Collingwood coach Nathan Buckley addressing his charges against the Blues on Friday night. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo
WE MAY never know whether Luke Ball's second knee injury was a consequence of him returning to the field, if the serious damage was done the first time and obscured, or if the two injuries were unrelated coincidences. Such questions may only be answered, or guessed at, by Ball and the club medicos.
What can be safely said, though, is that the damage to Collingwood is severe. The Pies were in trouble before Ball's fall, having lost two players to knee reconstructions, with a string of others afflicted with less serious ailments, including key defenders Ben Reid and Chris Tarrant. They have a raft of players out of form. Today, you would not back them to win the flag with counterfeit money.
Collingwood, doubtless, will recover to some degree, win games and make a fist of a troubled season. It is a team and club of considerable character. But it is difficult to see how it can seriously contend for the premiership after losing three players for the season, one of them the club's toughest inside midfielder.
Ball is gone for a year, Reid for a few weeks with another upper leg problem. The Friday the 13th game against the Blues will truly be remembered as a black and white horror show.
The Pies have - or had - a formidable best 22. Their depth of ready-made players has dwindled. All-Australian small defender Leon Davis and the useful forward/ruck Leigh Brown, have retired and, outside of their top 24 or so, there's only inexperienced kids. This was evident in round one, when they fronted up against Hawthorn with three first gamers, plus four others with scant experience. Ben Sinclair has played all three games without demonstrating he's at AFL standard. Hawthorn, in contrast, can't necessarily find a spot for premiership players Clinton Young and Xavier Ellis.
Without Ball, it will be open season on Scott Pendlebury, Collingwood's midfield playmaker and superior extractor. Pendlebury was smothered by Andrew Carrazzo in a manner that we have not seen since the smooth operator became an elite player. The opposition's focus on Pendlebury will intensify now that he doesn't have Ball in his corner. Dane Swan, at his best as a burst runner, will be required to spend more time in heavy traffic too.
Predictably, some talkback baseball bats have been out for coach Nathan Buckley and president Eddie McGuire, whose decision to install Buckley was always going to be questioned once Collingwood faltered. Buckley cannot throw the season down the river. His major challenge is to find a way to rediscover the manic intensity around the ball - and at the opposition - that typified the Magpies until the latter stages of last year. If Collingwood doesn't play with the same resolve or energy, regardless of personnel (which is what matters most), the blame will be sheeted to him and the new coaching panel. It shouldn't be forgotten that two senior assistants from the last few years, Mark Neeld and Scott Watters, have graduated to senior gigs elsewhere.
Yet, Ball's injury also provides Buckley with a partial alibi. The expectations of the club and its vast fan base will be tempered; no one, not even the most irrational Collingwood fan, is about to blame him for a treble of knee reconstructions.
Unfortunately for Buckley's Pies, the forward press no longer represents the advantage of 2010. The better teams run through what has become a ''butter press.'' Collingwood's edge, indeed, was disappearing in the final rounds of 2011, prompting former coach Mick Malthouse to make adjustments for the grand final.
The Pies also had the problem of having one-paced forwards - none of Dayne Beams, Steele Sidebottom, Alex Fasolo, Alan Didak, Andrew Krakouer or Jarryd Blair is fleet of foot. Without great leg speed, it is difficult to pressure the opposition and hold the ball inside your attacking half.
In the remains of this season, Buckley will have to find another way to stymie the opposition. Collingwood was scored heavily against by Hawthorn and Carlton. Some players, notably an out-of-sorts Harry O'Brien, have been exposed in one-out contests. The question must be asked: was O'Brien shielded by Tarrant, Reid and co and/or a defensive system that has been overtaken?
The ruck is another worry given that Darren Jolly is 30 and was smashed by Matthew Kreuzer, and that Cameron Wood, despite Buckley's optimism, mightn't cut it.
In 2012, Collingwood is paying a price, too, for the draft picks it sacrificed in pursuit of premierships. Jolly and Ball brought home the bacon but cost the Pies picks 14 and 30 and some future talent. Krakouer and Marty Clarke have also cost draft picks, albeit they also received some kids, who might offer something, from Gold Coast and Greater Western Sydney, in package deals.
Circumstances are conspiring against Buckley in what shapes as a tough introduction to senior coaching. Can they still win it? One would think not. Their chances are slim; not much better than Buckley's hope.