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AFL pre-season notebook: De new Brownlow contender, Tigers journeyman takes chance with both hands

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27th February, 2024
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There was a final-siren fight, plenty of rust and a LOT of behinds – but the first AFL Community Series match of the week is done, with Collingwood running out 30-point winners over an inaccurate Richmond to ‘begin’ their premiership defence on a winning note.

A week out from Opening Round, both sides had enough to prove – the Tigers to new coach Adem Yze, the Pies to the footy world that the dreaded ‘premiership hangover’ can be avoided – to make this a hard-fought and occasionally spicy game from start to finish.

The Tigers again showed their risk-filled, high-intensity slingshot style, and proved in an exhilarating first term that it can stack up against the very best; while a ruckman given a lifeline showed he’ll be a precious early-season fill in for the injured Toby Nankervis if required.

For the Pies, it was mostly about the lesser lights – impressive displays from Will Hoskin-Elliott and Patrick Lipinski plus a brief cameo from Finlay Macrae the standouts – but one of their stars showed why many think he’s ready to take the next step into the game’s very top tier in 2024.

Here’s what we learned out of Collingwood’s win over Richmond.

The Pies are still very, very good

Here’s a hot take – the reigning premiers will be tough to beat in 2024.

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In fairness, not since Richmond went back-to-back in 2019 and 2020 have the flag holders so much as won a final the year after; but after predicting the Pies would miss the finals in last year’s AFL Oracle (more fool me), I won’t be making the same mistake this time around.

With a perfect mix of speed and toughness around the ball, the Pies, after a sluggish first quarter, overwhelmed a younger but still accomplished Richmond midfield around the contest, with Jordan De Goey’s brute strength, Nick and Josh Daicos’ outside class and Steele Sidebottom’s experience gelling together perfectly.

With whipping boy Will Hoskin-Elliott impressive in a new role across half-back, picking up 11 marks, and grand final sub Patrick Lipinski looking keen to entrench himself in the best 22 proper this year with two goals and plenty of spread across a wing, competition for spots is going to be intense all season long, which can surely only inspire the fringe players to reach another level.

Lachie Schultz is so perfect for Collingwood football that it’s hard to not ink him in already as the recruit of the year favourite; it took him a quarter to sync up with the Magpies’ system, but was one of the most impactful players on the field from the second term onwards.

Quicker and a more forceful tackler than Jack Ginnivan, with similar goal nous, Schultz spent plenty of time up the field playing the always difficult high half-forward role, taking six marks and launching the Pies inside 50 five times while allowing Bobby Hill to remain closer to goal and cause all manner of headaches for Richmond’s defence.

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No doubt McRae would like his midfield pressure to be a little sharper, as not many teams will let the Pies get away with 21 scoring shots like the Tigers did; but all in all, getting through pre-season unscathed, with a good win, and encouraging performances from faces fresh and fringe alike is about as good as it gets for a reigning premier.

Richmond won’t be dull

The jury is still out on whether the Tigers will be any good in Adem Yze’s first season at the helm, but if their two pre-season matches are anything to go by, they’ll always be worth a watch if you’re a neutral supporter.

The polish needs some work, but a run and gun, daring style is already beginning to form in front of us: Yze’s Tigers will be far more aggressive in their ball movement than in later years under Damien Hardwick and then under last year’s caretaker Andrew McQualter.

Richmond half-backs repeatedly were given licence to surge well up the ground to help create an overlap on the Collingwood midfield, with Daniel Rioli and Jayden Short especially streaming between wing and half-forward on the counterattack.

It’s little wonder Noah Balta, a premiership-winning defender and a staple in the Tigers’ back six for years, has been swung forward: incredibly quick for his size, strong as a bull and great overhead, he’ll be a nightmare running back towards goal for any opposition defender if and when Richmond get a fast break going.

The challenge will be in sanding off the rough edges, which will take time: the Tigers struggled to generate high-quality shots at goal in the first half, with an inaccurate 2.10 scoreline mostly down to needing to take shots from long range as their play developed too quickly for their forwards to get in position to capitalise.

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Just five marks inside 50 up to midway through the third quarter, despite a comfortable lead in the inside-50 count, will also need to be addressed; sometimes, it felt like the Tigers were trying to move the ball too swiftly for their own good.

Equally, with high reward comes high risk, and the reigning premiers were only too quick to capitalise when the Tigers’ ambitious passing from defence occasionally came unstuck.

At worst, the Tigers will likely resemble a 2023 Hawthorn this year: the win column might be nothing to write home about, but they’ll be captivating to watch all the same as a mini-rebuild begins.

Sam Naismith can play(smith)

With captain Toby Nankervis battling a foot injury that has him in grave doubt for Round 1, and long-term backup Ivan Soldo traded to Port Adelaide, the Tigers can be immensely relieved to have had the foresight to sign Sam Naismith as a delisted free agent in the off-season.

Having been cut by the Swans after six years of nearly uninterrupted injury concerns, including three separate knee reconstructions, Naismith, who has played a mere two AFL games since the end of 2017, impressed as much for his competitiveness and athleticism around the ground as for his ruckwork, which will come in handy for him when Nankervis returns.

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Involved regularly in the Tigers’ transition from stoppages, he was more than a match aerobically for Pies duo Darcy Cameron and Mason Cox, while an impressive shark and baulk around an opponent in the forward pocket, albeit missing with his snap, belied a man wo has had as many knee issues as anyone in recent AFL memory.

With Samson Ryan a capable back-up, the Tigers will no doubt be hoping captain Nankervis returns as soon as possible – but until then, and perhaps even afterwards if he can show enough around the grounds to encourage Adem Yze to persist with him up forward, Naismith will be a vital asset.

Why no Finlay?

It took until midway through the first quarter for Finlay Macrae to finally be given a chance by Craig McRae to continue his exciting pre-season – and he showed plenty in that brief stint to suggest he’s going places in 2024.

Winning 10 disposals – four of them clearances – and already resembling star brother Jack (Western Bulldogs) in both his hard-nosed ball-winning and his unique gait breaking away from stoppages, the only knock was on his disposal, with a combination of 267 metres gained, six inside 50s and a 60 per cent disposal efficiency telling of a tendency to roost the ball long and hope for the best rather than back his foot skills to hit up a target.

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Dominant in the Pies’ recent intra-club game, and equally impressive in last week’s trial match against North Melbourne, Macrae has been a regular at centre bounces throughout this pre-season, but apparently still sits behind Jordan De Goey (more in him in a sec), Nick Daicos and Tom Mitchell in the primary midfield rotation.

Breaking into a reigning premier’s best team is hard, especially when 22 of the flag-winning 23 remain on the list, and that looks like being the biggest barrier to Macrae having a breakout season in 2024.

Not great news for us SuperCoach afficionados, but as strong a sign of the Pies’ near-unmatched depth as any.

Jordan De Brownlow, anyone?

It’s hard to recall the exact moment when De Goey went from enigmatic but frustratingly inconsistent forward/midfielder to a fully-fledged star on-baller, but he’s well and truly entrenched in the latter category now.

And if his dominant performance against the Tigers is any indication, the Pies gun might even be ready to lift himself into the true top tier of midfielders in the AFL, alongside the likes of Marcus Bontempelli, Christian Petracca and Jordan Dawson (yes, I rate Dawson that highly, and no, I won’t be taking any questions).

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Jordan De Goey breaks away from an attempted tackle by Dion Prestia.

Jordan De Goey breaks away from an attempted tackle by Dion Prestia. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

De Goey was unstoppable in the second quarter especially against the Tigers, with his explosiveness from stoppages and excellent skills on the outside a nightmare combination for the Richmond midfield group.

All but untacklable, he’d finish with 22 disposals, a whopping nine clearances – far and away the most of anyone on the ground – and a goal, despite sitting out much of the last quarter.

With Scott Pendlebury rested from proceedings ahead of Opening Round, there was no doubt De Goey has now become the Pies’ premier on-baller, and stopping him will be as crucial to Collingwood’s rivals in 2024 as keeping Nick Daicos under wraps – and equally hard to do.

Both can and will tear you apart – but De Goey, remarkably, might be the one of the two to inflict more damage when he does so.

Random Observations

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– I really, really hope Steely Green plays plenty of senior football this season.

– That Jack Graham last-minute injury sucks. Not a great start to probably the most important season of his career.

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