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Travis Cloke marks in the 2011 AFL Grand Final (Slattery Images)
The betting market has Collingwood as premiership favourites. Expert opinion, however, is saying something else. Terry Wallace has suggested the Pies’ lack of depth, already highlighted in the NAB Cup, will cost them the flag.
Who would have thought depth was going to be a problem after they won the competition in 2010? I predicted a Collingwood empire after they demolished the formidable Geelong side in that year’s preliminary final. I just couldn’t see anyone challenging them in the near future.
Their key players were experienced and still relatively young. Mick Malthouse’s famed rotation policy was one of the main reasons his side had become a dominant force.
Young players were regularly rotated between the VFL and senior sides to ensure broad AFL experience within the squad. And regular members of the senior side were rarely kept in the same positions so each could become a jack of all trades on game day.
It was silly of me to make such a forecast, of course. Malthouse said himself that so much happens in a grand final that it feels like a lifetime. A whole season, then, might as well be an eternity.
The club lost their second and third most experienced players: the important all-rounder Leigh Brown (246 games) and the half-back excitement machine Leon Davis (225). Brent Macaffer and Andrew Krakouer have both suffered season-ending injuries.
The loss of Krakouer, the continued poor form of Didak, and the failure of Jarryd Blair to kick on from his fairytale 2010 debut season will also seriously affect their strike power in front of goal.
They looked the goods last year but were ultimately found wanting against Geelong. That is nothing to be ashamed of, but do they have any improvement in them?
Their grand final conquerors have lost the vastly experienced Cameron Ling, Brad Ottens, Cameron Mooney, and Darren Milburn. But the last two weren’t considered good enough for the grand final anyway, and their gun youngsters Tom Hawkins, Allen Christensen, Trent West, and Daniel Menzel are on the rise.
Terry Wallace, not unexpectedly, has anointed his old team Hawthorn as premiership favourites. With the class of some of their players and the amazing depth (the bottom eleven have played 768 games between them) that is difficult to argue with.
Listening to Malthouse’s 2011 pre-game grand final speech on the Channel Seven documentary Two Hours That Last A Lifetime, it became clear that the coach of the minor premiers suspected the task of winning the premiership was beyond his playing group: “This is going to take one of the greatest efforts of all time. Because they (Geelong) are a good side.”
Is it realistic then to think Collingwood, with a weakened list, can reassert themselves and present a challenge to the undoubtedly classier Geelong and Hawthorn outfits? What about the talented up-and-comers in West Coast and Adelaide?
There are distractions as well. Ignoring his team’s unceremonious eviction from the NAB Cup, Nathan Buckley has not had a real chance to present his coaching credentials. However, with an experienced and successful man like Rodney Eade as his ‘football and coaching strategist’, many are wondering if Buckley is actually the coach.
Then there’s Malthouse, already proving to be an annoying presence as a media commentator with his veiled criticism of the club’s handling of the Krakouer affair. He did say he thought Collingwood would win the premiership, but who knows if that was a true view, an act of encouragement, or an attempt to put pressure on Buckley?
On a positive note for the club, Eade has downplayed his own influence, claiming Buckley has already placed his imprint on the side. Perhaps the club will be revitalised by the new coach, just as Geelong were last season.
Malthouse had done so well with unexceptional lists by strictly adhering to structures. He was a paternal leader, meaning the players often felt like they were playing for him rather than the team. The agonised look on poor Chris Dawes’ face immediately after the grand final when he thought he had let his father figure down was awful to watch.
From all accounts the young coach is more old school than his predecessor – reducing the role of high performance manager and scientist David Buttifant, keeping the players out on the track longer and focusing less on structure and more on ball skills.
This seems a positive response to the seemingly never-ending challenge posed by Geelong.
Chris Scott is a contemporary to his players but he is also thoughtful and wise. Collingwood are hoping Buckley will be the same to his group, and bring the club a premiership.
I’m tempted to say he won’t, but I’m done making forecasts.