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Footy Fix: The Pies might have embarrassed Port... but they're still not back to their best. Yet

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20th April, 2024
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A little over 12 months ago, Collingwood demolished Port Adelaide on a sunny Saturday afternoon at the MCG in the first of many, many signs in 2023 that they were destined for a premiership.

For two quarters on Saturday against the same opponent, at the same venue, with even the same weather, the Magpies looked every bit back to their best, ripping the Power to shreds with a ferocity and a speed that few sides in the competition could hope to match.

The result was a 41-point win that will reaffirm in the eyes of many that the Pies, after a sluggish start to 2024, are back in business – and indeed, I’d have felt the same if I only looked at the margin and the quality of the opposition.

But for all their dominance, there are still some bugs in the Magpie machine that need fixing, most of them without the ball, and you can bet other teams that don’t turn up their toes the minute the heat goes up like the Power did at the MCG will be able to punish them without getting so comprehensively ripped apart the other way.

No doubt overturning a 31-point deficit so commandingly will give the Pies a huge confidence boost, as well as send a shiver down the spines of their foes; but any team that can give up a lead like that is still vulnerable, no matter what they have in reserve.

Part of the reason I’m still holding out on declaring the Pies back in business is also the manner with which that tore the Power up.

Having been exposed repeatedly on the outside throughout the opening term, Craig McRae’s solution was simple: simply deny Port as much ball as possible, take complete control of all stoppages, and surge the ball with pace and purpose forward to a backline outsized but with speed to burn on their bigger, slower defenders.

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It was a game plan made for the rangy Will Hoskin-Elliott, often a whipping boy among Magpies fans, who had what might be the best game of his career: with 21 disposals and nine marks, all of the latter by half time, his superb second quarter was the catalyst to spark the Pies into life.

Just as impactful, though, was their completecontrol at the coalface: after losing the contested possession count by one in the first term, the Pies proceeded to win it by 17 in the second and 17 more in the third, ending up with a whopping 41-possession advantage.

Their eventual tally of 161 is their equal-most under McRae, tying at the top with what they mustered in a wet-weather scrap against Richmond last year; only once since the start of 2022 have they won the stat by more. That was, as it happens, in the corresponding match against Port in 2023, when they won it by a frankly outrageous 57 (155-98).

To do it in sunny conditions against an opposition with three of the most acclaimed midfielders in the game in Zak Butters, Connor Rozee and Jason Horne-Francis is a commanding performance.

Butters’ gradual waning of influence summed up the change in mood: of his 15 first-quarter disposals that consistently punished the Pies going from inside stoppages to outside, not a single one was considered a clearance, with the number 9 playing a more peripheral role as the link man outside stoppages to capitalise on Jason Horne-Francis and Ollie Wines’ hard work over the footy.

When the Pies took over, those handballs out dried up, and Butters’ impact waned, with just six disposals in the next two quarters before building his numbers up again in the last with the contest all but decided.

There’s a caveat to it, though: this isn’t the way the Pies have historically won games of footy since Macrae took over, especially not in the dry. It’s just the 20th time since he took over that they’ve won the contested possession count, across 57 games.

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If this is a sign of a new, hard-nosed Collingwood that wants to work teams over for the hard ball, then tremendous, especially with Jordan De Goey back to his explosive best after a rough start to the season.

But those numbers back up the eye test that the Power were shown up when the going got tough, be it a one-off shocker or a sign that this highly touted midfield of theirs has a glaring weakness. Which is enough to ask the Pies to show that sort of ferocity can be maintained, and – and this is key – that they can do it without sacrificing their one-wood of fast, silky outside play, before hailing them as a force once more.

The other factor to consider is just how vulnerable the Pies looked in that first quarter, with the Power piling on six of the game’s first seven goals before the reigning premiers could so much as blink.

What was concerningly apparent was the lack of trust that proved the cornerstone of the Magpies’ defensive structure from last year; often last year the defence and wingmen would hold their ground away from the contest, prevent as much overlap run as possible, and entrust whoever was at the ball and responsible for the opponent with it would stick doggedly to the task.

That’s a hard trait to maintain, especially when you start losing and desperately want to be the one to turn it around: that’s the only reason I can think of for why Patrick Lipinski would leave Butters all on his own and try to block Sam Powell-Pepper here, rather than entrust that job to Steele Sidebottom and Lachie Schultz.

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Four of Port’s six goals essentially came from decisions just like Lipinski’s; some were obvious, while others, like Jeremy Howe abandoning Willie Rioli near the goalsquare to try and influence a contest he was never going to get to, were less so, with only Jackson Mead getting the job done himself preventing him from looking even sillier.

This has been a common problem for the Pies all season long, with GWS’ fleet of small forwards in particular shredding them in Opening Round. For it to remain such an issue in a match they won by 41 points makes it less pressing of an issue, but I’d be shocked if McRae didn’t make that a focus at training during the week.

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There’s no denying Collingwood’s best on Saturday afternoon was breathtaking, and a stern reminder that they can still turn it on to a level few other teams can match.

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But there will be teams to give them a much sterner contest for the hard ball than the Power managed; and when – and it is a when – that happens, the Pies might not look so comprehensively back as they do right now.

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