As we head into the business end of the season there are a few clubs that have footy pundits talking about certain narratives.
For example, the Lions are hot. The Bulldogs are scary right now. The Power are in disarray. The Giants are falling. And the Bombers have a chance to break their finals drought.
But what about Collingwood?
It seems like we’ve forgotten about the Pies just like we did last year, when they almost pulled a flag out of the bag. Their injury toll has them flying under the radar, and Nathan Buckley wouldn’t want it any other way.
Jamie Elliott’s five-goal haul last week was as good as you’ll see and helped continue their forward line revival. But with no Jordan de Goey, Dayne Beams, Mason Cox, Ben Reid and Jaidyn Stephenson, can a forward line consisting largely of Will Hoskin-Elliott, Jamie Elliott, Brody Mihocek, and Travis Varcoe be damaging enough to go the distance in September?
Once the injuries started to mount for Nathan Buckley’s Pies, it would have been dead easy to write off a team like Collingwood. Most of us probably did. There was the four-point loss to the Dockers at the MCG no-one saw coming. They were demolished by the Roos and then torched by the Giants, who have won four of their last ten and seem to be limping into the finals.
It hasn’t been pretty in patches throughout the last 11 weeks for Collingwood, who set up their 2019 season with a confident 9-3 start. But things have been clicking again. They have been able to find new and old ways to goal again led by a ragtag quartet consisting of Will Hoskin-Elliott, who has kicked ten goals in the last three weeks, Jamie Elliott (7), Travis Varcoe (6) and Brody Mihocek (6).
In a year dictated by versatile forward lines, Collingwood’s depth has been tested. But they’ve been able to create a second-tier unit that could be effective come finals.
There’s one more thing to consider: the Collingwood core midfield group hasn’t shifted too much from the 2018 grand final team. This has helped the likes of Elliott, Varcoe and Mihocek. This year they added Dayne Beams to Scott Pendlebury, Adam Treloar, Taylor Adams, Steele Sidebottom and Brodie Grundy. Throw in Jack Crisp and Tom Phillips and it’s a formidable group.
Treloar and Pendlebury are still ball magnets, averaging 33 and 27 respectively. Sidebottom is still a dangerous runner who kicks goals. Grundy is almost unstoppable – how do you defend him? And the league’s rankings speak for themselves: Collingwood are the No. 1 ranked team for effective disposals, No. 2 for contested marks and No. 3 for hit-outs. Even though their forward structures have taken a hit, the good news for the Pies is that they still excel at winning the ball and using the ball through their elite midfield – and it’s the same midfield core that produced a stunning 2018 finals run to the grand final.
If Jordan de Goey doesn’t get fit in time for finals, Hoskin-Elliot is going to have to play a lead role. Last year he was Collingwood’s second-best goal kicker with 42; this year he’s managed only 18 having played seven fewer games. De Goey kicked 48 goals last year. Plugging him into the forward line would add confidence to win tight , high-pressured finals games. I suspect Nathan Buckley will play him even at 65 per cent, surely.
The Jaidyn Stephenson suspension has hurt. In 2018 he kicked 38 goals. This year he’s managed 21 from 12 outings. Getting him back for the first week of finals will be huge, but he’s missed a lot of football. Mihocek and Elliot will also be keys – in particular Mihocek’s contested marks and Elliot’s crumbing and lead-up marks.
Mason Cox kicked 25 goals in 2018. He’s a wildcard, but his height troubles almost all defences. Depending on how injuries heal, the Pies could have this list back in action for the first week in September, and that could spell trouble for whoever plays them.
Last year Collingwood went 15-7 and were the third-best team heading into the finals. After their 16-point loss to the Eagles in Perth and a tight ten-point win over the Giants, they then blitzed Richmond by seven goals in the preliminary final, a result that stunned almost everyone. The Tigers went 18-4 last year and Collingwood’s win ended Richmond’s 22-game winning streak at the MCG.
I raise this because last year they were the third considered team before finals and probably an afterthought after their loss to the Eagles in the qualifying final. The same pattern is starting to emerge here and now. With a full team they are every bit of their 9-3 start. With holes in their forward structure they look like a 6-5 team. In reality Hoskin-Elliott, Elliot, Mihocek, and Varcoe aren’t blue-chip forwards, but they are workers, and Collingwood’s fabric is woven from blue-collar players.
Suppose Collingwood can squeeze past their first finals opponent – their path won’t be seamless. This finals series looms as an almighty test even at full strength. Their first scenario looks like this: if the Pies and Tigers both win their Round 23 matches, Collingwood stays in fifth and will play the Bombers again. If they win that, they play the loser of the Cats-Tigers final. But a fifth-placed finish means they’re in elimination mode: lose and they are out.
The second scenario gives them a double chance in fourth spot. They need Richmond to lose to the Lions in Round 23 plus a win over the Bombers. This means they take on Brisbane at the Gabba. A win there will give them a preliminary finals berth. It’s the quickest way to the grand final.
We know Collingwood has the midfield to match it with the best. It’s their forward line depth that will be tested with the likes of Elliott, Varcoe and Mihocek. Will it be enough?
Injuries have kept them just shy of their 2018 formidable self. It might sound like long odds, but a retooled Collingwood forward set-up makes them the biggest sleeper team this finals series.