Two on one: Collingwood captain Nick Maxwell is put under pressure by young Bombers Jackson Merrett and Nick O’Brien at the MCG last night. Photo: Paul Rovere
COLLINGWOOD 5.5 7.11 10.17 14.20 (104) ESSENDON 4.3 7.3 9.7 10.12 (72)
GOALS Collingwood: Cloke 5, Fasolo 2, Krakouer, Beams, Swan, O'Brien, Shaw, Paine, Goldsack. Essendon: Zaharakis 2, O'Brien 2, Monfries, Heppell, Myers, Watson, Hurley, Crameri. BEST Collingwood: Cloke, Swan, Fasolo, Thomas, Beams, O'Brien, Maxwell, Pendlebury. Essendon: Watson, Heppell, Zaharakis, Hibberd, Hille, Hurley. INJURIES Collingwood: Goldsack (ankle). Essendon: T Bellchambers (ankle) replaced in selected side by Browne.
UMPIRES Donlon, McBurney, Jennings.
CROWD 56,491 at MCG.
THE result Collingwood needed last night was more about the man than the team. Travis Cloke, the man who can guide this team's fortune this month more than any other, unburdened himself to find the sort of form that allows Collingwood to believe.
It was fitting of Collingwood's season that it confirmed a top-four finish with a performance that came close to being good, but was not quite. It had moments of very good and some very ordinary. It was an almost performance. Kick straight and the pieces could be said to have fallen into place, for the attack on the goal was there, but not the execution.
Essendon v Collingwood
Cale Hooker looks on as Magpies forward Travis Cloke takes a strong mark. Photo: Paul Rovere
What was convincing about them was Cloke. The most important man to Collingwood's September - with Darren Jolly - Cloke rediscovered his form at the 11th hour. Cloke took 16 marks - and more than half of them were contested - illustrating precisely why clubs are contemplating that five-year deal for him. Cloke has taken more than 10 marks in one other game this year - against GWS - so that gives an indication of his performance. He kicked five goals but might have had 10 but for a few misses - at least this time there were no howlers.
There was a dirty intent about Cloke to do well that was evident from the outset. He had 10 marks before half-time. Essendon was only a goal down on Collingwood when coach James Hird shifted his best key tall player, Michael Hurley, who is wearing a plaster cast on a wrist that will require surgery in the next week, from forward to defence. The Bombers were only a goal down but at that point Cloke was double figures for marks and had kicked 3.3. But for a few shots pushed wide he might have had six in a half. Cale Hooker was not the answer.
The idea of Hurley playing on Cloke in the second half might have helped Cloke's confidence because Hurley is a more challenging opponent than Hooker. He did OK on Cloke until the big man slipped away in the last quarter for a couple of strong pack marks and goals.
Collingwood could not hope to win the flag without Cloke playing well. Even though it has the tough task of trying to topple Hawthorn on Friday night, at least the Pies' most important player is back in form. It changes the picture even if there was a scrappiness about Collingwood in other parts of the ground.
Essendon was finding the resolve to keep going in its last game of the year harder as the match wore on. The Dons did not give up but trying was getting harder.
Collingwood, minus Chris Dawes, had to restructure its forward line and ruck division. Last night the Pies sampled a new system that had teenager Jackson Paine playing from the goal square.
At the start of the second quarter Cloke led at the ball and took the mark, towing Hooker to the contest. He did not wait on his kick but turned and booted the ball to the goal square where Paine needed to be. He was. The young forward outpointed Tayte Pears to mark on the goal line and convert. It was an unusual experience for Collingwood of late - one kick to a key forward who marks and kicks long to another key forward who marks and goals.
Jolly was asked to stay on the ground almost throughout the match and the versatile captain Nick Maxwell was asked to assist in the ruck. Collingwood managed to avoid using an alternate ruck at any of the centre bounces but around the ground Maxwell bodied against David Hille. At those stoppages a third man climbed in over the top - normally Scott Pendlebury - to get a hand on the ball.
Andrew Krakouer returned to the side after 27 weeks out with a knee reconstruction and kicked one goal and provided plenty of spark.
Essendon had about it a familiar feel for this season. The Dons began brightly but tired and faded.
They relied heavily on Jobe Watson, while Hille was robust in the centre and Hurley was needed forward and back. They also had earnest contributors in David Zaharakis, Brent Stanton and Dyson Heppell but lacked polish from too many others.
COMEBACK ON CUE
Andrew Krakouer's rehab ran perfectly to script last night. Just six months after having his knee reconstructed he was back on the MCG one week out from the finals. He didn't look like he'd been missing for long, picking up some smart possessions then celebrating his third-quarter set shot, which put the Pies four goals ahead late in the term, with a smile, a fist pump and the attention of almost every teammate, who rushed to him.
MORE BABY BOMBERS
Essendon's season has petered out in a major way, but the Bombers have at least had a small glimpse of the future. Jackson Merrett made his debut, Alex Browne found a bit of the ball after coming on as the sub after coming into the 22 as a late replacement for Tom Bellchambers, and Nick O'Brien also did some good things.
INJURIES TAKE TOLL
It says plenty about Essendon's never-ending injury list that just two players made it from round one through until last night's match. Jake Melksham and Jobe Watson are the only two Bombers to have played all 22 games. Melksham was last night more involved than he has been lately and skipper Watson, well held by Richmond's Daniel Jackson after half-time last week, finished the year in the excellent form he started it in. - EMMA QUAYLE