The Quest for Back-To-Back Flags. Too Old? Or Too Good?

Collingwood begins this season with the microscope heavily placed on them and rightly so.

It is fair to say it is a Grand Final or bust for Collingwood in 2024. If they don’t win the flag, or at least play in the Grand Final, it is simply a failure.

Whether you love or loathe them, you have to admit they are entertaining to watch. They boast talent such as the Daicos brothers, captain Darcy Moore, Jordan De Goey, Scott Pendlebury and Norm Smith Medallist Bobby Hill. Craig McRae has truly done a brilliant job with this team.

There is a serious case you can mount for Collingwood getting back to the last weekend in September. Although, history proves it is not as easy as it sounds.

For any team to go back to back, everything has to go right. From the first day of preseason in January, right up to the last Saturday in September.

One of the key questions that’ll be asked of the Pies’ fortunes is their list demographic.

Going into 2024, the Pies are ranked as the oldest team in the competition with an average age of 26.1 years old. Nine players of their best 23 will be 30 years old or older. Names like Pendlebury, Sidebottom, Howe, and Mitchell headline the players over 30. You can argue that if they were to somewhat fall off the cliff and/or retire then it’ll be hard to replace those stalwarts. For now, they continue to defy age and don’t look like slowing down any time soon.

In their best 23, there are also about eight that fall in the 27-29 years old age bracket.

The players aged 27-29 are still in their prime and at the peak of their powers. Names like De Goey, Moore, Brayden Maynard and Darcy Cameron still have at least 2-4 years of playing elite footy.

Although they are in the premiership window and are all about the now, it’ll be important for the Pies to cast one eye into the future and make sure that they’ve got enough young talent coming through.

Of the players 26 and under, there are a handful that have the talent to be genuine A-graders, if they aren’t already, and be the next wave of stars when the inevitable happens. The players that come to mind are those established in the best 23 such as Josh and Nick Daicos, Isaac Quaynor, Bobby Hill and Beau McCreery.

You then have those on the outside looking in. Pies fans will be hoping these names can put pressure on senior players and make them earn their spots. Fin Macrae, Reef McInnes, Ash Johnson and Harvey Harrison are just a small group of players fans hope will take their game to the next level. Of the names mentioned, Macrae and McInnes look like next in line.

Although the Pies opted to trade out Taylor Adams and Jack Ginnivan, you can argue that the acquisition of Lachie Schultz makes them even better on paper.

The 26-year-old has been Freo’s leading goal kicker in the last three seasons combined and has finished in the top 10 of Freo’s best and fairest in 3 of 5 seasons at the club. Schultz’s tenacity and team-first approach will complement Collingwood’s no-nonsense forward structure. Going by all reports coming out of the Pies camp, he is fitting in seamlessly. A scary proposition for opposition defenders.

While they have lost Dan McStay for the season to an ACL injury, you can argue that it isn’t as big a loss as most would think. You just have to look back at last year, where the Pies won 11 out of the 12 games that McStay missed. While he played a key role in his two finals appearances before getting injured, the Pies still went on to win the grand final without him.

Brody Mihocek has played a key role as their number-one target. He has been the club’s leading goal kicker since his debut season and you have to admire the way he goes about it. You also have Ash Johnson and McInnes duelling it out to play second fiddle to him.

As mentioned earlier, it’s a bloody hard task to go back to back. Everything has to fall into place.

In the AFL era only Adelaide (1997-1998), Brisbane (2001-2003), Hawthorn (2013-2015), and Richmond (2019-2020) have gone back to back. Out of those four teams, only Brisbane and Hawthorn have had a three-peat. That’s four times in the last 34 years.

Another thing to take into account after you win a flag is that the teams beneath you improve. They study you. You go from hunters to the hunted.

All 18 clubs enter the new season on zero points and wins aren’t always guaranteed. With the evenness of the competition, you’ve got to find extra growth within the team and improve by 10-15%.

Brisbane will be extremely hungry after coming so close. Carlton now has a team, a coach and a game plan that can stand up in finals. GWS is a dark horse that cannot be underestimated and will make it very hard to be beaten again this year. While Melbourne has gone out in straight sets in the last two years, they are too talented and have enough talent to still be a threat. Don’t count Sydney and Geelong out, either.

The thing going for the Magpies is that their game plan and system don’t heavily rely on key players. It relies on everyone playing their roles and executing them. Whether they are cruelled with injuries or are down on form, you’ll be confident that the next player coming in will get the job done and play their role to the best of their ability. They have that ‘soldier out, soldier in’ mentality about them.

At certain points last year, the Pies were hit by injury. They used 37 players from the entire playing list. While I rate the list of three or four teams as better than the Pies, it’s hard to deny that they have arguably the best depth in the league. Their list management decisions in the past have not come to bite them and their recent acquisitions have been top-notch.

As seen recently with GWS and Carlton, it’s hard to bed down a game plan in one preseason.

It takes multiple rounds and even a whole season for it to become familiar with players, and be implemented at a high quality. The Pies will be in year three with this current game plan. They have proven that their game plan stacks up, and it has gotten them as far as a Preliminary Final and a premiership. I have great faith that they’ll continue to nail down their system and add layers to it, which will make them extremely hard to beat.

There was a point in the middle part of the season and towards the end of last year, that teams were confident in what they had to do to counter Collingwood’s game plan. Brisbane, Melbourne, Carlton and Hawthorn showed that if you keep the ball in motion, continue to switch angles while moving the ball forward, and if you come at them to cut their handball chains you’re halfway to beating them. Whether it can be sustained for long enough periods and be implemented for four quarters is a completely different story, but those teams showed it can be done. It’s up to the coaching panel to come up with new tricks and stay ahead of the curve.

Is it pivotal for Collingwood to finish top 4?

It will be extremely hard to replicate last year and aiming to be better this year. The Magpies finished first on the ladder with a record of 18 wins and five losses. They could have easily lost some of those games last year if the ball bounced a certain way or had there been an extra minute or two on the clock. Hasn’t that been their story over the past two seasons?

They’ve proven time and time they are the most clutch team in the competition and they own the big moments. If they do happen to slide a little though, it would not surprise anyone. Even if they win as few as 14-16 games this year it will be good enough to make the top 8, and potentially even push for top 4. And while it is extremely hard to win a flag from outside the top 4, teams will still be wary of the Pies if they have to face them in a final.

The jury is still out, it’ll be an interesting season and I expect it’ll be even closer than last year.

If the Pies do manage to go back-to-back, then they’ll have to go down as one of the greatest teams in history.