Essendon and Collingwood both have points to prove

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For all bereft of fun on a Saturday night, hook up James Hird’s first nine or 10 post-match press conferences as coach. Every time he says ‘improvement’, have a drink.

Most people who want to leave with some semblance of dignity will probably give up around round four.

One word that could not be levelled at the Bombers season last year is ‘dull’. Having lost only two games in the first eight rounds, they then lost five in a row, then proceeded to beat Geelong in a thriller.

Afterwards they seemed to fluctuate only slightly from eighth placing, actually finishing with a percentage of exactly 100. Their hopes of an impressive finals showing were dashed by Carlton who annihilated them by 62 points in the elimination final.

It is sometimes easy to read too much into elimination finals, as they often become one-sided affairs. For the side which is irreversibly losing there is literally nothing to play for: no spot to secure, no momentum for the next game.

Indeed, many players may have in the back of their minds the risk of a serious injury interrupting their next preseason.

Still, it must be said for much of last year, there were question marks over much of the Bombers’ ability and list. Midfield? Far too one-dimensional. Jobe Watson may be one of the most consistent inside midfielders in the game, but he’d need the shoulders of Atlas to carry the weight that the Bombers put on him.

Their ruck division was seen as potentially one of the most dangerous in the game. Instead for many games in the 2011 season it was frustratingly indifferent. Sure the outside runners had pace, but when they couldn’t hit targets the ball would come back faster, and their opponents would reap the rewards.

So while the team had a spine that rated quite well (Fletcher, Pears, Watson, Hurley, Crameri), getting them the ball was a conundrum.

It was no surprise that most people saw the Essendon team of 2012 at best consolidating, rather than making inroads into the eight.

After four rounds of this season Essendon is in third place, one of only three teams undefeated and having just knocked off the premiership favourite. While they have had an injury list that would make Hawkeye Pierce and BJ Hunnicutt blanche, they have managed to win games and reveal a steely determination that was missing in parts of last year’s season.

Brent Stanton has pushed his performance to another level, allowing Watson freer reign and becoming an increasingly dangerous running midfielder. Paddy Ryder is winning ruck clearances for his side and moving more freely across the ground, winning more than 40 hitouts by himself when David Hille went down against Port Adelaide.

Beat Collingwood and they will be five-zip and well on the way to playing in September.

The thing is that though Hird may have come to the job in circumstance that were less than clear, his appointment has never really been questioned. He was a hero brought to lead the club he loved back from the doldrums, with a coaching panel behind him full of experience.

Nathan Buckley is a Collingwood hero too, but the man he deposed just happened to be one of the most successful coaches of the last 40 years, and at best reluctant to go.

It’s no surprise Nathan Buckley now finds himself having to be PR officer and player diplomat as two of the most powerful figures in the club’s recent history in Mick Malthouse and Eddie McGuire lock horns. I’m sure Buckley would like it if he could at least focus on coaching from time to time.

Truth be told Collingwood have had an indifferent start to the year, but it is hardly soul destroying. Yes, they have lost two games, one rather badly. But both were against some of the toughest competition going around.

What will be worrying is their spate of injuries, with three being season ending. Luke Ball’s is a particular blow for Buckley, for he was the bass player that the glamour three of Thomas, Pendulbury and Swan built their band around.

It’s hard to believe that the music will be as good without Ball’s tackle and inside clearance work.

What is needed therefore for Collingwood is some clear thinking. Comments from the president that it’s the premiership or failure are about as useful as Abraham Lincoln’s hankering for the theatre. Better instead to leave the coach and his charges to their own devices and wait for their labours to take fruit.

I highly doubt that Nathan Buckley is a coaching dunce. Quite the contrary, so what is needed is for the coaches and the players to be allowed to do their job.

So two teams with points to prove. For Essendon it’s about further confirmation that they can mix it with the best. For Collingwood it’s about showing that they are made of sterner stuff than press speculation and a tiff between their former coach and president. Both sides are riddled with injuries to key personnel, a fact that will be compounded by the short turn around.

ANZAC Day will show who in the end wants their point heard loudest.

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