Harry O'Brien: 'We've had a clear intent.'

Harry O'Brien: 'We've had a clear intent.' Photo: Paul Rovere

COLLINGWOOD says its rousing semi-final victory over West Coast last Saturday indicates that it is rising as a sustainable force in the finals series, as Geelong did last year.

The Magpies trace their upsurge this season to their previous meeting against Sydney, in Sydney last month, in which, despite the absence of Dane Swan, they prevailed narrowly, their 11th successive victory over the Swans.

''Geelong timed it beautifully last year,'' said star midfielder Swan. ''That's something we had a look at and tried to emulate this year. We were pretty run down with injuries and suspensions last year. But you can't take anything away from Geelong; they timed it beautifully.

''We've said all year we want to play our best footy come finals. Even though Hawthorn beat us by six or seven goals last week, there were signs of improvement. We did a lot of things right for a lot of the game. Hawthorn is an exceptional side, so when you take your foot off the accelerator, it's bang, bang, bang.

''We had a lot of positives out of that game, and on the weekend against West Coast, we improved and played a bit better for a bit longer. Hopefully, this week, we can play better for longer again. We know when we're playing with the intensity we want, we're a pretty hard side to beat.''

Defender Harry O'Brien underscored the thesis, saying that the focus on Collingwood's improvement between finals against Hawthorn and West Coast was narrow.

''We feel as though we've probably been building for the last five weeks,'' he said. ''We've had a clear intent about how we want to go about our football. Last time against Sydney, we played a style that we identified we'd like to continue on.

''We weren't able to execute it for a couple of weeks. But we've had a month of football where we feel as though we're conditioned to this style of football, and that we're able to sustain it for four quarters.''

Some of this is Collingwood's pep talk to itself. Certainly, it fell away last year after securing the minor premiership with three rounds to play. It was thrashed by Geelong in the last round, battled to victories over West Coast and Hawthorn in qualifying and preliminary finals, then was overrun in the grand final.

This year, after outlasting Sydney at the start of their supposed finals push, the Magpies badly lost their next two matches to North Melbourne and West Coast and finished the home-and-away season with a scrappy win over Essendon. In the finals, they are 1-1.

History fortifies the Magpies' case. They haven't lost to Sydney since 2005, nor to many other teams on the road until crashing in Perth last month. Swan and O'Brien postulated the usual theories, that interstate games bring the players closer together and minimise the distractions and hysteria that attend Collingwood in Melbourne.

This week, another factor will weigh: the funeral on Thursday of former Magpie John McCarthy, more recently of Port Adelaide. The impact of McCarthy's tragic death on his contemporaries at Collingwood was painfully apparent at the final siren on Saturday. The Magpies will attend his funeral, then immediately afterwards fly to Sydney.

O'Brien was not in the least trite when he said that the trauma had had a galvanising effect. Remembering the death of his father last year, he said: ''This is for anyone who's grieving; you shouldn't feel guilty for feeling bad.

''One thing I do know is that you can still function. The weight comes off you if you know the person next to you is feeling the same and will help you through. That's certainly been the theme over the last week.''

The Magpies yesterday were vague about the fitness of Chris Dawes and Alan Didak, while ruckman Darren Jolly said his apparent stiffness near the end of the match was merely an attempt to milk the clock. ''I started to get a bit crampy, but I was OK,'' he said. ''I'm fine.''

As usual, Collingwood's high spirits manifested most plainly in Swan. He was asked about recent criticism from, among others, Robert Walls, that he has become a kick-chaser. ''I've chased kicks all my career,'' he said. ''If Robert Walls has just picked that up, he hasn't been doing his job.''