An empty MCG played host to the 17th placed Hawthorn team taking on a Collingwood side sitting at 14th and bandying around the old favourite “mathematically possible” finals potential. Unfortunately, the maths look about as unlikely to work out as their list fitting under the 2022 salary cap, especially with the showing they put up today.

As the season winds down and more teams drop out of the finals race, I’ve heard people saying that teams won’t have much to play for, but I think that sells the game short, and this game shows why.

With contracts up in the air, it’s time for players to pump up their value, rookies to give fans something to be excited about, and coaches to put in a bit of an audition to make or break their reputation.

It’s that last point that really shone in this game. With Robert Harvey angling to finally take the step to full-time Head Coach and Alistar Clarkson preparing to cash in on a stellar career as several clubs open the warchest in the hope he could be the missing link in their aspirations of success.

 

Setting the scene

As mentioned, the big news was the coaching situation. While rumours abound, there is a strong belief that Clarkson will find himself choosing between the Pies and the Blues (with Gold Coast in the conversation as well, hey, money talks!) for 2022, and Harvey may take the top job elsewhere, with the Blues, Crows and Freo all being floated as possible teams willing to entertain a change in coaches.

While the coaching battle loomed as one of the more interesting aspects of the game, there was plenty of other reasons to tune in, mostly the number of young players and list changes.

Collingwood came in with just a small change of Bianco out for McCreery, which surprised me a bit. I covered the Pies game last week, and thought Bianco was fairly lively up forward.

Hawthorn had to be a lot more adaptive as Breust sits out with a knee strain, Reeves and Grainger-Barras took a week off to recover and Greaves was sidelined to make way for Morrison, Koschitzke, Ceglar and Hanrahan.

The addition of Ceglar was instrumental to the win, as it allowed Clarkson to show how two ruckmen could counter the influence of Brodie Grundy, who will likely be in the conversation for All Australian honours once again this year.

Collingwood already have a few young players looking to make their mark, and despite the result they seem to have a few who could become something special in the near future.

Both teams came into the match coming off big wins, with Hawthorn knocking off a Brisbane side that has had a pretty good 2021 season, and Collingwood dropping the heavy end of the hammer on a West Coast side that has looked out of sorts in the second half of the season.

Momentum can be a brittle thing though, and it’s a fine line between being confident and getting ahead of yourself, especially for two teams that have as much off-field distraction as these teams do.

In fact, I think it’s fair to say that with Covid, lockdowns, scheduling changes, coaching departures and injuries, no team in history could claim as many off-field distractions as these two teams currently, though I’d say Wayne Carey still hold the championship belt for biggest individual effort in that category, even if Dimma seemed keen to have a run at the title a while back.

 

The game

Unusually, both sides seemed to have a singular game plan that they stuck firm with all day. Both created space through the middle by keeping their flanks and wings wide, though Hawthorn seemed to have the better structure. When the Collingwood outsiders stayed wide to present as options, their opposite numbers sat just slightly off them, often a little bit corridor side to encourage the switch to the outside, but close enough to intercept the ball if it wasn’t delivered with pinpoint precision.

And intercept the ball they did. At times it looked a little like three-card monte. The ball pinballing between Collingwood hands like that hidden queen, only for a player in black and white running away from the pack to open his hands and see they were empty as the Hawthorn player ran away with the ball that they pulled from underneath their shirt.

Collingwood looked like they were keen to play the same style of corridor footy as they did last week against West Coast, but Clarkson (or Mitchell I guess) had it well scouted, frequently putting a player into the hole at Centre-Half Forward to stall or block the Collingwood forward thrust.

The Pies were also not helped by some poor inside 50 delivery where, unlike last week, they focused on bombing the ball high and long for most of the first half, regularly spotting up Darcy Cameron and hoping he could out-mark the three or four defenders competing for the ball. A few times he did manage to win a kick or take a mark, but the returns should have been far greater considering that Hawthorn only had three more inside 50s than Collingwood for the match.

 

The Start

The first quarter should have been one where Collingwood put some doubt into Hawthorn. They had a lot of the ball, but seemed unable to find the right options. Hawthorn stymied their forward rush with frequency and Collingwood struggled to get their playmakers the ball in space.

Jordan de Goey managed to make the most of his opportunities in the middle, racking up four clearances in the first quarter alone. Crisp and Adams chipped in to help out, but with Sidebottom well held by Scrimshaw and their key playmaker in Pendlebury sitting on the sidelines, they struggled to have the creativity and decisiveness that would have made them a much more dangerous side.

Despite this, they managed to trade goals with Hawthorn, with goals to Lewis, Burgoyne, and Moore alternating with Ginnivan and Macrae for the Pies. It wasn’t until a late goal to Scrimshaw that Hawthorn managed to string together sequential goals.

Both of Collingwood’s goals were the result of high tackle free kicks, with Hardwick taking Ginnivan high just outside the square, resulting in a clinical finish from the youngster, and Henry copping similar treatment on the wing, only for Finn Macrae to take advantage of the slight pause in play as everyone waited to reset for the kick to play on and take his moment to kick his first career goal.

That sort of playmaking was lacking for the most part in the Collingwood offence, but when it came together, they looked very dangerous and caught Hawthorn napping. Unfortunately, as the game wore on, they let themselves down with delivery more often than not.

Surprisingly, Burgoyne’s goal was his first of 2021. While he’s not a prolific goalkicker, he went into this season averaging a little under a goal a game, so to go 15 matches without a major is unusual for the bloke, even if he has nudged himself into third on the all-time games played list and is old enough to remember when flannelette shirts were a grunge thing, and not the uniform of Baristas and Barbers.

 

Hawthorn slowly take ascendency

Both teams kept to their flank structure, with wings and flanks staying out of the corridor, allowing them to have options wide as well as space in the middle should they need it, but it also makes it hard to stop a rebound attack if they are intercepted. This paid off for Hawthorn a little more often as they had the clear instruction to run back hard on the outside and stall movement in the middle, while Collingwood seemed a bit reluctant to put in a similar effort.

A quality contested mark in the square to an outnumbered McEvoy allowed Hawthorn to open their account for the second quarter. He did seem to take a bit of a stutter step like he was going to play on, but being a ruckman, the Ump seemed to assume it was just the usual lumbering movement common in his kind, and other forms of yeti-esque primates. I’m not suggesting any genetic throwbacks for big Ben, but if he ever retires and finds himself on “I’m a celebrity, get me out of here”, I would not be at all shocked to see him lead a hostile takeover of the base camp with a whole tribe of chimps following his orders. I do hope Hawthorn keeps him busy post-retirement, because I really don’t want to see Planet of the Apes become a historical text.

Keep him out of Celebrity Big Brother, though. I wouldn’t want to inflict that shit on anyone.

Hawthorn continued to steadily grind away at Collingwood, pushing into their forward line with an efficiency that the Pies just couldn’t match. Partway through the second quarter the stat sheet showed Hawthorn going at 67% efficiency in their forward 50 compared to Collingwood’s 33%. The Pies did have it in there fairly regularly though, but all too often gave their forwards poor service, far below the lace-out delivery we saw last week.

The Hawk talls continued to have an impact, with Ceglar taking a clean contested mark just outside 50, and taking a leaf out of the ruckman playbook to handball to a small running by, who then spotted up Worpel who goaled from the 50 metre arc on the run. Ceglar may not be the most innovative big man in the league, but he knows his role, and he isn’t being asked to become a precision kicker, and sometimes keeping within your limits is the wiser part of being a footy player. Plus if he shanked a forward 50 entry you just know Clarko would have a spray lined up for him, even if he had to stand on a milk crate to look him in the eye.

Oliver Henry managed a response for Collingwood, with the long bomb to the spot from de Goey finding a friendly player as they kept the ball in front of them in the marking contest to spot Henry in space. He snapped well on his left running into the pocket in a much cleaner finish than you’d expect from someone yet to play their tenth game.

Scrimshaw continued to have an impact through the middle, limiting Sidebottom’s impact and getting a bit of the ball for himself. He managed to get some separation and kick into the forward 50 right to what looked to be an easy intercept for John Noble, but there was just a little too much length on the kick, allowing Howe to collect and snap truly from 35. Noble didn’t do much wrong in terms of positioning and movement, but he seemed to misjudge the depth of the kick or expect contact, because he should have had that one covered. He had a positive game overall though, so while it was a costly mistake, it wasn’t the worst for the day.

Koschitzke opened his account as McCreery hit Tom Philips late as he was pushing into the 50 and the ump awards a downfield kick 15 metres out and dead in front. The replay suggests there may have been a little less in it than the reaction suggests, but it was still there to be paid. The umpires are probably one of the few grateful for the lack of crowds though, as a capacity MCG would likely have seen 60,000 Collingwood fans screaming blue murder for the kick being awarded. I don’t think they’d be correct, but I’m not one to suggest people damp down their passion.

With the game under their control, Hawthorn shifted to a bit more of tempo football to ride out the half, frustrating the opposition. Collingwood started to feel the pressure of the scoreboard, but weren’t able to use that to get them to hunt the playmakers that Hawthorn were using from their half back line.

Hawthorn opened the second half quickly with a bit of the chaos ball forward rush that allowed O’Meara swoop in for his first goal of the day, only for Collingwood to respond with some quick movement through the middle and scramble forward to Jamie Elliott, who shot from a tight angle, 45 metres out and puts it through as cleanly as you’d wish to see.

Just when it looked like Collingwood might have something to spark them, Hawthorn once again broke their momentum with Sam Frost driving from half back for a 1-2, hit up Mitchell who found Moore in the open 35 out. Moore converted and Collingwood looked frustrated that they couldn’t seem to find a way to unlock their run and carry game that has served them so well in their winning games this year.

Hawthorn piled on two more in quick succession to Howe and Koschitzke, both kicking their second goals for the game. This is the moment that I noticed quite a few Pies players dropping their heads. The game wasn’t quite beyond them at this stage, but they needed some spark, and it was the young brigade attempting to deliver.

Tim O’Brien laid into young Jack Ginnivan with the sort of coathanger usually reserved for pro wrestling bouts, but lacked a bit of the follow-through to cause real damage. Ginnivan showed a veteran’s stoicism by getting up and taking his shot to give Collingwood some breathing space.

Hawthorn seemed to give away a lot of high contact kicks in this game, especially in the forward half. Some of it can be attributed to the Collingwood players lurching forward, but there were also some pretty ordinary tackle attempts that should have sparked a bit of reprisal, but no Collingwood player seemed interested in remonstrating, which is a bit of a shame when it’s the teenagers copping it.

I don’t expect teammates to come in swinging, but when you have players eating a forearm before they are off their red P plates, someone needs to be in there letting the young lad know that they won’t have to endure it a second time. Collingwood will need to find someone willing to fill that role if they’re going to get the most out of their young talent, because few things slow player development like the fear that your opponent can smash you without fear of reprisal—and they tell you exactly that when they line up on you.

I may be biased here though, as when I was coming through the country ranks, I had an older bloke whose nickname was “Dirty” sit in at full-back and tell me to just go run at the ball. All 6ft 6 of him, with his permed mullet well past the time it could be considered fashionable, and eyeball tattooed on each butt cheek (honestly… don’t ask) he was a comfortable anachronism, even back in the 90’s. I looked back and he had my player and his own in a headlock, Robert Dipierdominico-style, and alternating lefts and rights into their breadbaskets. He also held a 38-year-old opposition player that he worked on the mines with over an open mineshaft when the bloke KO’d me with an elbow while I was running with the flight of the ball. He was certainly a mad bloke, but he’d look after the young lads coming through. Rest in Peace Dirty, you magnificent bastard.

Ginnivan seemed content to go his own way though, as Collingwood found some rare space in the middle to run forward in the sort of left echelon style that would have Craig Bellamy nodding in approval, spotting up Ginnivan who had pushed forward hard to kick his third goal from his third disposal in the game. That’s efficiency right there.

Nash responded shortly after for the Hawks, but quick goals to Mihocek and Grundy gave Collingwood some hope going into the final break.

 

The finish

Worpel was subbed off during the break, nursing an injured foot that looked bad enough to hamper him, but it seemed to be the sort of injury that players would push through in big games. Ankles are a complex joint though, so it could be worse than it looked.

With a  five-goal deficit, Collingwood looked less than enthusiastic about their prospects for the match. A big crowd may have pumped them up, but as it stood, they needed someone to be their own cheerleader, and Mihocek was the one willing to play the role, putting through his second to bring the Pies to just over four goals.

Having kicked the last three goals of the match, Collingwood looked to be getting a little bit of hope about them, but they stuck with their corridor play and Hawthorn kept cutting off the options at Centre-Half Forward, causing Collingwood to keep banging it in long and high to an outnumbered forward line.

Tom Mitchell put the breaks on the sequence with a goal from a quick inside 50 that allowed him to run around the pack and slot his first of the day to take the wind out of the opposition sails.

Sidebottom replied shortly after, but it seemed almost obligatory, with half the quarter gone and the margin still sitting at just over four goals.

Jeremy Howe seemed to remember that he hadn’t taken his regulation screamer yet, and popped up on top of the pack to bring one down, find a runner who spotted up Darcy Cameron for a good contested mark and conversion.

With time against them, Collingwood looked tired, but still invested, right up until Jacob Koschitzke slotted his third, putting the game well and truly to bed.

A late consolation goal in junk time to Grundy brought the margin back under 20 points, but Hawthorn switched to their tempo style to ice the game.

 

The Difference

For my money, speed made all the difference in this game. Not just leg speed, but the ability for Hawthorn to move the ball quickly, play on frequently and catch Collingwood on the overlap.

To his credit, it looked like Harvey had identified this as a possibility right from the beginning, with Collingwood lining up on the defensive side of the stoppages, likely intending on Grundy controlling the tap and finding a running mid moving into space. It paid off a few times, but if there’s a ruckman more underrated than Ben McEvoy, I’m yet to hear of them. He’s not going to be held in the same esteem as Grundy, Gawn, Nic Nat or Goldstein, but he’s the type of ruck who rarely lets his opposite number get an easy ball.

Being able to switch out with Ceglar also allowed Hawthorn to keep someone nearby Grundy when he inevitable worked his way into the match in a midfielder type of role, especially in that lock-in role where he intercepts any attempt at clearing the ball from Collingwood forward 50.

 

Youth Development

Despite this match, Collingwood look to have some options from their younger players. Oliver Henry played with a bit of dash, and McCreery looked to be getting more comfortable in his 11th game, but it was once again Jack Ginnivan who caught my eye as the pick of the kids. He did only have seven disposals, but with a return of three goals for his work, it shows how he can impact a game, despite not getting a lot of the ball. A lad who can convert from meagre chances is worth keeping an eye on.

Jacob Koschitzke was equally highlightable for the Hawks though, getting a little more of the ball. He did have better delivery though, and has had a bit more of a run at AFL level with 18 games this season to Ginnivan’s four.

 

De Goey contract

Jordan de Goey looks committed to his midfield role in a way that Nathan Buckley wishes he would have done a few seasons ago. Any other player in this form would already have a big contract sitting in front of him, but while it may not be the only factor, his court case hanging over his head is surely a major part of the reason behind him not having the surety that he wants. Collingwood are already dealing with ongoing salary cap issues, and would definitely be trying to avoid another instance of paying for a player that can’t suit up.

His playmaking when sitting at half back is looking good too, and when he pushes forward, he is one of the few able to spot up targets and lead them to the ball so cleanly. He is due to come out of his extension following the 2022 season, and you’d hope the Pies are in a better situation to lock him up as he concludes his current deal. All else aside, he is one of the most effective mid/forwards in the game, and his last month or two has seen his stocks rise. Maybe he was the wise one in only signing for two seasons in 2020?

 

Scrimshaw v Sidebottom

When Scrimshaw was picked up by the Hawks, I told my Hawthorn-tragic friends and family that they got a bargain there. I’ve liked the look of him since he was drafted, but seemed to struggle up North with the Suns. Gold Coast seemed keen to be rid of him, and the rumours laid the blame for his lack of success at his attitude. Coming to the Hawks and into a system that would neither bend nor make allowances for the whims and wants of a young lad seems to have been the best thing for him.

He played opposite the dangerous Sidebottom for a lot of the match, and to put it simply, he outworked him. He got 26 disposals, but his ability to make space and intercept the ball with 12 marks is where he had the impact.  Sidebottom was unusually quiet with only 22 touches, and his 94 metres gained showed how he struggled to penetrate the opposition defence in his usual way.

 

Final Thoughts

There was plenty in this game for people to enjoy. Some great marks, both contested and high fliers, some long runs, some nice snaps and long goals. While it may not have been quite the hype-fest that two big Victorian teams could expect, as a pure football spectacle there was more in it than some of the commentary seemed to suggest.

It’s become almost fashionable to talk down games of footy where the result is put to bed early, but that’s doing the players a disservice. Even though this game took the shine off of some star players, it allowed some younger guys to shine.

For my money, it’s a bit of a test of how into footy someone is. Anyone can watch the superstars do something amazing and cheer. They’ll go into work and ask their buddy if they caught the amazing snap from Betts or the long bomb from Petracca. It’s the footy equivalent of talking about the weather—always relevant, but rarely revolutionary.

The real footy nuffies get in on a Monday talking about the kid who is only a few games into their career, but looks like he might become something special. They talk about the hope that the 20-year-old in a slump is put up for trade and their team picks him up.

I’m not trying to gate-keep here, enjoy the game however you like and power to you for it, but when people talk down a game just because it wasn’t a series of end-to-end running goals… I just wonder why they watch the game at all.

Maybe that’s just the scrappy country footy player who was used to playing on muddy cricket pitches in me though.

 

Next Up

Round 22 is likely to be a bit of a dead rubber round for both teams, with Hawthorn two games clear of the spoon and Collingwood needing to get five wins from the remaining two games. They could conceivably still get the spoon themselves, but with their first rounder already allocated to GWS, it would be a very bitter pill to swallow.

The Pies may find themselves contemplating just that scenario though, taking on a Brisbane team smarting from their own loss to the Hawks and returning to the winner’s circle with a dominant display over the Dockers.

It’s unlikely that North will beat Sydney to put the possibility of the spoon into any real consideration, but the possibility won’t do the Collingwood faithful any favours, especially if it comes down to their final round match against Essendon. A win for the Bombers may not get them into the finals, but if they can gift their old rival some flatware, it’d bring a few smirks and hold them over until 2022.

I just can’t see Collingwood beating Brisbane as both teams are at the moment. It won’t be impossible, but the smart money will be on the Lions.

Hawthorn are eight points clear of last place, but with enough percentage that finishing on the bottom is unlikely unless North manage to kick forty goals in a game.

Their round 22 opponent is a tough ask, with the top of the table Bulldogs looking very confident. I wouldn’t completely rule out the Hawks, as the dogs may feel confident enough to play at 70% of their potential so they can avoid injuries going into finals, but I think even at that rate, they’ll be a bit too good. Josh Bruce may be out, but they have enough forward options to cover him against the Hawthorn outfit.

 

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