Today, it’s Collingwood’s turn to go under the microscope as I look at all 18 clubs ahead of the June 11 AFL restart.
I was certain the Magpies were in for a rude shock against the Western Bulldogs in Round 1, but they left me eating humble (hot) pie(s) with a dominant 52-point win over their fellow top-four hopefuls.
A lot of time has passed since then, but if any club announced themselves as a premiership contender back in March it was the black and white.
Here are four burning questions for Collingwood heading into 2020’s resumption.
It’s not quite as heartbreaking as St Kilda’s back-to-back finals losses, but Collingwood have been damn close to the flag two years in a row and have fallen less than a kick short at the worst time on both occasions.
While there are several notable and illustrious exceptions, history tells us it’s very hard to stay at the top of the hill for very long.
Collingwood’s Round 1 side was the fourth oldest, with an average age of 26 years and four months old, but was only the seventh most experienced with an average of 105.6 games.
They’ve got a whole heap of players on the wrong side of 30 – including Scott Pendlebury, Chris Mayne, Travis Varcoe and the injured Levi Greenwood – alongside plenty of players fast approaching it in Jeremy Howe, Steele Sidebottom, Jordan Roughead and Mason Cox.
Less than half of those players strike me as being at risk of a sudden decline but father time is ultimately undefeated and it only takes two or three members of your best 22 to be past their best to bring you right back down to the chasing pack.
The Pies are, of course, firmly inside their premiership window, but you’d have to concede they’re in the latter half of that time frame.
Is this year their last shot at a premiership with this list? If not, how many more chances do they have?
Collingwood were one of the most miserly defensive teams late in 2019, conceding 60 or fewer points in five of their final matches last season. It was a similar story in 2018, with the Pies conceding fewer than 60 points in both the semi-final and preliminary final.
West Coast’s score of 79 is the fourth lowest grand final winning score since 2000.
Winning with the back line looks to be a big part of Collingwood’s plan again this season after they kept the Bulldogs to just 34 points ‘last’ Friday night.
But does this actually work?
Since 2010, the best defensive team has won the premiership just twice: Sydney in 2012 and Hawthorn in 2015 – the latter of which has an asterisk as they were also the best offensive team. Conversely, the best defensive team has lost five grand finals – four to teams that vastly outperformed them in attack (the 2016 grand final being the exception).
The Magpies are far from Ross Lyon-esque up forward, but they were the lowest scoring finalist last season and may need to find more avenues to goal if they’re to reach the summit.
Continuing on from the last point, up forward looks to be the place where a bit more spark needs to come.
Collingwood were second in the AFL last season with 12.3 marks inside 50 per game and they had a good even spread of goal-kickers – with five players kicking 20 or more for the year and two more coming just under at 19.
But leading goal-kicker Brody Mihocek – at 192 centimeters – has to be one of the shortest tall forwards going around. Can Mason Cox develop into the tall clunker he thought he could be? Can Ben Reid get on the park enough to be a factor? Is a full season of Jaidyn Stephenson enough to make a virtually smalls-only set-up work?
Nathan Buckley can rest easy with the back six and midfield unit he has, but putting more goals on the board will be the puzzle he needs to solve.
They got the big one out of the way in Brodie Grundy, but the Magpies still have something of a contract armageddon approaching at the end of this season.
Pending UFA Reid can probably be allowed to walk if he wants, as can injured duo Greenwood and Lynden Dunn, but it’s a big list of must-signs and a couple of other players who will require tough calls coming out of contract.
Jordan de Goey headlines the first list, with Brody Mihocek, Darcy Moore, Josh Daicos and (to a lesser extent) Jordan Roughead rounding it out.
Then comes the less straightforward ones. What’s a soon-to-be 33-year-old Varcoe worth at the end of this season? How about an almost 30-year-old Cox? Where do fringe players Matthew Scharenberg, Rupert Wills, Tim Broomhead and Jack Madgen fit? Is it time to call time or will they be needed as some older heads retire?
Who knows what havoc this year’s pay cuts will wreak on free agency and the trade period, but the Pies will no doubt be a club to watch.