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The "Ifs", "Buts" and Other Stuff - Collingwood

You could be forgiven for thinking that miraculously, Collingwood developed one of the best lists in the game last season. But cast your mind back to the conclusion of Round One, if you will. The Pies were just dropped by the Hawks, and Tom Mitchell racked up 50 touches. Questions were raised, as usual, about the coaching of Nathan Buckley, and whether or not he was fit for the job of leading the biggest club in the land.

But building the team that would go within a kick of the flag didn’t just all fall into line, as planned. Things fell into place, out of place, and shifted places all season long. With every injury, a young, determined player filled the void. With every crisis came an opportunity, and as the season unfolded, Collingwood mastered the intangibles so well that it almost resulted in a premiership.

But that doesn’t mean they’re assured of another crack at the flag in 2019. In the wash up, it doesn’t mean much at all.

The Western Bulldogs became a non-entity after their 2016 triumph, and the Swans have not got back there either. The Adelaide Crows crashed out of the top eight after their 2017 Grand Final appearance, and the Tigers fell over at the penultimate hurdle last season.

History means very little, sadly. 2018 is now in the books, and whatever the Pies earn in 2019, it’ll have to be earned the hard way. They’ll have to win in Adelaide again. They’ll have to overcome Richmond again. They’ll have to get huge performances from a team that has already had wonderful organic internal growth. After all the hard work, and eventual heartbreak of 2018, they will have to do it all over again, and do it better.

And that’s where the ifs and buts come into it.

 

IF…

… Darcy Moore becomes the player he’s threatened to be, the Pies may just have the deepest list in the game.

He’s been such a tease to this point. Teasing a move into defence. Teasing with the beginning of his game against Lance Franklin. Teasing that a possible move to Sydney might be on the cards.

But the biggest tease of all is the player Darcy Moore could be if things go right.

If you’ve seen him play, I should not need to convince you that he has all the tools to become a star. He runs like a thoroughbred (a Brownlow medal-winning dad is pretty good stock) and reads the ball beautifully. He attacks it hard, and looks like a footballer, but his body… it just won’t cooperate.

He managed just seven games in 2018. Think about that for a second. In terms of talls on the Collingwood team, on talent alone he’d be right up there, yet Collingwood was able to succeed without him. If fit, he adds to the likes of Brayden Maynard, Jack Crisp and Tom Langdon, who all jumped out of the box in terms of defensive presence in 2018. As did Matt Scharenberg prior to his injury.

Add to that collection a fully fit Darcy Moore and you have an embarrassment of riches in terms of defenders. The luxury to throw him forward is there as well. As the third option behind Mason Cox and Jordan de Goey, a player like Moore could tear a game to shreds. Does he take the spot of Brody Mihocek, who snagged 29 goals in his first AFL season? Moore’s career-best to this point is 25, in 2017.

A fit Moore is a nice problem to have. If the improvement of  players in 2018 was huge for the Pies, they’ll need it again in 2019 to maintain the rage – Darcy Moore is one player that can provide that lift.

But only if he’s on the park.

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Look! Mongrel Punt Stubby Holders. Buy one and be cooler than all your friends! It also helps the site out.

 

… Mason Cox kicks 40-45 goals for the season, the Pies will look unstoppable.

I like to peruse Reddit to steal article ide… errr, I mean to gauge people’s opinions, and recently someone asked whether Mason Cox could win the Coleman.

Look, I don’t think he has a snowball’s chance in hell of doing that, particularly as the Pies will have to play some wet weather footy at times this season. But what I would like to see is an increase in his production in front of goal.

You could be forgiven for thinking that Cox was thereabouts in the race for the Coleman last season. He had some big games late in the year, and commanded a lot of attention both in Australia, and in the USA as their networks started picking up on his relative success here. But Cox kicked just 25 goals for the season.

Yep, 25.

That places him equal-46th on the AFL goal kicking list for last season, just behind such goal-kicking luminaries as Isaac Smith, Billy Gowers and Jason Castagna. He’s got a fair way to go if we’re to consider him a legitimate threat in 2019.

I think 40-45 goals is now his pass mark. He’s gone from being this sideshow attraction, to become a player teams are forced to consider closely when planning. He’ll be nowhere near a Coleman, but the expectations should now be greater than they were heading into 2018.

How good are the Pies is Cox snags 40-45 goals?

 

… if Jordan de Goey has another leap, we’re talking a top-ten player in the league.

I love watching this bloke play, and when he hits the ball hard, takes it cleanly and changes direction in a heartbeat, seriously, I almost jump out of the chair.

I’ve written about that move before – no one else in the game has a change of direction like that. No one else, sans Dustin Martin has that combination of power and agility. Jordan de Goey is a unicorn in that regard.

In one of the games of the year (v Brisbane in Round 7) de Goey turned it on to kick five goals as the best forward on the ground. As if to emphasise that it was in no way a fluke, two weeks later he slammed home six goals against the Saints – a star was born.

De Goey’s off-season issues were quickly forgotten as both Collingwood, and the football world in general realised that they had someone special on their hands. Despite some lean weeks, he finished with 48 goals for the season, and would be eyeing off more in 2019.

But how far can de Goey go?

Where do you see his ceiling? Comparisons to Dustin Martin are inevitable, but with Collingwood’s midfield so deep, it would take a rash of injuries to give him significant time in the guts. Unless that occurs, de Goey’s bread and butter will be in the forward half, and he is a nightmare to deal with when he can fabricate a one-on-one clash.

Could he win a Brownlow? An MVP? I think he could do both. Maybe not this season, but the ability is definitely there. If he even goes close, the Pies are a better side for it.

He now sits at the precipice of greatness. 2018 was his coming out party. People sat up and took notice of his burgeoning talent, and they now sit and wait to see what he can produce in 2019. I love a team that improves organically, and with de Goey at just 23 years of age as the season begins, we may not see him at his peak for a little while.

Scary thought, huh?

 

… Brodie Grundy takes it up a gear, he will be the #1 All-Australian ruck

Look, I have made no bones about where I think Grundy sits in the AFL’s ruck pecking order. He is the man I would take #1 every day of the week.

Like de Goey, Grundy is a baby, particularly in terms of ruckmen. Think about it – those big blokes usually take forever to work the game out to the point where they start to have a big influence. But at 25 years old, Grundy has already become just the third man in history to top 1000 hit outs for the season. Only Todd Goldstein (2015) and Max Gawn (2018) have achieved this feat since records were kept.

What can he do with another year under his belt, more strength, a bigger tank and a wealth of experience that comes with playing in finals?

I think we’ve seen Max Gawn at the peak of his powers. If he elevates his game again, I’d be very surprised, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Grundy does. I think he has more to offer than what we’ve seen, and that, my friends, would scare the living shit out of his opponents. He takes strong marks, he runs all day, he tackles hard, wins clearances and hits the ball straight down the throat of one of the best midfielders in the game. How can he possibly get better?

Well, the AFL has stepped in and offered a helping hand. You see, ruckmen will no longer be pinged for holding the ball just for taking it out of the ruck anymore. What was thought to be a good idea years ago has been rescinded, and dominant rucks, powerful rucks - rucks just like Brodie Grundy, can take the ball cleanly out of the air without having to worry about being called for a free kick if they can’t dispose of it.

Last season, Grundy averaged 5.3 clearances per game. It’s reasonable to think that with this rule in place, his personal numbers will rise. When you take into account that Tom Mitchell led the league with an average of 8 clearances per game, Grundy could see his numbers right up there at the top of that stat.

We’ll have a clearer picture of where things sit after around Round Four, but as it stands, clubs with good rucks would be licking their chops at this new rule interpretation. And Collingwood has one of the best in the game.

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BUT IF…

… Dayne Beams doesn’t slot back into the Collingwood midfield seamlessly, what then?

It all looks good on paper, but will the Magpie midfield turn out to be a midfield full of champions, or a champion midfield? If all are fit, where do the midfield minutes come for Pendlebury, Sidebottom, Treloar, Beams, Adams and Brayden Sier? Do they start looking at new roles? Does one of them make the move to the midfielder’s retirement home and take up a spot on the half back flank?

I’m sure there’ll be a rotation system in place, and I am sure that fresh legs in the guts is the plan to capitalise on what could end up being one of the greatest collection of midfield talent (x6) we’ve seen recently, but it’s when things go wrong that things might start to get a little hairy.

A couple of losses is all it takes for just one – all you need is one – to rock the boat. All it takes is one player unhappy with the amount of time they’re receiving in what they perceive to be the role they’re best suited for, and things can go downhill quickly. I suppose it’s a nice problem to have – too many excellent players, but it brings with it its own raft of issues.

Does de Goey get zero midfield minutes due to the quality of stock already in the middle? And if there is a squeeze, who gets squeezed out?

The Pies will have a bit to work with as they move forward. After watching Buckley and co. last season, I am confident they know what they’re doing in terms of this wonderful depth. But it’s funny how things change. I know in many of the things I do, I know exactly what I’m doing.

Right up until I don’t.

 

… Brodie Grundy gets hurt, the Pies are chasing tail.

If you’ve read above, you know how highly I rate Grundy. To me, he is the perfect modern ruck, taking the work Dean Cox did and running with it in the modern game.

But what are the Pies without him? Can they push through to September with the Grundy-sized hole their ruckman would leave if, heaven forbid, he suffered a significant injury? I don’t want to be the prophet of doom here, but even though Collingwood faced a mountain of injury hurdles in 2018, and scaled them, losing Grundy is a different kettle of fish all together.

I like to wonder who the “heart and soul” of a team is at times. I look at certain players and the way they carry themselves on the field. I look at their endeavour, the way they attack the ball, the way they implore their teammates… I think Grundy, despite the excellent leadership of Pendles and Sidebottom, is the heart and soul of the Collingwood Football Club at the moment.

He may not be that in the locker room, or at training, or anywhere else, but on the ground, on game day, that’s how he comes across to me. He leads with actions, and when he does something fantastic, the team responds.

When you lose the heart and soul of your team, it never ends well.

I’ll make this clear – I want Grundy as healthy as he can possibly be. I love watching him play despite not being a Collingwood man. He is everything I’d want in a ruckman, and everything Collingwood needs. If they lose him… I’m sorry, but I don’t think you’re anywhere near the same team with Mason Cox in the ruck.

 

OTHER STUFF

Just want to touch on this before I continue with the player-focused stuff. It revolves around Nathan Buckley and the close to ill-fated succession plan that saw him take the reins from Malthouse. At a time in Mick’s last season, there was a genuine reluctance to hand over to Buckley, so much so that on a couple of occasions, Malthouse referred to the team as “his boys”. It is a pointed statement, and I reckon there’s a bit to it. It’s only after most of “his boys” had either moved on or matured that Buckley was finally able to command his team with the authority a head coach should have.

Malthouse was a father figure to many at the Pies, and seeing him ousted may have caused some internal fragmentation. It has taken years for the list to regenerate to the point where any Malthouse sympathisers are clearly in the minority, if they exist at all. New faces have replaced old, and Collingwood are finally Buckley’s team. Anyway, just thought something like that, which I am sure has been written about several times, would be a valid reason for a team really coming together under Bucks’ leadership once his position seemed to be under threat. If there was any doubt as to whether Bucks had the players, 2018 dispelled them completely.

Returns from injury for Lynden Dunn and Matt Scharenberg at some point in 2019 will bolster the Pies defence. Dunn was fantastic as the deep defender, and showed plenty as he took on the league’s best forwards. In the Queen’s Birthday clash against the Dees, there was a foot race back to goal against Mitch Hannan, and I thought he’d get blown away. It was a 60-metre sprint, but he more than kept up and saved a goal for the Pies. It surprised the hell out of me! He is so hit and miss – inasmuch as he does something great, but will do something dumb as well (dumping Jack Higgins to the ground to give him a gift goal after he’d just kicked one leaps to mind) but overall, his power and ability to win one-on-one contests is invaluable.

Scharenberg really lifted his game in 2018, and I was so happy that he was able to string games together – actually no – not just games, but high quality games. I’m pulling for him to get back into this side before finals. Three knee recos… not quite Alex Johnson kind of stuff, but I think Scharenberg has done something at this level that Johnson hadn’t – he’s proven he belongs in the modern game.

So, organic improvement; who has got some room to make the leap? Callum Brown and Josh Daicos seem the ones that leap out of the pack. Flynn Appleby is another, whilst Jack Madgen forced his way into the minds of selectors as well. Langdon made a huge leap in 2018, but he still has room to improve as well. If others maintain their form and the improvement comes from those guys, the Pies will once again be well-placed.

I’ve had this discussion on our Facebook page, but what is the ceiling for Jaidyn Stephenson? 38 goals in his debut season is a fantastic achievement, but what’s next for him and where does he end up as a player overall?

Does he spend more time up the ground, or does he hover around the forward 50 looking to use his pace to beat opponents back to goal? Could a 45 goal season be next? 50 goals? Collingwood are one team who really share the goal-load around. Stephenson, Josh Thomas, Will Hoskin-Elliott and Jordan de Goey all had 38+ goals in 2018, and then there was Brody Mihocek chiming in with 29 and Cox with 25. If Jamie Elliott gets back, again the Pies have another great problem to have. Gotta hand it to them – they’ve built an imposing list all over the park.

Also want to touch on Tom Phillips. For mine, he is the pick of the bunch of the 2017 Rising Star nominees. Whilst Andy McGrath at Essendon, and Ryan Burton at Hawthorn (now Port Adelaide) both stagnated in 2018, Phillips took his game to another level. He was +4.4 in disposals for the year after averaging an impressive 21.1 in 2017. If we took a vote on that Rising Star award again right now, I reckon he wins.

The Draw – so many often point to the draw as a reason Collingwood did well in 2018. They must’ve missed the big win against the Crows in Adelaide, the scintillating contest against the Lions in Brisbane, or the gutsy win in WA against Freo, huh? Yes, the Pies play a lot at the ‘G. It’s their home ground, along with quite a few other teams. They’ll have 14 games at the MCG in 2019, and play Essendon, Richmond, West Coast and Melbourne twice, which’ll test them. Still, this is definitely a situation where the draw should not impact this team. If they’re good enough, they’ll win. Pretty simple, huh? 2018 showed they could, and 2019 will see if they can back it up.

It’s hard to look at this Collingwood list and see them failing. They really pulled together as a team in 2018, and got big performances from stars when they required them. Buckley’s post-season speech to his troops emphasized that they should embrace the hurt and use it to drive them. From the outside looking in, they have to play finals, but we’ve thought that about teams before and been wrong.

I’m looking forward to seeing how the Pies respond this season.


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