The Roar
The Roar


Footy Fix: Fly's Pies have officially been worked out - but that's just the start of their problems

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21st March, 2024
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Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

To be honest, I didn’t think I’d need to invoke a famous William Butler Yeats poem about post-WW1 Europe to describe Collingwood at any stage in my life – but it’s been that kind of start to the season for the reigning premiers.

The Pies’ first two losses for the season, both emphatic ones at the hands of GWS and Sydney, could reasonably have been excused, if not waved away entirely, as coming against two bona fide premiership contenders playing at the peak of their powers.

With the greatest of respect to St Kilda and Ross Lyon, both of whom showed a tremendous amount of resolve, gumption and skill both to wrestle control away from the Pies after half time and then to hold their nerve at the death with footy’s most infamous comeback artists on the charge home, I’m not sure you can give the same pass mark here.

This was the sort of game the Pies of last year would have ripped to shreds, or at least dictated terms throughout with only the mildest hiccups. An opposition willing to take risks but burning more than their fair share of passes by foot seems, on paper, to play right into Craig McRae’s explosive slingshot style, with the Magpies surely quicker than anyone on the counterattack across 2022 and 2023 and capable of punishing errors wherever they occurred.

That’s not the case for Collingwood circa 2024. For every mistake the Saints made, the Pies matched with one of their own, often in even costlier positions, and from some of their most iconic names.

Mitch Owens and Nick Daicos.

Mitch Owens and Nick Daicos. (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Then, when the Saints lifted in a third-quarter rush that blew the game off its hinges, the Pies of old would have found a way to slow momentum, to slowly but surely wrestle the match back onto their terms so when the comeback arrived, it didn’t feel so sudden and fleeting as it did on Thursday night at the MCG.


There are countless reasons, physical, psychological and hell, even moral, that you could cling to to try and explain what’s going on at the moment, but the conclusion I’ve drawn is relatively simple: the Pies have, at last, been worked out. And what’s more: they’re playing bad, sloppy footy because of it.

The key stat, I think, is the turnover count: by anyone’s standards, but particularly Collingwood’s, 79 turnovers is an awful lot. By comparison, in 2023 they averaged 66.7 per game, fourth-lowest in the league – and it’s worth noting that the lowest team, West Coast, sits there because they could hardly lay hands on the ball TO turn it over for most of that year.

Against the Saints, the repeat, often baffling, clangers spoke of a team so desperate to try and get the match back on their terms that they abandoned all reason to try and do it. And no one summed that up better than Darcy Moore.

The Pies skipper isn’t exactly known for his skills with ball in hand, but he’s usually safe enough playing within his limitations to avoid massive, costly howlers in the back half. I counted half a dozen of those howlers against the Saints, and was even pretty generous on a few where he arrived just too late to a contest to impact – but it’s worth noting that that’s unusual in and of itself, too. Moore didn’t arrive just too late all that often in 2022 or 2023.

The above video was the most egregious of all: sure, the handball is a shocker, but what’s noticeable is just how quickly Moore looks to set it up after taking a strong intercept mark. How swiftly he wants to set up a counterattack play, so as to handball so indiscriminately without even taking a moment to check whether there was a Bradley Hill in the vicinity ready to swoop.


Even if the handball had indeed hit Lipinski, what the hell was he supposed to do with it? He’d have had the ball, in the back pocket, with three Saints closing in, a one-on-one up the line, and one free man – Scott Pendlebury, I think – loping some 65 metres away. No footballer in the country is going to be able to do anything with that in the time and space offered to him.

Add to that that, with just three minutes left on the clock until quarter time after a relatively frenetic opening, there was no reason to not go back to take the kick, soak up some time, give everyone a breather, and kick long and down the line to the advantage of the talls – heck, Mason Cox took a couple of really nice marks in the second quarter employing exactly that strategy.

Moore was far from the only culprit – Billy Frampton was actually quite imposing in defence in his first game of the season, but a couple of moments rank among the dumbest of 2024 – first him completely wiping out the much smaller Jack Higgins on the goal line when he could easily have spoiled legally, and him handballing into Darcy Moore’s face from a metre and a half away on the half-forward flank, leading to a turnover that left both the Pies’ two key defenders left upfield and Jeremy Howe one out 100 metres away with Max King for company.

The Pies have made no secret of their ‘organised chaos’ style since McRae took over, but there has always been an underlying order to it, particularly defensively. Whether in response to the troubles further afield, or personnel issues, or the simple truth that it’s a system that is hard to replicate year on year, that order is now in shambles, to the point it’s getting hard to remember just how effective it was last year.

Without the ball, things are looking rough, too. 54 tackles for the evening would have been the Pies’ equal fourth-lowest of 2023, but it’s already higher than the 51 they laid against Sydney last week.

Lazy analysis will make the case that it’s all about desperation, that the Pies’ tackle numbers are so low that they just don’t want it enough, but for me the answer is more complex.


Teams know, particularly in their defensive 50, that Collingwood bring serious heat, try to either lock the ball in or force a direct turnover with furious attack on man and ball, and eventually the weight of numbers will turn their way.

The Saints’ response was to simply keep their wingmen, and spare defender – usually Jack Sinclair – wide of contests, back themselves to win the hard ball, and then have an outlet kick staring them in the face, usually to their best users.

Sinclair finished with seven marks for the game; Nasiah Wanganeen-Milera 11; Josh Battle 7; Callum Wilkie 9. Wingmen Darcy Wilson and Ryan Byrnes? 6 and 8, respectively. All designed specifically to allow quick getaways from defensive 50, deny

98 of those 106 marks were uncontested: only three teams last season had more against the Pies in a match. Tellingly, though, one was a cooked Essendon in the last home-and-away round who managed three goals for the game; another was an out of nick Sydney mid-season who had 74 clangers and kicked atrociously all afternoon; and the other was Hawthorn in Round 21, who comprehensively blitzed them.

Because once the Saints won the ball back in their defensive 50 – and with just one tackle in their attacking zone for the day, the Pies were incapable of stopping them from doing that – they were lethal.

Seven of their goals were set up from plays similar to, if not quite as spectacular as, the one below: precise kicking, overlap run past Magpies suddenly caught out in unfamiliar space – Jeremy Howe rushing up on the attacking wing side and missing a tackle is a real ‘What is a polar bear doing in Arlington, Texas?’ moment – and a defence, Moore in particular, caught unprepared and unable to get in their usual positions to stop goals from coming.


Last year, one of those tackles sticks, or a contest is forced further afield. It means Moore has the time to get back into the dangerous spot inside 50, and not get stuck manning Tim Membrey on the half-forward flank, taking him out of the play. It means it’s him flying for an intercept mark and not Steele Sidebottom, whose half-hearted spoil right into the hot zone spoke of someone who really didn’t expect to be having to fly for a footy at all.

You can do nothing but admire the Saints, and Lyon in particular. If your team has a weakness, they will exploit it. If you are vulnerable, they will pounce and rip out your gizzards like a velociraptor in the Gobi Desert. There’s no team in the AFL less capable of giving a sucker an even break than them.

But this isn’t just any regular old team they cut apart – this is the reigning premiers. The team who, with their bold, electric play, their repeat Houdini comebacks and their complete commitment to making magic happen, tricked a significant portion of the footy world into kind of liking Collingwood for a bit.

This is officially the biggest test of McRae’s coaching career to date. At 0-3, it’s far from too late to turn the ship around – but it’s going to take a radical revamp, and the clock is officially ticking.

Things are falling apart, and as it stands right now, the centre certainly cannot hold. Darcy Moore is absolutely lacking in all conviction, and I’m pretty sure Brayden Maynard’s birth certificate reads ‘full of passionate intensity’.


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As for that blood-dimmed tide that Yeats was talking about? Well, Brisbane at the Gabba is up next. Hoo, boy.