Making it work with what you have

Few coaches would envy the position Adam Simpson found himself in. Losing so many players to injury before round one, then adding in the players lost to Health & Safety protocols, he’s had to deal with not just a reduced list, but the disruption of putting players on the park that have barely played together, let alone managed to determine how they fit into the structure of the team.

While the worst of it was certainly against North in round two, being competitive for a team that has had more outs than an English cricket team’s first test batting session is no small achievement. Simpson’s strategy of pushing his pawns forward to promote them to better pieces is worthy of any grandmaster (For our Collingwood supporters, that’s a chess reference. It’s like checkers, but has horsies and castles and stuff.)

Both teams had a few changes from last week, with Collingwood losing De Goey to suspension, Adams to H&S protocol, and Brown making way for Bianco. West Coast had to draw a line through Gaff and Petrevski-Seton due to injuries, and Petruccelle for H&S, while Edwards was omitted.

Craig McRae looked like he was setting up a structure that played into the mobility of Collingwood’s midfield by positioning them a step further away from the drop of the ball at stoppages than West Coast, preserving their space and creating options for handball chains and tackling the Eagle’s runners, but West Coast’s style of accountable football that focused on one-on-one battles around the ground made it harder for Collingwood to exploit their foot speed as often as they’d have liked.

Collingwood had their challenges on the selection sheet, but for Simpson to get the team to come together as it did in this game shows how hard he’s worked on adapting their tactics to fit with their overall strategy. West Coast could have lost this in the medical room, but they did very well in the coach’s box.


Starting strong

The opening of the game was very much a feeling-out process, with both sides prioritising a running handball game along the wings, avoiding the corridor unless it was completely open.

West Coast signalled their intensity early, taking on the tacklers consistently and moving the ball in waves of handballs to running teammates. The first Liam Ryan goal came from an end-to-end passage of play that includes some dash and dare from West Coast along half back.

The different approaches soon became apparent as Collingwood brought their wings in behind the play when the ball was in the middle, looking to scoot by the contest as a running option, while West Coast kept them wide to be a stationary handball distribution point to their own mids in motion.

Many may disagree, but for my money, how a team structures their wings will give you an insight into how they want to play the game. By setting them up on the defensive side of the contest at the earliest opportunity, Collingwood signalled a “crash the pack, use your speed” kind of gameplan, while West Coast preferred to use them as a way to get the ball away from the contest and distribute to players running into space.

Both methods are effective, but the West Coast method was easier to execute with a team of mids that hadn’t yet had the time to gel properly. By having the stationary players on the “East-West” sides of the scrimmage, players at the coalface didn’t need to make snap predictions about how far ahead of their runners they needed to handball the ball, but could put the ball in the general direction of the winger, knowing they’d be there.

Collingwood’s method was harder to execute, but gave the opportunity to move the ball much faster as their players could hit the pack at a full sprint, and made them much harder to tackle.

It almost paid off through the Daicos brothers working beautifully off each other, while Pendlebury—as he does so often—broke the laws of physics as we know them and created time that didn’t seem to exist for anyone else, and almost lazily handballed to Isaac Quaynor. Quaynor passed (well, let’s give him the benefit of the doubt) to Mihocek, who marked near the point post, and tried the old banana kick, but didn’t quite get the angle right and kicked it across the face, out on the full.

Unfortunately, that shot was typical of Collingwood’s forward line, foreshadowing the poor execution of set shots that ultimately cost them the game.

Jack Redden tried to help them out for their first though, holding Pendlebury a little too long in a tackle on the wing, and then acting like a bloke looking for the sauce bottle in the cupboard while his wife franticly gestures to the item right in front of him, where it always is. Umpire Andrew Heffernan did what many significant others would have loved to do to their husbands, and blew the whistle, penalised Redden, and ignored any remonstration to give a very, very generous penalty to bring Pendlebury from slightly on the defensive side of the wing to about 40 metres out. Once again though, Collingwood didn’t have their kicking boots on, and only managed a point.

It wouldn’t be long though, as Henry caught his man flat-footed to get on the end of a (very) Crisp kick to open Collingwood’s account.

Reef McInnes also had a shot 30 metres out on the boundary after a deliberate out on the full call, and just couldn’t get the angle right, and shortly afterwards Rioli managed to kick his team’s second with a classic mark and set shot kick.

Both teams had their moments, but Collingwood seemed to have much of the play, though wasteful in front of goal.


Playing wide to finish narrow

West Coast continued to prefer moving the ball along the wings, with the intention of bringing the ball into the centre-half forward area, rather than shoot from the pockets. Time and again they’d bring the ball down the ground with width, then suddenly look inboard rather than towards their full-forward area, giving their sneaky smalls in Rioli and Ryan (when resting forward) the chance to make space, and Kennedy and Darling the ability to lead in a greater variety of directions. There were a few exceptions, such as when they got the centre breaks, but mostly they went with this interesting

Collingwood went with a variety of avenues forward, mixing up the wide lay with dash through the middle on occasion.

It’s going to be interesting to see if Simpson sticks with this as the disruptions to his list continue, or if he starts to move towards the types of adaptable structures that are more common in the AFL. At the moment, the unpredictability makes it hard for him to implement these sorts of things, but it also makes it harder for other teams to prepare any counters to a gameplan that may change week to week.


Bringing it home

After a see-saw middle of the game where each team struggled to maintain momentum, West Coast sprinted out of the blocks to find Willie Rioli around the arc, and he hit up Kennedy by hand for a great long snap that brought the margin back to a point.

From here, both teams showed plenty of desperation, with some brilliant defensive work from Collingwood resulting in turnovers and rebounds into attack, but West Coast were equally determined to not let this one slip.

Mihocek in particular looked like he wanted to be the difference, throwing himself at contest after contest, including a set of contested marks that had the Magpie Army on their feet. You’d be hard-pressed to see someone working harder and deeper this side of those websites that your uncle got sacked for looking at while at work. The first two unfortunately didn’t bring the goals his team needed, but his third take included nearly barrelling into the goalpost and an easy conversion from a metre out to put Collingwood in front by four points with under seven minutes left in the game.

West Coast launched forward from the restart, getting deep into attack as Rioli once again showed his canny ability to distribute in the forward 50 by finding Darling, but Jack looked a little in two minds as Sidebottom caught him on the hop, winning a holding the ball decision that brought up a roar from the mostly black-and-white crowd.

West Coast kept pushing though, holding solid across half-back and rebounding along the boundary. Nic Nat was kept on the field for crunch time after spending a few minutes on the bench earlier in the quarter and showed why physical sports usually have weight divisions when he manhandled Grundy at a boundary throw in to come away with the ball, picking off Rioli with a kick. Rioli seemed completely unconcerned with the moment or the crowd’s suggestions that he couldn’t make the kick, calmly slotting it through to give West Coast back the lead by two points.

With barely four minutes left, both teams looked tired but determined. Lots of leaning on haunches, sucking air in before throwing themselves once more into the chaos that is footy. Some days, the ball just goes your way though, and when Waterman snapped a kick that bounced at the top of the goalsquare and went through for a major, West Coast’s eight-point lead looked like it had the blessing of the football deities.

Collingwood switched to a close-checking man-on-man style of play to stop West Coast winding down the clock, though it did also stop their ability to run off their opponents as easily. It’s a credit to McRae that he went with this strategy to risk losing by a bigger margin for a chance at the win instead of sticking to the plan and hoping it somehow worked out.

Sometimes in footy, there are the sort of poetic moments that reinforce why people love the game. Jack Darling has been in the headlines for plenty of the off-season (and a bit of the first few rounds too) for decisions and declarations that I don’t really need to go into here. Whether you agree with his talking points or not though, there’s little doubt that he was one of the most maligned players in recent months, so for him to pull in a diving mark near the point post and convert with a drop punt that threaded the needle would have been an enormous relief to him and his teammates. He was back, he was part of the team, and he had the impact they needed from him.

The last two minutes had Nic Nat taking a breather, ready to come back on if Collingwood got a quick couple as an ace in the hole, but it didn’t turn out to be necessary. A bit of tempo footy to suck a minute out of the game, but Collingwood managed to win a free and a 50 to bring them into attack, but a long kick from Maynard was touched on the goal line by Waterman, earning a free-kick and clearing the ball from the area.

Collingwood kept pushing, but the clock just wasn’t there for them as the time ran out for a West Coast win that is worth far more than the four points, bringing with it belief and no small amount of redemption for a few players.

Collingwood will see it as one they could have won that they let slip away, and they’d be right, but West Coast made the most of every opportunity to show that even with their challenges, they are good enough with the team they have when it all comes together.


Where it was won

The easy answer to this is efficiency. West Coast were like humourless German engineers while Collingwood were the group of uni students who tried to pursue every great thought they had, and ended up with the Homer Simpson mobile.

Collingwood had 19 more inside 50s, more marks in attack and even had a few more frees than the Eagles, but 10.14 is just not the return they wanted from their scoring shots, especially when a few failed to score at all.

West Coast, by comparison, were so accurate that they could probably even predict Melbourne weather. They were the sniper rifle to Collingwood’s blunderbuss, making the most of every opportunity. Their least accurate quarter was their first, where they kicked 2.2. They went on to kick 12.1 for the rest of the game.

No one player was to blame for Collingwood’s inaccuracy, with only Jack Ginnivan kicking more than one behind, finishing with 2.2, which is a decent return for a lad that some in the media seem to think is going about everything in the wrong way.

Crisp, Little Daicos, McInnes and Pendlebury all ended up with 0.1, and all had gettable shots (though some more difficult than others). Mihocek’s 2.1 could easily have been five straight, and the winning effort for the day, but he was just that little bit unlucky.

I’d be surprised if this caused much concern for the coaching box in regards to strategy. They may choose to give a little more priority to goal kicking at training, but overall they had a winning gameplan, they just were scruffy in their finishing while West Coast were as polished as Sidebottom’s scalp (…he doesn’t have alopecia does he? I’m not looking to get slapped in front of everyone).

It’d be remiss of me to not point out that Jeremy McGovern was also a huge factor in Collingwood’s inaccuracy. In what I’d call a best on ground performance, he managed 11 intercepts to stymie Collingwood’s entries into their forward 50. As the game wore on, they became a little hesitant to create a marking contest around the arc, instead pushing the ball forward by hand to find someone open to take the shot while under pressure. While I’ve highlighted how West Coast’s forward line deserves much of the credit for the win due to their accuracy, McGovern regularly caused Collingwood to pause their forward thrusts and countered a few himself.

Without McGovern playing this role, Collingwood would have moved the ball forward deeper, quicker, and to much more dangerous positions. More than any other player on the field, he was the difference.


Daicos breeding program

Between the two Daicos brothers, they had 60 games of experience, 60 touches of the footy, six clearances, and zero non-shit haircuts. Yeah, OK, I just threw that last one in there to feel better about myself when two young lads can be as good as they are at such a young age.

Josh Daicos has been a solid player for the Pies, though in hindsight maybe having to shoulder the burden of the Daicos name affected him a little. As his younger brother came through, suddenly that burden was shared (if not mostly transferred to Nick) and they’ve managed to work together spectacularly well. This game could be the turning point for that match up, with the sort of awareness of each other that reminds me of tape of the Krakouer brothers from back in the day (look it up if you need to) or perhaps a more slightly-build version of the Scott twins for a more recent example.

Both players would be walk-up starts in most teams as they are now, but give them a few years and it’s highly likely that they could become two of the most well-regarded players in the league.


Stats that matter

Besides the goal front accuracy, Collingwood won most stats, with the exception of contested possession, marks and centre clearances. Nic Nat was responsible for many of the clearances on his own, but the ability to earn the hard ball might be something they target in the future. Part of it will be the youth of their side, but a preseason or two will go a long way to adding that bit of bodymass that will let them take the hits that happen around the ball.


A forward line that clicks

Rioli, Ryan, Kennedy and Darling versus Mihocek, Elliott, Cameron and Ginnivan is a perfect example of two wildly different forward-line strategies.

West Coast had the traditional two talls with some supremely skillful players that can crumb or earn their own ball, while Collingwood relied on athletic marking ability and silky goal sense.

While Darling’s critics have pointed to his on-field inconsistency to impact the scoreboard, having him on the field with Kennedy makes the defence split their attention, while creating opportunities for the small brigade to hassle and find space. Kennedy and Darling worked beautifully in tandem, drawing defenders away from each other’s lanes and converting the shots they had.

Collingwood were almost there. Just fractionally off in their set shots as well as their in-play kicks. If they convert half of them, they win the game. It was made a little harder when they lost Jamie Elliott for the last quarter due to a concussion from a tackle (not Willie Rioli this time). Elliott worked very hard to find space in the forward line up until then, and probably should have been used more often than he was, but the game review at the club will likely highlight that and plenty of other opportunities when they could have taken the better option.

No single player should be too worried about the scrutiny though. McRae seems to have given them license to back their own ability, and while this time it didn’t come off, there are going to be times when it does and it will bring a whole new generation of supporters that will love to hate Collingwood.


Ruck battle

Nic Nat vs Grundy is worth the price of admission for anyone who likes to see the big men battle. Naitanui has about 10kgs on Grundy, but doesn’t concede anything in either leaping ability of bursts of speed, though I’d suggest Grundy has the edge in aerobic fitness, both naturally, and with Nic Nat missing round 2.

It’s no surprise then that Grundy spent a lot more time on the ground and managed to attend 20 more ruck contests than Nic Nat. Nic managed to win 46% of his hitouts though, compared to 41% for Grundy, though Grundy did get more total hitouts, 33-26.

Naitanui did have Hugh Dixon step in when needed, but out of 25 ruck contests he attended, he only managed five taps.

So, as a pure ruck, Nic Nat was able to beat Grundy when they were matched up head-on, with Grundy’s purple patches often when Dixon was in the middle. However, Grundy was able to get into space far more often than Naitanui, taking five marks and putting on six tackles.

No doubt there are going to be those who disagree, but I’ll give Grundy the chocolates in this one just for the influence he had on the game. Naitanui was instrumental in his team’s win, but Grundy was a frequent linchpin for his side in the transition from defence to offence, while also winning his own clearances around the ground.

I know we have a few diehard fans of the big Fijiian though, so feel free to state your case in the comments if you think he had more total impact than Brodie.


Up Next

The pressure increases on the young Collingwood side, with a short turnaround to play Brisbane at the Gabba on Thursday. There looked to be a lot of tired bodies in both teams this round, but Brisbane will be looking to rebound from their own loss to Geelong and put some fear back into the competition. It’s been a wild season, but I’d have to back in Brisbane by a decent margin. I think about 35 points.

The Eagles will host Sydney on Good Friday as they look to steal a win, as well as North Melbourne’s marquee game. North showed that Sydney can be vulnerable, and West Coast match up very well, especially at home. It’s a hard one to tip, as Sydney on their day can challenge any team, while West Coast are building some momentum and belief through their hardship. I’m tipping Sydney, but West Coast could well pinch this one if the Swans aren’t careful. Sydney by 13.


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