return in the abbreviated format of AFL 2020. The impressive Jack Crisp recorded 24 possessions and roamed upfield to contribute three inside 50s and a further five score involvements. Jordan Roughead was typically dour, but added seven strong marks, while inexperienced mature age recruit John Noble was in the conversation for best afield at quarter time, his damaging disposal into the corridor a key factor behind the 5-goal barrage in the opening stanza. Jeremy Howe receives some love further along this article, but together these 6 men form the best defence in the AFL right now.
PREMIERSHIP QUALITY MIDFIELD?
It is often mused that a team must have a deep and talented midfield to win the premiership and in this match a stark contrast was shown between a side choc-full of prime candidates and one a long way off the pace.
In Sidebottom, Pendlebury, andAdams the Magpies possess extreme class, and with Wills, De Goey and Mayne they have the necessary grunt and support to allow the creative types freedom to maximise forward forays. Sidebottom was again magnificent, gathering 31 disposals, six tackles and six score involvements, as well as three clearances and a stunning left foot snap in the first after a centre clearance made him the most valuable player on the ground.
Rupert Wills may be only the second best Rupert to play for the Pies this decade, but his influence is paramount. His four tackles, four clearances, five score involvements tell part of the tale, but his primary task is to provide the bullocking protection so the sublime skills of the skipper and Sidebottom can slice up opposition defences.
Collingwood were also big winners on the outside in this game, the wingers in particular creating space and options to retain possession and attack with pace. Will Hoskin-Elliot flashed up and down the wings in an intriguing battle with the prolific Hill. While his more illustrious opponent finished with more touches, WHE was far more important, taking eight marks as he continually worked to create an outlet conduit between defence and attack.
St Kilda were found wanting in this battle. Gresham tried hard and gained possession 25 times, but only disposed of it at 57% efficiency. Billings and Ross were well down on their effectiveness from the previous round as much a credit to the Collingwood pressure and structures as effort from those two. Additionally work rate was a factor as 16 Saints had registered only one or no tackles in the first half.
Jack Lonie was particularly disappointing gathering only six possessions to three quarter time on the way to nine for the match gaining only 72m. It’s not yet terminal, but it’s hard to see the likes of Lonie, Billings, Gresham developing into Pendlebury, Sidebottom, Treloar so that Steele, Clark, Jones can become role players and propel the Saints to premiership contention.
In honour of the Magpies’ flawless skills, here are five quick hands to finish off:
The ex-Port Melbourne VFL man has become a critical cog in the Magpie machine, assuming the mantle of first big forward selected each week. Due to the make-up of their side with most production coming from smaller players like Elliott, Stephenson, Thomas, Hoskin-Elliot and the mids, Mihocek has the unenviable role of nullifying the oppositions best defenders, but also clearing a path for running players to create.
Time and again versus the Saints he proved his worth, midway through the first he halved a contest from a haphazard centre clearance from out of position, then applied critical pressure as other Saints came to help allowing Brown to spear the ball to a streaming Elliott for a goal. Early in the last along the southern stand wing he again broke even against the odds as the loose ball favoured Long and Howard, but Brody was able to make up ground, knock the ball loose and eventually take it out of bounds.
His value also comes in the very tangible area of goal scoring and the reigning Gordon Coventry Medallist scored two important six pointers on a day where scoring was a challenge, the second from a brilliant set shot finish outside fifty after a brutal WHE tackle gave Collingwood possession.
I’m not sure I saw the memo come out about the fashion trend towards the return of the standard moustache, most notably led by big man Brodie Grundy, but I for one am embracing it for all it’s worth. Seeing our AFL stars rocking soup strainers reminds me of Tom Selleck, my Dad, or any other man in the 1980s, and in an uncertain world that level of comfort is welcomed with open arms.
THE NEW FAMILY CLUB
The seemingly endless virility of the Magpie stars from the 70s/80s and 90s is having another wave of success on the current Magpie franchise. After receiving stellar service from the next generation of Shaw’s and Cloke’s, the established Darcy Moore has recently been joined by Josh Daicos and Callum & Tyler Brown.
The latter three rotated through the wings against the Saints, holding no fear when matched on established names such as Hannebery, Hill and Ross. Each have grown into their roles and now look comfortable in the famous black and white stripes, Daicos and Callum combining for twelve score involvements and important links in the Magpies precise possession game, while the youngest, Tyler slotted a sensational goal after a fantastic gather and dish from Stephenson to calmly step around a flailing Hannebery and slot the major from 40m.
BLUE COLLAR DE GOEY
Typically, when you think about Collingwood star, Jordan De Goey you instantly go to his brute force in bursting through packs, his powerful contested marking or the inspiring goals from distance, but today before the game he rolled up his sleeves and got to work playing the type of selfless role that would have thrilled his coach.
With a modest stat-line of 16 touches and one goal you might be forgiven for overlooking his value, but I can guarantee that the five scoring involvements, the four times he drove it with surgical precision inside 50, the three clearances including two from the centre and three times more tackles inside 50 than any other player will be lauded in the team review.
HOW DO THEY NOT KNOW HOWE?
Jeremy Howe is the most consistent aerial superstar the game has seen, fact. This statement includes the late, great John Coleman, Hawk idol Peter Knights, Saints hero Trevor Barker, showman extraordinaire Warwick Capper and the freakish Tony Modra. But he is so much more than that.
An integral leader in a stingy defence, he led the game with 437m gained for his team on the back of 16 kicks at 89% efficiency. Of course, he also took the biggest hanger at the MCG in this game, a feat apparently so common place the commentators didn’t even mention nor did the canned crowd noise operator.
Close to best afield in the first two rounds, his ability to zone off and intercept, or use precise disposal to launch attacks, not to mention his gritty and desperate ground ball efforts when the ball is in dispute have made Howe an all-round star.
The fact he has yet to be recognised by All Australian selectors should be the subject of a royal commission.
5 – Sidebottom (Coll)
4 – Crisp (Coll)
3 – Grundy (Coll)
2 – Butler (StK)
1 – Moore (Coll)