The Roar
The Roar


Collingwood: Potential versus reality

Collingwood coach Nathan Buckley with forward Alex Fasolo (Photographer: Sean Garnsworthy)
Roar Guru
25th August, 2015

I loved Nathan Buckley as a player. Massively underrated, maybe because he played for Collingwood, maybe because for much of his career he played in poor Collingwood teams.

Or maybe because he was seen as a prat who forsook a struggling side to play in one he thought would feature regularly in finals.

Yet here was a guy who read the game beautifully, consistently dominated statistically – this during a time when you had hard-tags, where taggers didn’t worry about getting the ball themselves – and had a beautiful kick.

When the opportunity presented itself, I wanted Buckley as coach. Damn, if I’d had my way, he would’ve been instituted as coach in 2009, when Collingwood was struggling under Malthouse.

I believed that Buckley would bring to Collingwood the purpose, direction, and decisiveness he brought to Collingwood as a player. But we’re now four years into his tenure, with finishes during that time of fourth (2012), sixth (2013) and 11th (2014), with this year likely bringing about a lowly 12th.

Of course, football’s not a static environment. Fortunes fluctuate, particularly with personnel. In Buckley’s biography, All I Can Be, he talks about arriving at Collingwood in 1994 and feeling an air of stagnancy, that his teammates had climbed the mountain (with their drought-breaking premiership in 1990) and seemed unlikely to do so again.

Craig Kelly, part of that premiership team – and Buckley’s manager – suggested in All I Can Be that they should’ve rejuvenated the list with some judicious trading and recruiting. You can see how this time has directly influenced the way Buckley’s handled his time as Collingwood coach.

He took over for 2012 (one year after their 2010 premiership), coached the team to a preliminary final, and then seemed to determine that this squad wasn’t going to climb the mountain again, and proceeded to rejuvenate the list.


Casualties have been high, with Dale Thomas, Heath Shaw, Chris Dawes, Sharrod Wellingham, Heritier Lumumba, and Dayne Beams all traded out (for one reason or another). This atop a number of retirements. For many, it was a questionable strategy, although Collingwood has gotten a fair return from the trades.

But are Collingwood heading in the right direction? For the second successive year, they’ve sat in the top four at the middle of the season with an impressive 8-3 record, before imploding spectacularly to slide right out of contention. It’s a disheartening sight, even if most would understand that a levelling-out is understandable given the turnover of players, introduction of youth, and the journey of the dreaded ‘rebuild’.

Injuries haven’t helped. Collingwood’s 2012 alumni are Brodie Grundy, Ben Kennedy, Tim Broomhead, and Jackson Ramsey. From a possible 66 games Grundy’s played 39, Kennedy 24 (with half of those as sub), Broomhead 19, and Ramsey 7. Collingwood’s two top-10 picks from the 2013 draft, Matthew Scharenberg and Nathan Freeman, have only played two games (but more like five quarters) and zero games respectively out of a possible 44 games.

It’s hard to rebuild when you’re unable to regularly pump games into the best of your next generation.

Compounding the issue is a selection perseverance with stalwarts, solid citizens who give an honest effort but are unlikely to help legitimately build towards a premiership assault, and a draft and trade focus on midfielders and flankers instead of rated key-positioners. Darcy Moore (a father-son selection taken at Pick 9 in the 2014 AFL Draft) is the first key-position player Collingwood’s picked up in the first round of the draft since Ben Reid (Pick 8) and Nathan Brown (Pick 10) way back in 2006.

Skills are also something in short supply. Collingwood’s movement of the ball is often slipshod, with players struggling to hit targets. In any chain of possession, you can almost guarantee that at some point it’ll come undone due to an errant kick or handball. It’s frustrating to watch, and must be demoralising for players when all their hard work unravels and the opposition counter-attack. Going into the forward 50, Collingwood’s attitude is often to bomb and hope for the best – and rarely get it.

Skills, decision making and execution are arguably Collingwood’s biggest query. Right now, Collingwood’s entire game plan relies on frenetic, relentless pressure and forcing turnovers. It’s a great trick, as long as they can maintain the intensity, but the moment they drop off – even a fraction – opposition open them up.


A team needs something else to fall back on. Collingwood just don’t have Plan B at the moment. It’s all or bust, and the poor decision making, poor skills, and equally poor conversion has too regularly this year seen them bust.

The club themselves seem now to have an awareness that, for whatever reason, things aren’t unfolding as they envisioned, or hoped. Already they’ve gone from expecting to play finals imminently, and that they’d win a flag “within three years” (Collingwood CEO Gary Pert, March 2014), to now suggesting that their “sweet spot” is three years away – in 2018–19 (Buckley, August 2015).

The problem with such long-term expectation is that while you’re addressing existing issues, others will open up. For example, in 2018-19, you’d hardly expect the likes of Dane Swan (31), Travis Cloke (28), Scott Pendlebury (27), Ben Reid (26) and Nathan Brown (26) to feature prominently, if at all.

Collingwood have some exciting talent on their list, their best this year has been exhilarating and pushed the heavyweights close, but you can only hang your hopes on potential and effort for so long.