Welcome to the second part of my 18-part series on the 2021 season in review.
We’ve seen a number of exciting young players from Essendon, Sydney and now North Melbourne star for their clubs this season. But the development of the youngsters from Collingwood has gone quietly unnoticed in what has been a disappointing year for the club.
They’ve had to say goodbye to their favourite son, murmurings about potential boardroom spills continue to make the headlines, and they are on track for their worst season since 2005.
But as the old adage goes, ‘the night is darkest before dawn’.
The Magpies have debuted nine new players this season, the most of any club in 2021.
They haven’t exactly set the world on fire but their improvement throughout the season would no doubt ease some of the pain from last year’s off season.
None of these players personifies gradual improvement more so than Oli Henry. Debuting in Round 1, Henry struggled with the tempo of AFL, finishing the game with just four disposals. In between two stints back in the VFL, Henry played two more AFL games while he seemed to find all the right places to be but struggled to get his timing right.
When he returned against Richmond it finally came together for him as he clunked seven marks, including a spectacular one-handed mark on the lead at full speed late in the game.
Now he has five goals from his past two games with an upward trajectory of improvement to come. Still very raw, but exciting.
Henry was the Magpies’ first selection in last year’s draft, but their final selection in that draft should now be one of the first palyers selected whenever he is fit and healthy.
Beau McCreery brings something that no other Pie brings: elite forward 50 pressure. In his ten games this year (nine if you don’t count his medical sub debut) he has laid 24 tackles in the forward 50. No other player (with a minimum four games this season) averages more than two – next best is Brody Mihocek (1.06 a game), a key forward.
Although Scott Pendlebury’s injury is a massive blow, it gives more opportunities to the youngsters.
Like Pendlebury, Trent Bianco doesn’t possess explosive speed but he does have footy smarts, fantastic foot skills and could be a future skipper. In his first couple of games, Bianco played as a high half-forward but has since been pushed onto the wing, a role in which he is starting to find more consistency.
For a player that held his own in a midfield with Matt Rowell and Noah Anderson, more midfield minutes can only be a good thing.
Finlay Macrae is another youngster craving more minutes and should now have an opportunity to be the genuine inside midfielder that he was drafted as. Before the Port game, Macrae had played five games, two as a medical substitute. In the other three games however, he was used as a high half-forward/winger. Against Port last week he was used predominantly through the midfield and recorded his best game yet with 21 disposals, despite having his least amount of playing time (when not sub).
Next year, Isaac Quaynor will be in his fourth season at the club. ‘Q’ has had the job of handling the most dangerous small forwards this year, matching up against Toby Greene, Eddie Betts and even Dustin Martin. Despite this, he still is one of the few Magpies that can use his speed and ability to take the game on from the defensive half, while at the same time improving his defensive skills.
If Collingwood are to bounce back in 2022 it can’t be on the back of Brodie Grundy, Jordan De Goey and Darcy Moore but on the improvement of the depth players. They have a good depth of youngsters ready to knock down the door.
Reef McInees, who unofficially broke the combine’s 20-metre sprint record, is yet to debut. Will Kelly has shown glimpses but needs a better run of luck. Another preseason under the belt for Tyler Brown will get him more game time next season. And next season’s #35 seems to have a big future ahead of him.
The depth is there. It might be C-grade depth but the development of the kids will give the new coach plenty to work with and show the dawn is coming.