True Grit: The Magpies have added class to their toughness to become a contender

The irony of Nathan Buckley’s coaching career has been that so many of his players have been deficient in the area of the game that he was most exquisite in.

Perhaps the most accurate field kick in the history of the game found himself a team whose problem was that it couldn’t consistently hit targets.

The irony was infectious, catching Scott Pendlebury too – a captain whose skillset was made to look even more magical by the inability of his teammates to match it.

Pendlebury, with his ethereal economy of movement, eerie, piercing calmness and precise skills was so often an extra-terrestrial in black and white; surrounded by men stuck in the mud, only able to look at their captain flying, their efforts to join him restricted mostly to inane jumping. But to their credit, they did do fine work in the mud.

It was really 2015 that marked the beginning of the Buckley coaching era at Collingwood – as well as the five-year mark of the club’s partnership with CGU. From 2012 to 2014 he was overseeing the final breaths – or heaving sighs – of the Mick Malthouse premiership team.

2014 was the last season that Nick Maxwell, Luke Ball, Dayne Beams and Heritier Lumumba took the field for the Pies, a year after Dale Thomas, Heath Shaw, Darren Jolly and Alan Didak were moved on.

By 2015, Buckley had his team. Jordan De Goey, Darcy Moore, Brayden Maynard and Mason Cox were taken in the preceding draft, with Jack Crisp, Levi Greenwood and Travis Varcoe arriving via trade. The critical mass was finally tipping and the Magpies became a team that Buckley had built as much as inherited.

Levi Greenwood and Jeremy Howe run during a training session

Levi Greenwood and Jeremy Howe have been valuable pickups for the Pies. (Photo: Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

The team’s hallmark quickly became gritty, contested ball. Collingwood games weren’t always pretty and were rarely fluid, but for the most part, they competed and they grinded. They were inconsistent but tough enough to drag the best teams into physical contests, a hint that they might not be too far away.

The 80-73 loss in Perth to the minor premier Dockers in 2015, the 2016 win against the Eagles at the MCG and last year’s early-season win against the Swans in Sydney were testaments to Collingwood’s ability to grind it out and match the competition’s elite – they felt like ‘Collingwood games’, or at least the version of ‘Collingwood’ that fans hoped might more regularly surface.

The most resounding wins of recent years – a third quarter of Jamie Elliott and Dane Swan-inspired hellfire at the MCG toppling the Kangaroos in 2015, blitzing what should have been a desperate Geelong in the penultimate round later that year, and the frenzied, ecstatic comeback wins over Hawthorn and West Coast last season – all came when the grit was made furious.

The hardness and purposeful violence around the ball gathered momentum and the field began to feel like someone had tipped it so the ball was perpetually hurtling downhill towards Collingwood’s goal. They dominated at the contest, won the clearance, booted the ball forward, chased in magnetic numbers, and then by sheer force bullied the ball through the goal.

The issue has always been the lack of a second speed. You can’t play at one million miles an hour all the time and the Pies under Buckley haven’t been good enough at driving around the suburbs. When the grit isn’t frenetic, when it doesn’t have its energy perfectly channelled, the Magpies have struggled to find enough avenues to victory.

Last year’s epic draw against Adelaide was perhaps the quintessential Collingwood game. A magnificent, imposing first-half built on immense, unrelenting and cascading pressure was undermined by a complete inability to halt the opponent’s own supreme pressure in the second half.

Adam Treloar runs for the Magpies

“Grit, optimism, resilience and loyalty. These are the values we play by.”

The Collingwood Football Club and CGU have stood by these core Australian values, and the club is now enjoying a resurgence as they head to the 2018 finals.

The AFL is a difficult competition at the best of times, with a taxing 23-round season seeing some of Australia’s best athletes go up against each other.

A challenging set of circumstances face individuals within the club, but upholding the values of the club, they overcome the adversity.

Collingwood’s Sam McLarty is a perfect example of resilience, displaying that in spades to play the sport he loves at the highest level.

“Being deaf is part of my identity. It’s who I am. Growing up, I rejected the notion I was different. I had to prove to everyone that I could do anything I set my mind to.”

Of course, it’s not just McLarty who uses the club’s principles. They apply to the AFLW team as well, with Chloe Molloy chasing her dream of playing footy. Instead of sticking to the straight and narrow by playing basketball, she broke into the Magpies’ AFLW side and made an immediate impact.

“To follow that pathway that you internally want for yourself, you’re going to have to make some sacrifices. I know I probably did upset a few people, but it was a decision I had to make by myself.”

And Adam Treloar, who is giving back to his community by coaching the Noble Park under-12s, personifies loyalty.

“I need to be loyal to my roots and ultimately repay the faith.”

Grit, optimism, resilience and loyalty. They’re the four qualities that Collingwood are proud to embody.

Brodie Grundy celebrates kicking a goal

In the modern game, grit on its own is not sufficient – you need wizards to go with handymen. You need Pendlebury, and more than a few more of his ilk if not his calibre.

From 2015 to 2017 Collingwood didn’t have that. There is something deflating about having a team that competes so manfully (the Pies ranked 6th, 6th and 1st in contested ball differential from 2015 to 2017) and then has its hard work undone by simple skill errors.

To gallantly absorb defensive pressure, win a pivotal contest and then see the attack forward immediately undone by a player skidding the ball off his toe 18 metres forward into the corridor and a waiting opponent is a brilliantly crushing.

That has so often been the Collingwood story, and what has cost them pivotal games like those against the Bulldogs, Demons and Giants last season, games where the result that didn’t happen could have shaped their season so differently.

This year’s wins against the Crows and Demons loom, Collingwood hopes, as the new quintessential Collingwood games.

This year the story is shifting. Pendlebury and Steele Sidebottom have always been around for class, but now Jordan de Goey has exploded and Will Hoskin-Elliott has become much more present and impactful. Add in some transformative leg speed and suddenly the team is much more rounded and versatile, capable of undoing opponents in a variety of fashions.

This year’s wins against the Crows and Demons loom, Collingwood hopes, as the new quintessential Collingwood games. The Pies were fierce at the point of attack in both those games, but also powerful beyond it. They won the ball and then made their wins count – with direct, incisive kicking and most of all, lightning quick in-close handballs that release teammates into possibility.

The second victory over Essendon was also telling – a game where the Pies were a little flat and the Dons plenty desperate, but Collingwood eked out a result through both grittiness and brilliance.

The 2018 Pies are made different by their pace and improved skills, but the heart of this team is still their grit, the hardness and willingness in the contest – which was not long ago only a small, often frustrating comfort, but now feels like the core of something triumphant.

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.

All images are credit: Getty Images

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Comments (11)

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  • Dan in Devon said | August 10th 2018 @ 7:24am

    The critical change came at the end of 2017 when Buckley finally embraced a handball orientated running game which reduced the errors from the side’s poor footskills and reduced the easy turnover /transition ball that had been a feature of Collingwood’s game. The emergence of Stephenson and the development of Cox, Hoskin-Elliot, Phillips and DeGoey have made Collingwood a better team going forward. But your citing of Darcy Moore is misplaced- he has been irrelevant to the Pies’ rise but hopefully will emerge as a critical backman. The problem for Collingwood is that teams like Richmond and the Eagles are comfortable with the handball game as it suits their tight defensive patterna. What is needed is a midfield player in the Greg Williams mould who could handball long into space and break the contest open or faster defenders – of which Sam Murray is a prospect- who can run through/outrun the high pressing lines. As things stand, the Pies desperately need a tall mobile defender who can contest the high ball of the are going to be genuine premiership contenders.

    • Peter the Scribe said | August 10th 2018 @ 7:50am

      There’s not too many Greg Williams types around. Tom Mitchell is one. Taylor Adams is our inside mid, Brayden Sier is the heir apparent. Rupert Wills could be one but has injury problems. Darcy Moore could be the tall mobile defender but appears to be taking his hamstring concerns to Sydney. The making of a premiership side is there. 2018 we have been playing with most of our tall defence injured so judging our defence is judging our makeshift defence. Our forward line looks good. Stephenson will be groomed to rotate mid forward, the rest of our forward line are young and will be around for a bit yet.

      • Phil said | August 11th 2018 @ 7:29am

        Taylor Adams foot skills are not AFL standard. Elite effort and hands. Feet poor

    • George said | August 10th 2018 @ 4:42pm

      Patina?

  • Swampy said | August 10th 2018 @ 1:18pm

    I wouldn’t rate them as a contender. Still could finish 7 or 8.

    • powa said | August 10th 2018 @ 2:52pm

      plus they really struggle against good teams, they are 1/6 against top 8 sides

      • Peter the Scribe said | August 10th 2018 @ 4:28pm

        Yeah true Powa but as Nathan Jones from The Demons said (who are a bit the same) , you don’t have to beat them in the season, you have to beat them in the finals.

        • Doctor Rotcod said | August 10th 2018 @ 8:10pm

          While that’s true that you only have to win finals ,when you weren’t crash-hot in the H&A,Bulldogs 2016 for instance, to contend for the big bikkie,no team last year could do it from back in the pack.
          Finals are often regular games writ large, intensity is on from the first whistle,lethargy is quickly found out and inaccuracy and turnovers swiftly punished.
          Will Collingwood’s excess of disposals,league#1, translate into more scores in the finals?
          Will their goalfront accuracy matter when the teams they’re most likely to face have all kicked away from them?
          Let’s see, shall we..

  • Chris said | August 11th 2018 @ 11:29am

    Don’t count your chickens too soon Mr Croucher. We are work in progress. In other words, things could all fall into place and we could have a rollicking finals series or we could bomb out in the next three weeks and not make it or just sneak in. I like your optimism but we have a serious issue with our fitness team and the ongoing spate of injuries that are demoralising and the self-destructive actions of some players who keep maiming their teammates are both cause for concern. There are six weeks left and let’s reevaluate things at the appropriate moment rather than sound the death knell for our beloved Maggies with exaggerated and unnecessary bragging.

  • DAMIAN COSTELLO said | August 11th 2018 @ 2:07pm

    So far, little bits of each comment are correct -injury numbers are shocking, and Richmond has had very few over last two years-
    Collingwood has at least 6 out that ramp up the side in both skill and quality-eg-imagine what Eliott can add in attack-his accuracy is good, and defensive skills are great-BUT we can only play with what is available.
    The players have shown great endeavour, but too many sides are equal with Collingwood in potential and possibility, and the turnovers are terrible-even Treloar, he is great at ball getting and cutting through lines, but turnovers are high, and sometimes selfishness cost scoring opportunities-needs to involve more players when opportunity presents.No mention of Grundy?-having a great year, getting plenty of tap outs-BUT opposition is often reading and taking advantage-players are still winning a lot of clearances, but i think this year shows winning clearances does NOT necessarilly win you the game.
    The Howe loss cannot be underestimated, as too the loss of Dunn and Reid, and Scharenberg was having a very good year. Sier is the one who can be the second DeGoey in this side-they should alternate forward and centre. All said and done, there are no “good” losses-“bad” wins are a lot more acceptable!
    This side has looked great when all top scale players are in the side, but accuracy and turnovers have to be restricted. Go Pies

    • Phil said | August 13th 2018 @ 5:35pm

      I think we are contenders. The thing to remember is we are in the eight with half the team injured. If we get a few back for finals…we look very strong.