Big ask: Collingwood skipper Nick Maxwell may be forced to be the second ruckman against Hawthorn on Friday night.

Big ask: Collingwood skipper Nick Maxwell may be forced to be the second ruckman against Hawthorn on Friday night. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo

RECOVERY SESSION

SINCE the retirement of Leigh Brown, Collingwood has struggled with the second ruck/forward role in which Brown proved so competent.

The Pies spent much of this season using Chris Dawes in the Brown role. Unfortunately, Dawes is better suited to the Dawes role. This year, his new relief rucking job has involved more dropped marks and fewer goals.

Cameron Wood is a ruck only. Nic Naitanui and Dean Cox used Wood as a ruck bag two weeks ago. In fairness, they can do that to more capable rucks than Wood, who is Collingwood's emergency first ruck, on call to play only when Darren Jolly can't.

Dawes' struggles have been such that Collingwood trialled a highly unorthodox plan C on Saturday night against the Bombers, when skipper Nick Maxwell, barely big enough to play as a key defender, auditioned as the support ruck.

Maxwell can't ruck, of course, so the Pies imposed some limits. The skipper would never take a centre bounce - Jolly did those - and he would be helped by liberal use of the ''third man up'' tactic. Twice, Scott Pendlebury played that impromptu part.

Pendlebury said his role as third player up was a matter of circumstance rather than pre-ordained.

''More than anything last weekend it was just circumstance … I wanted to try something different and jump third man up, but I only did it twice for the whole night. There wasn't too much in it, but if the opportunity presents itself again this weekend it's something I will look at doing … it will just help us combat that little bit of weakness when 'Jolls' is [off the ground].''

Collingwood's solution to the lack of a second ruck was to go without one completely. It is a high-risk approach, which invites the debate about whether Dawes should be brought back for the Hawks.

To deploy Maxwell as the second ruck had significant consequences, some of which proved beneficial. In the absence of Dawes, Travis Cloke relished the new forward set-up and produced his best performance of a sub-par season in the last game. Defender Alan Toovey felt Maxwell as-second-ruck ''worked OK.'' Pendlebury added yesterday: ''Maxy's a competitor and that's all you want. Compete and give us a chance. He had a tough ask against David Hille, who's one of the bigger ruckmen going around, so if we go that way again this weekend I'm sure Maxy's going to compete as hard as he can.''

Jackson Paine replaced Dawes as a stand-alone forward and produced modest numbers. As a first-year player, he isn't physically ready. But the role he played coincided with Cloke's rediscovery of his hitherto elusive power marking (and 5.4). Nathan Buckley will have to weigh up, not only whether Jolly needs a more feasible support ruck than Maxwell, but whether Cloke becomes more threatening without Dawes. Or was Dawes' absence irrelevant to Cloke? Chris Tarrant hinted the Pies were likely to stick with the new status quo of no Dawes, no second ruck and - presumably - Paine holding his spot.

That means Maxwell could well find himself rucking again. If that happens, Collingwood will keep him out of centre bounces and maybe confine him to competing against Jarryd Roughead, who is listed at the same height as Maxwell (193 centimetres, though the Hawk is much heavier and seems taller). Roughead, incidentally, is precisely the player the Pies lack, a deluxe version of Leigh Brown.

The other factor for Buckley, Rodney Eade and co to consider is the impact of Maxwell's occasional ruck stints on the back line, where he still spent the majority of the Essendon match. The skipper's organisational skills are critical to the Pies' defence.

''Defensively, we have enough players to cover for him in the back six,'' said Toovey. ''But, yeah, when he's not there it takes a leader out of the back six and a really good backman. It's just going to be up to the coaches to decide what they want this week.''

Pendlebury reckoned whether it was Dawes or Maxwell as Jolly's back-up had little impact on how the midfield functioned. ''When 'Dawesy' or whoever was playing that second ruck role I don't think they were playing a hell of a lot different to the time 'Maxy' [Maxwell] might have on the weekend.''

Round 23 is not the ideal time to be experimenting with a different forward and ruck set-up, but these are desperate times for Buckley's team, given the underwhelming performances against North Melbourne and then West Coast. If there was improvement against Essendon - particularly in winning clearances, contested balls and Cloke - it was Essendon, not Hawthorn.