Four weeks ago, after an efficient Queen’s Birthday holiday disposal of Melbourne, Collingwood was parked comfortably in the AFL’s top four.
The Magpies had just won a seventh game from eight starts, only percentage separated them from second and, at face value, this season had, in premiership terms, another serious player.
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Will the Pies play a part in the finals?
With a tough draw ahead for Collingwood, senior AFL writer Rohan Connolly believe the Pies are no lock for finals footy.
Yet some scepticism about the Pies’ credentials relative to their top-order rivals remained, doubts that right now look to have been well-founded.
The toll since that 33-point win before 68,000 people is three losses and a narrow victory, and the consequences have been dramatic. Not only is Collingwood two games adrift of the top four, by next Sunday afternoon it could be out of the top eight altogether.
Sunday’s MCG clash with an Essendon buoyed by a tremendous win on the road against Port Adelaide is big enough. But it is just the first in a series of considerable obstacles the Pies must climb simply to be part of September for a ninth successive season.
After the Bombers, Collingwood meets Adelaide, another side pushing hard for the top eight. Then they play Port Adelaide. There’s a road trip to Perth to meet West Coast, then a couple of more winnable assignments against Brisbane and Greater Western Sydney before a huge final-round challenge against Hawthorn.
In their current state, the Pies would start a warm favourite in perhaps only two of their last seven games. And the task of turning things around for coach Nathan Buckley won’t be that simple, because it’s becoming clearer for Collingwood that the issues are multiple.
The Magpies’ defence has held up pretty well this season, but the loss of Nick Maxwell since round 11 has become more telling by the week, the backmen more frequently pulled out of position and taken to places they’d rather not be.
The forward line has been a festering sore all year, most apparent in the waning of Travis Cloke’s output and the over-reliance upon him and Jamie Elliott, a costly loss for the Gold Coast game, to keep the scoreboard ticking over.
On Saturday night, Gold Coast talls Sam Day, Tom Lynch and Charlie Dixon booted eight of their side’s 11 goals and hauled in 10 marks inside the forward 50. Of Collingwood’s 10-goal tally, Cloke’s two goals were the only ones to come from a genuine marking target. He took five marks inside 50. Only one other Magpie took more than one.
Jesse White’s omission for the clash with the Suns was significant, Buckley preferring the makeshift options of resting ruckmen Brodie Grundy and Jarrod Witts. Ben Reid’s injury woes have been a huge setback, and the news that he again hurt a calf in the VFL on Sunday the worst timing possible.
Given White’s struggles and the failure of Quinten Lynch before him to offer Cloke enough support, you wonder whether Collingwood laments more the loss of Chris Dawes the longer time passes.
But the jewel in the Pies’ crown in those glorious seasons of 2010-11 was always their midfield, and at the moment, while the names are still largely the same, their output collectively is a pale imitation of what it was.
The flow-on effect for Collingwood’s goalkicking is the most obvious legacy. In the Magpies’ nine wins this season, the midfield group consisting of Scott Pendlebury, Dayne Beams, Dane Swan, Steele Sidebottom, Luke Ball, Clinton Young and Josh Thomas, have between them kicked 50 goals. In their six losses, the tally is just 16.
Little wonder that as goalkicking spreads become a more telling indicator of team success, Collingwood continues to average fewer individual goalkickers per game than all but the bottom handful of teams.
Swan's form is a growing concern. The Brownlow medallist had averaged 30 or more possessions a game for five consecutive seasons heading into 2014. This season, he’s going at 26, a significant fall.
More than that, though, Swan appears to have lost his explosiveness, looking more often to give the ball off sideways or backwards than after breaking the lines. His efficiency has waned and he’s been uncharacteristically fumbly of late
Swan isn’t the only premiership player struggling, of course. Heritier Lumumba was very ordinary against the Suns and Jarryd Blair appears to have stagnated in his development this season.
But the struggles of those more experienced members of the line-up, and the increasing dependence on the brilliance of Pendlebury, have become more conspicuous as Collingwood introduces more younger faces to AFL football. That induction would be a lot smoother were their senior teammates putting their hands up more regularly.
Of course, just how big a hole the Magpies are in depends largely on the perception of where they stand in the AFL pecking order.
Buckley and the Collingwood brains trust don’t appear to be under any illusions that the Pies are some way behind the genuinely elite teams in the competition. But for those who continue to believe this is a side that should be doing a lot better, potentially missing the finals for the first time in nearly a decade could prove a very rude awakening.
And while I'm at it...
TIME TO REWARD THE TACKLE
If the interpretation of holding the ball is the obvious simmering issue with umpiring in 2014, one can only hope the decision involving Port Adelaide’s Angus Monfries and Essendon’s Mark Baguley on Saturday night is the straw which breaks the camel’s back in terms of an overhaul.
Baguley’s desperate chasing down and tackle on his opponent in a frantic finish at Adelaide Oval was textbook stuff, which deserved to be rewarded. As has happened too often this season, it wasn’t.
Had Port managed another goal after the one that followed this non-decision, we’d now have potentially the biggest umpiring controversy of this season on our hands.
Monfries took the ball, had several steps to decide what to do with it, and was nailed in the act of kicking. If the call was that the ball had spilled free in the tackle, that’s a criteria that needs urgent review, for given the pace of today’s game and the power with which tackles are applied, how many aren’t going to see the ball dislodged?
Tackling is one of our game’s greatest arts. Isn’t it time those who execute them perfectly again start getting the spoils their efforts deserve?
OTHER SUNS CAN SHINE
If every cloud in football has a silver lining, Gary Ablett’s shoulder dislocation and a score of other injuries to Gold Coast certainly provided the Suns with one on Saturday.
The Suns will rarely have a better chance to prove that there are now plenty of strings to their bow than their gripping win over Collingwood, with no rotations left on the bench, and Ablett, Charlie Dixon, Trent McKenzie and Sean Lemmens out of action.
The response from those who remained was emphatic, David Swallow, Harley Bennell, Jarrod Harbrow and Jaeger O’Meara combining for just on 40 possessions between them in the nail-biting final term, Sam Day and Tom Lynch dragging down five marks, and the Suns generally keeping their composure.
This season has seen the Suns come of age, and their against-the-odds victory over an opponent with all the momentum can only have expedited that process.
Gold Coast has had a huge six weeks and emerged with a 2-4 scoreline. Now, as it tackles some more winnable games, and closes in on what would be a hard-earned and popular debut finals appearance, it does so at least with supreme confidence it’s not all about “Gazza”.