Carlton and Collingwood are moving in opposite directions

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    With 22 pieces to manoeuvre, 18 in play at one time with almost unlimited rotations permissible, on a big board used far more strategically than it once was, the performances of AFL coaches have never been more influential.

    To be good, a modern coach must devise a game plan that maximises the output of the group of players at his disposal. To be great, he must be able to reconfigure that plan as his list, and general playing strategies, change.

    All of which means the business of coach-watching has never been more interesting. And the beauty of it is we can never be sure how much the coaches’ efforts are worth.

    We can count disposals, marks, hard-ball gets, metres gained, tackles, goals scored and so on in relation to players. With the coaches, though, it’s all down to the number of ‘W’ and ‘L’ entries that accumulate next to their club’s name over some arbitrary period.

    And even with a 70 per cent win record over an extended period, a coach can still succumb. All it takes is a couple of losses on certain dates in the month of September, over a couple of seasons, when the club chiefs believed only Ws were acceptable.

    As Ross Lyon pointed out this week, there’s just one AFL coach for every 1.4 million Australians. Those who do the job enter an exclusive domain which brings good money, significant privilege, and suffocating pressure. And definitely not in that order.

    Last weekend, I saw Collingwood and Carlton lose on the MCG in what were considered winnable games. As I drove home on Sunday night, I thought about the respective coaches.

    By 5pm Saturday, Nathan Buckley was the name on every talkback caller’s lips. Clearly, he’s in deep trouble. Brendon Bolton, meanwhile, is rightly regarded as doing a brilliant job of turning Carlton into a team that can no longer be taken for granted by opponents.

    Currently, Collingwood and Carlton are on five wins each. As I thought about their respective playing lists, it occurred to me there’s not much between them.

    I’d say Carlton have the better back six, marginally better marking targets in Levi Casboult and Charlie Curnow and a better ruckman in Matthew Kreuzer. Their three best midfielders – Mark Murphy, Patrick Cripps, and Bryce Gibbs – are at least comparable with Scott Pendlebury, Steele Sidebottom, and Adam Treloar.

    Perhaps the Magpies have better mid-field depth, although some Magpie supporters are debating that right now, and maybe Jamie Elliott’s brilliance gives Collingwood’s small forward brigade a slight edge.

    Brendon Bolton Carlton Blues AFL 2017

    (AAP Image/Julian Smith)

    Yet the judgements on the two coaches are currently at either end of the scale. There are two reasons for this that I can see: one, Bolton is pointing his team north, while Buckley’s Collingwood have been on a consistent southward course over almost six seasons. During this season, the two clubs’ pathways have intersected.

    The other reason is that Bolton’s Carlton side displays a very clear game-plan, while Collingwood’s method is less discernible.

    Bolton brought sniggers pre-season when he said Carlton weren’t currently defining themselves by wins and losses. But his words have since been validated. It’s possible Carlton will win fewer games this year than last and yet have improved.

    Last year there were eight heavy defeats. This year there have been three to date. The team is becoming more competitive, although it continues to lack scoring power. By next season, there will be reasonable expectation of the coach that a solution is emerging.

    You could probably say Buckley’s Collingwood are better to watch than Carlton, based on their game styles. Bolton has the Blues playing a highly disciplined, safety-first, possession game. Collingwood’s method appears less rigid, but the Pies reached late June without suffering a heavy defeat.

    Lately, though, the cracks have begun to show. Their three worst defeats of the year have come in the last three games.

    So it is that a young coach who has never played at the highest level is on the up, while another – with the most impeccable playing pedigree – is on the rack. In the end – even though Brendon Bolton is insulated from this harsh reality for the time being – wins and losses do define a coach.

    The question is, what happens from here? Time is always on the wing.

    Carlton’s skipper, Murphy, turns 30 next week. Fellow number one draft picks, Gibbs and Kreuzer, are now in their late-20s. Kade Simpson is 33, while ‘Daisy’ Thomas might manage one more season. In the team-building business, there is never time to waste.

    The Pies’ attempts to build a team in the Buckley era now appear to have come to nothing. Alas, for a great champion of the game, time has just about run out.

    Tim Lane
    Tim Lane

    Tim Lane is one of the most respected voices in Australian sport, having gained a strong following for his weekly AFL column in The Age. Tim has also called 32 AFL/VFL grand finals and was behind the microphone for Cathy Freeman's memorable gold medal at the Sydney Olympics. You can catch him on Twitter @TimLaneSport.

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