Photo call: The AFL captains in Sydney yesterday. Photo: Getty Images
INJURIES and the suspension of important midfielder Sharrod Wellingham will leave Collingwood far from its best for next Friday's round-one blockbuster against popular premiership fancy Hawthorn, but Magpies captain Nick Maxwell believes the pre-season seemingly from hell could end up a blessing in disguise.
In stark contrast to last year, when Collingwood won the NAB Cup then proceeded to blast a series of hapless opponents off the park in the early rounds, the Pies this time suffered a score of injuries, recorded only narrow victories in two abbreviated games against the Western Bulldogs and AFL novice Greater Western Sydney, lost to Melbourne and were thrashed by eventual pre-season premier Adelaide.
But with Andrew Krakouer and Brent Macaffer already gone for the season, the likes of Chris Tarrant, Alan Didak, Ben Johnson, Dayne Beams and long-term casualty Nathan Brown still underdone, Maxwell himself battling to make it to the line for round one after an ankle injury, and a chastened Wellingham now out of the running until at least round three, Maxwell is preferring the long-term view.
''It's hard to say how far off [our best] we'll be [against Hawthorn], but one of the good things that has come out of it is that we haven't peaked now,'' said the Collingwood premiership skipper at yesterday's AFL captains' press conference. ''I think last year we were peaking early in [the] season and sort of fell away towards the end, so it's good in that regard that it's more a marathon, and we're working towards that.''
Maxwell said Wellingham, who was suspended for drinking while attempting to return from an injury setback, would still have to work hard to win back his spot in the senior 22 after an enforced two-game penance in the VFL, despite the likely absence of so many first-choice players.
''We've got team rules and standards that we want to uphold and he didn't uphold them,'' he said. ''We expect more from him as an emerging leader at our football club … it's not good timing with the situation we've got with injuries and guys unavailable, but we're willing to make those calls to make sure the long-term standards of our club are held up.
''Sharrod understands that, he knows what he's done wrong, he took it on the chin, and he'll be doing a lot of his work with the VFL, but his form is going to have to be up for the VFL as well. So he's got the opportunity to play a couple of games there and show us how much it means to him. If his form's good enough in those first two weeks, then he's in our best 22 players, but that's completely up to him. If he puts his best foot forward and shows us through his training form and through those two games that he deserves to be in there, he'll be selected.''
While Maxwell is confident his ankle sprain will have healed enough to allow him to play against the Hawks in a rematch of last year's thrilling preliminary final, he conceded Tarrant, Johnson, Didak and Beams, the latter trio of whom he expects to play in a VFL practice match this weekend, would be ''touch and go''.
But he again found the silver lining in the opportunities afforded to the likes of exciting draftees Peter Yagmoor and Jackson Paine, and 2011 debutant Ben Sinclair throughout an otherwise forgettable NAB Cup campaign. ''I think if you start worrying about what's happened, the injuries … your focus is in the wrong area, so for us the focus is on the guys who are out there playing rather than the guys who aren't,'' he said. ''It's exciting for us to see all these guys come through and play great roles for us in the NAB Cup, and if they can do well in the NAB Cup, they can do it in the regular season.''