Until now, the Nathan Buckley coaching era has been defined by false starts and blunted optimism. Each year, a particular game felt like the game – the result that signalled that the spirit of 2010/2011 dominance was still alive and well, and the intervening time of underwhelming outcomes was only some sort of mistaken, elongated hiccup.
There was enough in the first halves of 2014 and 2015 and the second halves of 2016 and 2017 to keep Collingwood fans engaged and almost hopeful. Victories off the field – through excellent membership numbers and creating partnerships with the likes of CGU – has never been rare for the club. But on-field success was only ever a loose, theoretical idea for a team that has now gone four years without a finals appearance and five years without winning one.
There was never anything solid to hold onto, and after four seasons of clutching vaguely at hope, one could sense that by the start of 2018 many fans had already let go of the Buckley era, too tired of convincing themselves that they were still optimistic.
Round 1 only reinforced that, while rounds 2 and 3 – a gallant loss and an uninspiring win, results almost equivalent on the emotional spectrum – did little to inspire optimism, to dispel the notion that nothing had changed.
But then they went to Adelaide. They went there in tough conditions as almost six-goal underdogs against the team that had been favoured in last year’s grand final. And they didn’t just win – they annihilated the Crows, in a strangely comprehensible way that made the result not seem like an outlier.
All of a sudden, optimism was irrepressible.
Before the Adelaide game, the Pies were a team littered with injuries, lacking skill and polish in midfield, absent sufficient game-changing key position talent, and suffering from a lack of dynamic leg speed. Afterwards, Scott Pendlebury and Steele Sidebottom felt like enough class for two midfields and Ben Reid, Brodie Grundy and Jeremy Howe assisted by a suddenly imposing Mason Cox and the timeless music of Lynden Dunn appeared like reasonable key position stocks.
The emergence of Jaidyn Stephenson made the leg speed problem, and many of the rest of the world’s problems, seem minor for an evening. And after a 48-point win over a premiership favourite on the road, injuries to bemoan – to Daniel Wells, Jamie Elliott, Darcy Moore, Alex Fasolo and Taylor Adams – became sources of optimism, rich stocks in reserve.
The template for a contender, while still a little hazy, was outlined in Adelaide, and confirmed on Queen’s Birthday. The midfield is all-world, capable of matching and exceeding any other on its day. Grundy – whose excellent community work off the field has been captured by CGU in the video below – is a premier ruckman on it, and Pendlebury, Sidebottom and Adam Treloar are genuine A-graders.
Tom Phillips has transformed the midfield, a force of a different variety to be reckoned with, the type of gut-running winger that the Pies haven’t had since Dale Thomas had dreadlocks. Phillips isn’t as impactful or dynamic as Thomas once was, but his consistency game-to-game is special for a player so young. He’s hitting the scoreboard too, and if his field kicking can leap up two or three notches, there’s no reason he can’t be Andrew Gaff in a couple of years.
Throw in Adams, Wells-when-healthy, the asteroid of Jordan de Goey and injections of Will Hoskin-Elliott and Josh Thomas, and all of a sudden you have one of the most complete and deep midfields in the game.
The forward line was one of those train stations forever under construction, and on more optimistic days you caught it at an angle that looked closer to finished than other days. Now it looks close to finished, a modern construction, unorthodox but pristine, with a diverse ensemble of smaller, pacy finishers with impeccable goal-sense wreaking havoc on the competition.
Stephenson is a delight, Hoskin-Elliott a revelation, and the emergence of de Goey has been the most important event of 2018 for Collingwood. He is not Dustin Martin but he might be Martin’s closest facsimile, with the same commanding comic-book strength, the keen eye for goal, supreme skill and flair for the moment. Debate as to whether de Goey should play forward or midfield is redundant – it’s 2018, he should play both.
The defence has the most long-term question marks in terms of talented sure-fire pieces. But the stocks are far from bare, with Jeremy Howe’s covering of the ground and the air patching up a lot of holes. Howe was Collingwood’s best player last year and his intercept marking is one of the game’s most precious commodities.
Matthew Scharenberg staying healthy and realising his potential would be a bigger story if not for the headlines belonging to de Goey and the numbers belonging to Hoskin-Elliott and Phillips. Scharenberg’s composure and skill in defence bring a James Clement-type calm to proceedings.
Brayden Maynard attacks the ball the same way it leaves his boot: out of a canon-ball. Sometimes he needs more of a sniper lens on that thing, but the potential is unquestioned. His kick is powerful and his appetite for the contest is immense.
Darcy Moore is the swing-piece in all of this. If he’s an oft-injured merely talented contributor, then the Pies’ ceiling is lowered. If he can develop into an All-Australian key position player, then so much falls into place.
Precocious, proven talent is always a fan-base’s greatest source of optimism – and in players like de Goey, Stephenson, Scharenberg, Maynard, Grundy and Phillips, Pies fans have something real to hold onto for the foreseeable.
The future has rarely been ‘bleak’ under Buckley – the talent and youth were always too compelling. But now the future is no longer something that requires much imagination.
This doesn’t feel like another false start either – it feels new and different. With the performances compelling and the results no longer honourable but now emphatic, optimism feels boundless and justified.
Optimism is a core Australian value shared by CGU and the Collingwood Football Club, and it’s something star ruckman Brodie Grundy got to experience even more while visiting some of the country’s Indigenous rural communities. Check out the great story behind his enriching journey and connection with the Warumungu people this NAIDOC week in the video player below.
CGU Insurance and Collingwood have been loyal partners for almost a decade. Together we’re proud to celebrate the values of all Australians. Find out more here.