Seemingly unperturbed by 18-metre goal squares, the footballing gods have delivered a preliminary final weekend for the ages.
Round 22 was a vital round for the premiership hopes of the Magpies.
Coming up against a Port Adelaide outfit desperate to gain a victory for their teetering finals campaign, Collingwood had a point to prove with their shabby record against the leading half of the competition’s ladder.
After a slow start to both the first and third quarters, the Pies steamrolled the Power, elevating themselves to a higher level that was fast, sharp and accurate. Much of this can be attributed to the resurgence of a young and bouncy forward line, to the ruckwork of Brodie Grundy, the midfield grunt of Taylor Adams, and the resilient youth that has covered a defensive system decimated by injury.
But, an underrated part of Collingwood’s side and tactics was hardly recognised as correlating with the blistering 51-point victory at the MCG on Saturday. And that was with the returning play of James Aish across the half-back line.
Aish, a minor member of the Dayne Beams trade, was thrown in with Jack Crisp to placate Collingwood for Brisbane snatching one of their premier midfielders.
Compared to the breakout 2015 season of Crisp and the ever-reliable performances of Beams for Brisbane, Aish is neglected and hardly recognised when comparing the results of the trade. But he has quietly snuck his way into a settled Pies outfit, being a crafty and tough winger who has a reliable kick and a tough edge. Yet after Saturday’s game, Buckley has appeared to have discovered a better role for Aish.
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With Tom Langdon, Jack Crisp and Brayden Maynard having to be more accountable for the dangerous Port Adelaide forwards in the Robbie Grays and Jack Watts, the usual bounce that is required in a successful modern AFL team needed to come from another source.
Nathan Buckley’s decision to insert Aish into the half-back line payed dividends, as his sweeping work at stoppages and grunt work from behind the ball allowed a high-octane attacking running game that ultimately resulted in a crushing Magpies display.
The question is now asked: is this a late gem of a positional change that can give the Pies the edge? It certainly worked on Saturday. With a backline consisting of first-year player Madgen and then a smattering of players around the 50-game mark, it’s definitely a youthful back line that will look to run off their opponents, yet will also be occasionally vulnerable to brutal star power.
Therefore, a crafty flanker may be pivotal to shore up Collingwood’s defence against the likes of Jack Darling, Josh Kennedy, Dustin Martin, Jack Riewoldt and other powerful forwards that finals rivals will possess.
Yet Aish also displayed his ability to be the ‘quarterback’ in scrimmages, allowing the quick hands of Langdon and Maynard to filter back to him, where his clever decisions and smart kicks helped to send the Pies into constant attacks.
It’s a big ‘if’ due to his lack of experience, yet the inclusion of Howe for the finals may allow Collingwood to use Aish as a tactical sweeper who can maintain defensive security yet also launch aggressive forward movements for the swift and fleet-footed Magpies’ midfield and forwards. But if it’s worked so well once, why not try it again?