So, Sunday will roll around and experts will hand down the results of their autopsies. Inevitably, I will sit there, read their opinions and think ‘why didn’t I think of that before the game?’
The question should also be ‘why didn’t they think of that before the game?’
The truth is that “experts” know about as much as you and I do about what will happen once that siren sounds and the ball is bounced. Robert Walls picked the Eagles to finished stone, motherless last this season. Other experts were wondering how long Nathan Buckley would last as Collingwood coach after Round One.
Autopsies are easy – you’re talking about known quantities. Previews… now this is where you stick your neck out. And after three previews in the last couple of days, it’s time for the final game of a massive first week of finals footy. Collingwood hit the road to challenge the might of the Eagles on their home deck.
The Eagles look set to have Josh Kennedy return to the goal square, providing them with the one-two punch they’ve been missing for too many games. He and Jack Darling will take some stopping, and the Collingwood defence has been under strain most of the year, with key players succumbing to injury. But enough of me ranting and raving in the intro – here’s some of the things about this game that have been piquing my interest.
THE EAGLES HAVE FOUR FORWARD X-FACTORS
This may be a bit of hyperbole, but I have had my eyes glued to West Coast games this season. They’ve obviously been one of the class teams of the competition, and if not for injuries to their big forwards, may have given top spot a real shake.
But as great as Jack Darling was earlier in the season (and I thought he was the best player in the game for the first ten weeks), it has been the presence of those smaller forwards that have impressed me most. Willie Rioli bobs up and does something special, then there’s Liam Ryan with his amazing balance, there’s Mark LeCras who has had the kind of season that makes me wonder why his name was even mentioned when people started discussing list changes at the end of last seaon, and then there’s Jamie Cripps.
For me, Cripps is a real barometer for the Eagles. When he’s up and about, the Eagles truly fly high. He has kicked 21 goals since Round 14 to be one of the best forwards in the game. He is not as flashy as Rioli, not as agile as Ryan, and he doesn’t have the experience of LeCras, but what he does bring is a consistency, and a work ethic that fits perfectly into the Eagles structure.
On face value, the Eagles have the most imposing forward set up of all the finals teams. If they click, or even if four of the forward six are on, it spells huge trouble for the Pies. Their defence is already under strain. The Eagles' forward set up is the sort of challenge that takes something that’s straining, and completely breaks it.
TRELOAR, OR NOT TO TRELOAR? THAT IS THE QUESTION
Yeah, look… I read Shakespeare in Year 11 Literature (which I took because there were heaps of chicks in the class) and that’s one of the few lines I remember. To Treloar, or not to Treloar? It was something like that, but the question is a pertinent one – do Collingwood take the risk? And if they do, will they own it if it all falls apart?
Treloar is coming back from a double hammy… it takes a special kind of player to ping both at the same time, and then tell everyone it was no probs and he just had a cramp. Special indeed.
But Treloar is a special kind of talent in every positive sense of the word. He is explosive and was close to Collingwood’s best forward before his injury. He is worth the risk. In a week where Melbourne risked an underdone Jack Viney, Hawthorn risked an underdone James Sicily, and GWS are risking two stars returning from injury, Treloar has been given the opportunity.
His upside outweighs the risk significantly, but what I do wonder is how this impacts the form of Taylor Adams?
Adams has been incredible since Treloar went down injured. He has not had under 26 touches since Treloar’s absence, with all his numbers jumping to compensate. Will Treloar’s return upset the Adams apple cart?
IS THIS THE GAME JACK DARLING HAS BEEN WAITING FOR?
In the first half of 2018, there was no better forward in the game than Jack Darling. He monstered defences like he was playing against children, and he even managed to put Alex Rance to the sword.
Then he landed awkwardly on his ankle and his season looked to derail a little. I think it’s safe to say that he hasn’t quite the same since he came back, but… just lately, there’s been some glimmers of light.
In Round 23, Darling finished with 4.3 from 15 touches and seven marks. Ranted, a couple of his goals were a little lucky – inasmuch as he got them over the back, but late in the game there was a clear one grab contested mark. It was a throwback to the early season form of Darling, and enough to put a smile on the dials of any West Coast supporters.
Darling at his best is as good as any power forward in the game. A depleted Collingwood backline may be under extreme pressure if Darling repeats the dose of last week. Going into a finals series with one of the best contested marks in the game finding form is enough to send shivers up the spine of opposition coaches. Watching Darling in Round 23, you’d have to think there would be some concerned looks between the Collingwood brainstrust.
With Kennedy just returning (again), Darling will have to lead further up the ground in patches. If he gets his hands on the ball early, it could spell huge trouble for the Pies.
THE DE GOEY FACTOR
I’m an unabashed fan of de Goey. His clean hands, ability to one-grab marks overhead and his freakish ability to lurch sideways seconds after gathering the ball and lose his opponent at top speed… it’s breathtaking.
He needs to be at his absolute best here to give the Pies a chance. The Eagles’ defence is loaded, and though Cox will be the big target for the long bomb, de Goey on the move is a daunting prospect for even the most seasoned of defenders.
There’s a fair bit of fan boy in me when we talk about de Goey. He’s one of those players where I like to coin a phrase from my dad when I talk about him.
“He could be anything,” my old man would say. I remember him saying it about Carey. I remember him saying it about Buddy, and I remember him saying it about Judd. Now I’m saying it about de Goey, but players who “could be” anything seldom go on to live up to the hype. The three I mentioned above obviously did, but for every one of them, there are dozens who fell away.
Jordan de Goey is in a position where his “could be anything” can turn into an “is something right now” with just one big finals series. He has all the tools, and he looks set to start forward. There’s nothing stopping him…
… except that loaded West Coast backline.
THE IMPENDING LYCETT DEPARTURE AND THE CHALLENGE OF BRODIE GRUNDY
There is a lot of pressure on the shoulders of Scott Lycett this week, and truthfully, there has been ever since Nic Naitanui felt his knee buckle underneath him.
You see, being the second ruckman is a luxurious position to be in. You can slide on into the contests and then slide on out when it all gets a bit much, handing over to your number one guy again, but since the last time these two teams met, that option hasn’t been available for Lycett. He has had shoulder the load, with only the occasional spell from Nathan Vardy.
And he’s going up against one of the game’s true ruck workhorses.
Brodie Grundy presents a challenge like no other ruck in the game. Not only do I fully expect him to start to get on top in the ruck as the game progresses, I also expect him to run Lycett off his legs.
This is where Nathan Vardy comes in handy. Vardy must compete against Grundy at the same level as Lycett. When Lycett rests, Grundy must be made to work equally as hard. There can be no half-hearted contests from Vardy, no pseudo-chases or lack of body-on-body pressure at stoppages. When Lycett re-enters the fray, Grundy must have his chest heaving. He must be made to work hard.
Only then will Lycett be able to sneak forward or drift back without Grundy doing the same the other way.
Grundy will ruck all day if Buckley lets him, but Mason Cox will have to give him a spell at times. The Pies need to be careful to manage Grundy’s minutes and ensure he’s able to run the game out. Buckley threw caution to the wind against Richmond earlier in the year, and as Toby Nankervis rested, Grundy went all out. It almost worked.
But it didn’t. Nankervis returned in the last quarter a hell of a lot fresher than Grundy, and ran the game out better. Buckley, Collingwood and Grundy need to be smarter this time around, and they have the luxury of Mason Cox to make that work for them.
YEO V PENDLES?
Oh please, let this happen.
Yeo has been wonderful for the Eagles, and many were disappointed he did not make the cut when the All-Australian side was narrowed down to 22. He has already demonstrated that he can play an accountable role, and still manage to have an impact of his own. If you need convincing, please go back and throw a recording of the Eagles-Tigers game on the TV and enjoy. He hunted Dustin Martin that game, and got plenty of the ball himself, en route to a best on ground performance.
Then you have Pendlebury – the Pies need a captain’s knock from him on the road. Overcoming the attention of Yeo and wreaking havoc with his vision, poise and class would enable the Pies a huge advantage as they look to upset the favoured Eagles.
Pendlebury has found ways to get involved this season even when things aren’t going his way. He had a couple of games where his first quarters were pretty quiet, only to end up with close to 30 touches and a handful of tackles.
The same can be said for Yeo. At times, he takes a while too warm into a game, but once he’s up and going, he is hard to contain. A Yeo v Pendles match-up in the centre square is the kind of match up both would revel in. A quality opponent and a Prelim final berth on the line. Yeo is the more accountable player, but Pendlebury’s tackling is not celebrated the way it should be.
Adam and Nathan, make it happen!
THE MOST UNDERRATED BACKMEN IN THE GAME
When the All-Australian side was named, there were two omissions that barely raised an eyebrow, yet within their own clubs, the importance of these two men cannot be overstated.
Collingwood’s Jack Crisp and West Coast’s Brad Sheppard are task-oriented, diligent and are very rarely beaten. Both provide run and carry off half back whilst retaining the ability to closely check an opponent where required.
The amount of messages I received from particularly opinionated Eagles supporters this season when I left Sheppard out of our rolling All-Australian team were unbelievable, yet completely understandable (we’re talking dozens of messages from these two who shall remain nameless unless they come forth after reading this). He has been a pillar in defence, but has been overshadowed at times by the spectres of McGovern and Hurn.
Crisp has been the constant in the Collingwood back six. Despite soldiers dropping left, right and centre, his consistency has given the Pies a reliable option who is both great by foot, and more than holds his own in a one-on-one contest. The Pies have a fantastic no-name backline, with Maynard and Langdon also providing stability without attracting mainstream attention.
With so much focus on the star forwards come finals time, it is so often the efforts of the unsung backman that is missed, but in Sheppard and Crisp, their respective supporters are aware of what they have, and they appreciate them.
GREENWOOD AND HUTCHINGS
So, both sides have some decisions to make around who they attempt to curtail.
Hutchings has been an excellent stopper all year for the Eagles, and will have an important part to play through the midfield again. The Pies have plenty of options for Adam Simpson to allocate him. Pendlebury, Sidebottom, the possibly returning Treloar, or the resurgent Taylor Adams are all possible targets.
On the flip side, Levi Greenwood has emerged as a thorn Nathan Buckley is all too happy to plant in the side of an opposition mid at the drop of a hat. He’s rough and doesn’t shirk the issue and looks like he enjoys his negating role. Luke Shuey looks a likely target for the tagger, but stranger things have happened.
For mine, I would send Hutchings straight to the Rolls Royce and attempt to drive him into a ditch. Pendlebury is a big game player – a Norm Smith medallist and has best on ground in the huge Anzac clash on a couple of occasions. He doesn’t go quietly into the night. He needs to be shoved into it.
As for Greenwood, as I stated, Shuey remains the likely target, but don’t discount Dom Sheed copping the hard tag. Since Andrew Gaff’s early finish to the season, Sheed has ramped up his output and has cemented a place in the side. His run and carry is vitally important to the Eagles, and is a little more easily subdued than the hard-at-it Shuey.
There's so much more to this one. The Pies looked ordinary at this venue a couple of weeks ago against the Dockers. A similar performance will see the Eagles blow them out. Jeremy Howe returns after a several week absence - how will he slot back in, and will he have the tank to run the game out? This is finals footy, people... I love it.
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