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The Collingwood way: Is pride enough?

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Roar Guru
18th September, 2022
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3581 Reads

Watching that Sydney versus Collingwood preliminary final unfold for three quarters, I could only think what I’ve thought so often before: we’re just not good enough.

It’s not just a question of ability or game plan but personnel – an issue that’s dogged Collingwood culturally, but is not often enough highlighted.

Or genuinely addressed.

Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s I saw it too often: Tom Hafey took Collingwood sides cobbled together from a smattering of genuine stars, lots of role-players, and topped off with journeymen, to grand final failure after grand final failure.

They just weren’t good enough to knock over powerhouses like North Melbourne, Richmond, and Carlton – clubs full of class – when it really mattered.

Collingwood has a history of this, stemming from the archaic belief that players should play for the jumper, rather than the money.

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Bob Rose’s biography, A Dignified Life, speaks to the Collingwood culture. Arguably Collingwood’s greatest player, Rose left the club in his prime at just 27 to captain-coach the Wangaratta Rovers because they offered him more money.

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That tells you something about the club patriotic mentality – one that blossomed out of their halcyon days in the 1920 and 1930s.

As a coach, Rose implored the administration to buy players. Nope. It was about the jumper. Under Rose, Collingwood lost the grand final to Melbourne in 1964 by 4 points, to St. Kilda in 1966 by 1 point, and to Carlton in 1970 by 10 points. Rose was always just that couple of players short.

It’s a story that’s become the rule at Collingwood.

Fast forward to Mick Malthouse in 2002 – 03. That 2002 side is one of my favourite-ever Collingwood sides because of the character and courage and endeavour they exemplified. But when they faced that Brisbane powerhouse, Collingwood lacked that couple of extra quality players to haul them over the line.

Nathan Buckley and Mick Malthouse

(Photo by Hamish Blair/Getty Images)

Buying big is obviously no longer an option, but it speaks to the Collingwood culture that they believe they should battle it out bravely, rather than be mercenary in their approach – the attitude opposition clubs adopted as they overtook Collingwood in the modern era.

It’s little surprise that the two times Collingwood have enjoyed success in the last 64 years has been thanks to an unwitting stockpile of talent – the exceptions to the rule.

The 1990 flag was built on the success of the 1986 Collingwood Under 19 premiership glory, as well as some shrewd recruiting (of very good players) to plug needs. The 1990 premiership side is underrated in the pantheons of premiership teams, but a lot of this is because players were depreciated as the club went off the rails.

The 2010 flag was built off a succession of high draft picks – in 2005, Dale Thomas at 2 and Scott Pendlebury at 5, and in 2006, Ben Reid at 8 and Nathan Brown at 10. This was on top of Alan Didak (pick 3) already being there.

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Add to this Steele Sidebottom at 11 and Dayne Beams at 29 in 2008, and lower picks such as Dane Swan (58 in 2001) Travis Cloke (39/Father-Son in 2004), Heath Shaw (48/Father-son in 2003) – players who’d retrospectively be rated top 10 – and Leigh Brown (drafted originally as a pick 6), Luke Ball (as a trade, but originally a pick 2) and Darren Jolly (traded for pick 14) and you have a core of elite talent.

In the mess that followed the succession plan, Collingwood were constantly trying to find lateral solutions to list problems, either drafting speculatively, or overpaying for players with trade currency and/or with salary. Quality went out. Not enough came back in.

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Since the disastrous 2020 fire sale, they’ve gone back and heavily invested in the draft, but whereas Essendon were able to net three top-10 picks, Collingwood have relied on 20-something picks and lower.

Come this season, Craig McRae has done a magnificent job steering Collingwood up the ladder but come the finals campaign they just didn’t have enough class to haul them over the line when it mattered. The side they did beat comfortably in the finals (Fremantle) has their own list holes.

The counter, naturally, will be that Collingwood only lost by 6 points to Geelong, and by 1 point to Sydney. The hypotheticals will be thrown out: “If only this” and “If only that”.

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The results are recorded indelibly in the history books. We can’t change them. And the reality is that “if only” isn’t a time machine. It doesn’t revise history.

Nick Daicos consoles Jack Ginnivan

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/AFL Photos/via Getty Images)

It’s just wishful speculation at a club whose history is replete with so much wishful speculation – if only Peter McKenna and Des Tuddenham hadn’t knocked one another out, if only Phil Carman hadn’t been suspended, if only Wayne Harmes had been called out of bounds, if only Anthony Rocca’s shot had been called a goal, etc. – that it becomes a coping mechanism to mitigate a very simple truth: in the modern era, Collingwood are regularly valiant, but painstakingly fail all too often when it matters.

Against Sydney, I waited for somebody to stand up. Scott Pendlebury tried to impose himself on the game. Jordan de Goey – brilliant in the first two finals – was well held. Darcy Moore was herculean in the second half and not only helped turn momentum but brought teammates into the game.

These are the moments you need your champions – not your role players (with no disrespect to them), but the cream of your side to find a way to win.

Talent rises to the top.

Collingwood just doesn’t have enough it.

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There’s no doubt Nick Daicos will become a superstar of the competition, but how many other players can you say that about at Collingwood?

There’s some hopefulness about guys like Finlay Macrae and Reef McInnes, but they would need to exceed expectations – especially expectations commensurate with where they were taken in the draft. Oliver Henry oozes class but seems to have one foot out of the door. Ditto with Brodie Grundy.

Courtesy of Collingwood’s third-placed finish, they’ll have a low first-round draft pick, so they should get a good player – how good remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, role players such as Daniel McStay and Billy Frampton are hot on their radar, while Richmond’s targeted high-end talent such as Tim Taranto and Jacob Hopper. Previously, they picked up Dion Presti and Tom Lynch.

People marvel at Geelong’s resurgence, but they’ve brought in elite talent such as Patrick Dangerfield and Jeremy Cameron. Melbourne went after Jake Lever and Steven May.

Collingwood loves this Moneyball approach and there’s no doubt that it fits the club culture – battlers punching above the weight who take the club the distance.

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But going the distance isn’t winning.

We can be proud of their efforts, but is that enough?

While there’s a romanticism about an underdog almost pulling off the improbable, and while the club should be lauded, it’s obviously not a strategy that’s generating success. People may counter and argue. Many will throw out their “if only”.

But in the cold, hard light of day, in the unalterable annals of recorded history, it’s statistically proven that Collingwood just hasn’t been good enough time and time and time again.

Craig McRae could be the best coach the AFL’s ever seen, but if he doesn’t have the personnel, he’ll experience the same heartbreak as Tom Hafey and Bob Rose before him.

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