The stage is magnificent – 90,000-plus in the stands and a challenger whose greatest strength is the champion’s greatest ‘weakness’.
Collingwood is the league’s best clearance team – Richmond is its worst. Collingwood is the second-best contested ball side in the competition – Richmond is fourth from bottom. This ‘edge’, the ability to dominate at stoppages, is the Pies’ likeliest path to the upset.
The problem is that Richmond’s weakness in clearances and contested ball isn’t really a weakness – it’s a calculation. You know the deal by now – the Tigers concede numbers around stoppages in favour of defensive structure and focus on winning the ball from turnovers instead of from a ruckman’s palm.
Therein lies the beauty of this match-up – aside from the ‘Richmond vs Collingwood in a preliminary final at the MCG’ of it all. If the Magpies are to win, they are going to have to make their greatest strength so great that the Tigers can’t ignore it.
To beat Richmond, they’re going to have to prove that Richmond are wrong.
The last time these sides met should give Collingwood some degree of confidence. The Pies dominated midfield, controlled the clearances and at times made the Tigers look unusually mortal. They hung tight until they ran out of gas, undone, to some extent at least, by being down two rotations, although they probably would have lost anyway.
Adam Treloar, Jordan de Goey and, for the most part, Jeremy Howe all missed that game but will play Friday night. The Tigers have some key ins too, but none as significant to their structure as Howe and de Goey are to Collingwood’s.
In Treloar, Brodie Grundy, Scott Pendlebury and Steele Sidebottom, the Pies have a star midfield quintet perhaps unmatched in the competition. They have depth in the middle and a dynamic forward line of midfielders wearing different, scarier hats. The pace and slipperiness of Jaidyn Stephenson, Will Hoskin-Elliott, Josh Thomas and de Goey give every team fits.
With Howe back, Tyson Goldsack unearthed and gloriously re-animated, and Brayden Maynard and Tom Langdon coming of age, the defence is the most solid it’s looked since the Nick Maxwell-Heath Shaw-Harry O’Brien years.
Collingwood have the tools to win on Friday night but may lack the steady hand to guide them. If the Pies play as they did against the Giants they will get slaughtered. Greater Western Sydney – always oddly disengaged and slightly absent – had the quality to stick around against Collingwood but not the steel to punish them.
All night the Magpies were sloppy, both in front of goal and moving towards it. The skill errors were irksome, the turnovers belonging to games at Metricon, not the second week of finals at the MCG.
Foot skills have long been the blight on the Nathan Buckley era and it’s a problem that has been mitigated this year but not exorcised. Pendlebury and Sidebottom are still the only plus ball users in the middle of the ground, and when anyone else has ball in hand you hold your breath. The ability of those two to assert themselves and their calming skills on the game on Friday night will be decisive.
It may not be enough, though, in any case. The bottom three for Collingwood – James Aish, Chris Mayne and Levi Greenwood – are only functional where Richmond’s bottom players are impactful. The defence lacks polished feet and there are too many self-inflicted wounds using the ball in midfield – the three pained, misguided turnover kicks Taylor Adams gifts the opposition each game undo all the good things he does in close.
Under pressure, especially moving the ball defensively in possession, Collingwood can get too unhinged. In the fire, teams like Richmond and West Coast always look like they have a plan – too often the Pies look like they’re making it up as they go along, stream-of-consciousness football that really needed to be written down in advance.
But for all that, they have a shot. The loss to West Coast provides much more hope than the win against GWS – in the second and third terms against the Eagles, Collingwood played a brand that can topple Richmond. Their pressure was frenzied and ever-present, the spread from stoppages and turnovers powerful and vicious. Most importantly, though, that night in Perth they didn’t play scared. They went into a cauldron and played unafraid.
They showed up in Perth and they will show up again on Friday night. All season this team have played their heart out, their resolve and application unquestionable. On Friday, they come up against a champion that is still underrated, a truly great team that some still mislabel as merely excellent.
The Tigers are the best team in the competition and the best team of 2018 – nothing in the next fortnight will change that. But Collingwood don’t have to be the season’s best team to win, they just need to play the season’s best game – the slivers of the first quarter against GWS and the second and third against West Coast need to be made whole, into a four-quarter masterpiece.
Geelong were the best team in 2008 and Essendon were the best team in 1999. On Friday night, Collingwood will look to add Richmond 2018 to that list.