The date of January 16, 2020 could haunt Collingwood and its supporters for at least the next decade.
This was when the Magpies announced they had signed ruckman Brodie Grundy to a ridiculous seven-year, $7 million contract, tying him to the club until 2027, when he will be 33.
Grundy was coming off another dominant year and quite rightly exercised his right to shop around and sniff out the best deal.
It was up to the Magpies to ensure they managed their cap space and made a prudent decision. Grundy wanted seven years and the Magpies wanted five years.
Having continually missed out on players in the free agency market, Ned Guy – the Magpies’ inexperienced list manager – didn’t want to be seen to let go of one of its stars.
Guy panicked… and blinked. Grundy was signed for life.
The decline of Grundy in 2020, the first year since re-signing, is staggering. Clearly the fatigue from years of carrying the Magpies’ on-ball department is wearing on him. He looks more like 36 than 26 and has been bettered by VFL-standard opposition on a weekly basis.
His data ratings have seen him go from the best ruckman in the competition to equal sixth and in a recent outing against Brisbane he managed just one clearance (an area he used to dominate), while Brisbane’s Oscar McInerney – a journeyman in every sense of the word – had nine.
The simple efforts of jumping and covering ground appear too much.
But even if this decline had not occurred, the contract was a laughable one even while Grundy had been dominating his position.
Ruckmen in the modern game do not win you premierships. Ruckmen are the most overrated position in the game with the least influence on the outcome.
There is a litany of examples over the past decade of premiership-winning ruckmen being a small cog in the team’s overall success. Names like Ivan Soldo, Toby Nankervis, Scott Lycett, Nathan Vardy, Jordan Roughead and Ben McEvoy are all solid citizens but absolutely nothing more. They would all be in their premiership team’s bottom six.
There is no better example than Grundy himself in the 2019 preliminary final against GWS, which the Magpies lost. It was a game where Grundy dominated his position.
Grundy’s numbers in that game were extraordinary. He won 73 hit-outs and ten clearances. He had 25 disposals and the Magpies dominated the clearances 54 to 35.
If ruckmen were so influential, Collingwood should have won by ten goals. Alas, all the tap outs in the world couldn’t be converted into genuine match dominance.
This brings me back to why the Magpies have blundered in handing out such a large contract.
The sporting phrase Moneyball was made famous by Billy Beane and the Oakland As baseball franchise for stretching your salary cap and player contract space. It should be front of mind for every AFL list manager.
AFL clubs only have a finite amount of money to spread across their playing list and need a very clear understanding of what areas of the park they should focus on.
A dominant big man is well down the shopping list. Strong key forwards, reliable key backs, line-breaking midfielders and X-factor small forwards should sit atop.
Collingwood now find themselves hamstrung, paying a player whose ability is diminishing by the week in a position that will not bring them any closer to success. Grundy has essentially taken the money the club needs desperately to find a key forward.
Is there a solution? Yes, but it requires the club to be bold – something the list management and coaching staff have shown little interest in being over the past few seasons.
Could Collingwood hoodwink another club to take the Grundy contract and essentially salary dump, to borrow an NBA phrase?
The Magpies are desperate for a key forward and have been for the better part of a decade. Jeremy Cameron remains an elite player angry with his current plight at GWS with their stagnant ball movement making his job of kicking goals near impossible.
As another player on a mega deal, could they swap positions and allow GWS to finally have a dominant ruckman while the Magpies get the final piece of the puzzle?
It would be a brave play and largely unheard of in the AFL landscape to dump a player so quickly after re-signing but it is a regular occurrence in American sport, to which the AFL is always playing catch-up.
Three-hundred-game player and pundit Kane Cornes summed it up best: “Seven years and seven million for a ruckman who has had a heavy workload and is already banged up, what will he be like at the age of 34?”
It’s a fair question.