When even Scott Pendlebury – the Magpie Saviour, the Bullet Time Lord of Composure – started making dreadful decisions with the ball in his hands last Saturday night, Collingwood fans knew that the universe was out to spite them.
In the third quarter, the Magpie captain took a kick-in, turned down the available short options, played on and then made the calculated decision to kick it long down the line to a Sydney two-on-one, placing the ball to the advantage of the second Sydney player.
Turnover. It summed up Collingwood’s night – a night in football hell, where everything stopped making sense.
Here’s the good for Magpie fans to take from last weekend: Adam Treloar lived up to the hype and kicked a beautiful Chris Judd-esque running goal, and Jarryd Blair didn’t suck. That’s about it.
Good teams get blown out from time to time. It happens. A combination of everything going right for your opponent and everything going wrong for you in the opening stages starts to crescendo and all of a sudden West Coast are down 51-1 at quarter time against the Crows last season. But even when they’re getting destroyed, good teams manage to avoid looking like drunken 14-year-olds who are only playing football because their fathers made them.
On Saturday night in Sydney, Collingwood couldn’t avoid that look.
For the past two seasons the Pies have ranked in the bottom three in effective disposal percentage. They’ve remained respectable in that time on the win-loss ledger because they compensate by winning the hard ball, generating pressure and keeping the ball in their attacking half. But when they lose the contested possession and inside 50 counts both by 31, as was the case against the Swans, any semblance of football decency goes to hell.
The Pies provided as much resistance against Sydney as a toothbrush would provide against a nuclear warhead. In their defence, the Swans were suitably nuclear on Saturday, looking like prime 2014 Sydney, dominating the stoppages, moving the ball freely and feeding their elite talls inside 50.
(Some enlightened prognosticators did foresee this, putting Sydney second on their predicted ladders. I know, it’s only Round 1, but I’m a Collingwood fan and everything is dead, so just let me hold onto this).
But good teams with good leadership and sound infrastructures respond, or at least raise their voices in an effort to respond. Collingwood were apathetically (and pathetically) silent all evening, blending a non-existent desire to find the ball with an almost impressive longing to butcher it when it fell into their hands.
Last weekend was an indictment on Nathan Buckley, Scott Pendlebury and the Collingwood Football Club. The illicit drug testing ‘revelations’ leading up to the game are no excuse – no names were named, so these guys have nothing to worry about (and anybody living in Melbourne who frequents night-time establishments will tell you that the only shock is that the number wasn’t higher).
The Pies had some significant outs – Travis Varcoe, Ben Reid (does he even count as an out anymore?), James Aish, Dane Swan (out after the first ten minutes), Jeremy Howe, Brodie Grundy (why does Buckley keep playing Jarrod Witts over him? Someone? Anyone?) and Jamie Elliott are all in Collingwood’s best team, and arguments can be made for Tyson Goldsack, Alan Toovey, Adam Oxley and Tim Broomhead too.
But the Swans had some comparably significant outs (Jarrad McVeigh, Ben McGlynn, Sam Reid, Gary Rohan and Ted Richards), and Collingwood’s line-up should have been competitive at least.
The Pies have too much talent not to bounce back in some way. They spent last weekend in the sewer so even a night in the gutter will be a step up from here. They will be better – the question is, will they be better in a way that meaningfully impacts the competition?
The problem areas with Collingwood are as follows: the defence, the midfield and the forward line.
The defence has long been porous and without pressure being generated further up the field, it falls apart quicker than most. Nathan Brown is what he is – a 6.7/10 key defender who will always have the 2010 grand finals. Jack Frost is fine taking the secondary forward, but if he’s on Lance Franklin, well, you’re constantly reminded that Jack Frost is on Lance Franklin.
Marley Williams and Tom Langdon are fine (although the latter is vastly overrated, and drifts far too frequently to the wrong end of the composed-laconic spectrum) but still prone to showing their inexperience.
Without Swan (let’s pour one out for the Great Dane, one of football’s great stories and characters, and perhaps the number one draft pick in the ‘Which player would enjoy four months on the sidelines the most?’ draft), the depth in the Magpie midfield is going to be tested.
Pendlebury, Treloar and Steele Sidebottom are A-graders but there’s not a heap of class behind them. Taylor Adams, much maligned in this space, is a hard nut whose every kick has a margin of error of ‘everything’ (in his defence, his disposal actually did look improved on Saturday night). Jack Crisp and Levi Greenwood are fine run-with players who their own ball, but neither is an above-average user of the ball. Jordan De Goey is the future, but he may not be the present.
The forward line looks good on paper, with names that seemingly fit all the traditional roles. Travis Cloke is the big, strong marking central target, Darcy Moore is his young, rising foil, Alex Fasolo is the third option who can take a big mark, kick accurately, and create goals from nothing, while Jarryd Blair is the pressure glue guy who can do a bit of everything.
But then you remember that Cloke regularly goes quarters and halves of football totally unsighted, Moore has played ten games and has toothpicks for arms, Fasolo has done nothing since 2011, and Blair’s best skill is running around like a headless chicken with conviction.
Collingwood’s fundamental problem is that they have too many Blair types. They have too many ‘inside’ guys who will try hard and chase and tackle and harass, while lacking the class of their captain. Blair, Crisp, Greenwood, Adams and Brent Macaffer are all minor variations of this mould. An elite team can have one or two of this type – the Brad Sewell archetype – but in the modern era, where quick, fluent ball movement and incisive kicking to break the lines are imperative, you can’t have five of them running through the midfield.
Collingwood have a lot of upside and some significant talent to bring into the team. The Pies played a motley crew of guys on Saturday night that just can’t stack up against a quality outfit like the Swans at this stage. Brayden Maynard, Corey Gault, Jackson Ramsay, Witts, Macaffer (what exactly does he do, again?) and Ben Sinclair are not in this team’s best 22. And if they are, God help us.
But even with the talent to come in, how many above-average ball users does Collingwood have? Pendlebury and Sidebottom are no-brainers, Varcoe too (although he’s never averaged more than 17.2 disposals in his career), Treloar perhaps, and Aish supposedly. That’s five. Hawthorn have 67.
Buckley might have got rid of the brat pack, but the thing is, the brat pack used the ball pretty well, and pretty creatively. He’s replaced the likes of Alan Didak, Heath Shaw, Ben Johnson, as well as Leon Davis, Sharrod Wellingham, Dale Thomas, Dayne Beams and Heritier Lumumba with hard-working young players who will conform to structure.
Maybe Crisp, Adams and company follow the gameplan better than the departed, but they’re also well short on creativity, a creativity that the players that left prided themselves on, seemingly to a fault. The result is a Collingwood team that often looks devoid of ideas and unable to conjure up avenues to goal.
In Round 1 2014, Collingwood lost by 70 points to Fremantle at Etihad Stadium. They responded the next week by beating a Sydney team at ANZ that would go on to finish on top of the ladder, a win that started an 8-2 run (we don’t talk about what happened after that run).
Last Saturday night felt different to that Fremantle game though. The Dockers loss felt like a write-off, a game where a better team fires their best bullet at you and you just die. The Swans defeat felt more like Sydney punched Collingwood once or twice in the mouth and then Collingwood meekly sulked to the exit, indifferent to the result. It was a loss that felt like it exposed something deeper. Such apathy is rarely seen in a light so stark.
Friday night against Richmond is a chance to prove that the Sydney Massacre was just a one-off, that it’s not representative of something endemic in the club. Nine teams lost last weekend, but none lost more than Collingwood. They have more to prove than anyone else in the competition in Round 2.
I suspect that an improved effort and endeavour will be on display. Whether or not the Pies have enough class, creativity and polish to capitalise on it though will be the real question, and the question all season.