Demon Mitch Clark comes to grips with Collingwood defender Nathan Brown. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo
IMITATION was proved to be the sincerest form of flattery at the MCG yesterday, but not yet for Melbourne the path to deliverance.
Collingwood coach Nathan Buckley said he was not conscious of counterpart and former colleague Mark Neeld in the Demon coach's box, but he was conscious of a Melbourne team that tried to play a style of football very much like Collingwood's.
Twice, Buckley described the contest as ''solid'', also as ''really solid''. Call it Collingwood heavy.
In that context, the match really was about how Collingwood this season has been both the hunter and the hunted, and somehow, miraculously, has reached the mid-point of the season on top of the ladder, temporarily at least.
A rash of injuries became a plague and in the first minute of yesterday's game a veritable epidemic as veteran Alan Didak over-stretched an adductor muscle while aiming a long kick at goal and almost immediately was subbed out of the game. Melbourne supporters did their club an injustice by jeering Didak from the ground.
That left the Magpies with barely a dozen of last year's grand final 22, and one of those, Chris Tarrant, was making his first hesitant appearance since round one.
All season, the Magpies have depended on proxies and pimple-faced prepubescents. A lesser club might already be making sketchy plans for next year.
''You hope for the best and plan for the worst,'' said Buckley. ''That's why you have a list of 48 players. We are coaching the depth of our list as hard as we possibly can. The baton keeps getting handed on.''
Melbourne seemed intent yesterday on testing that depth. At times, its methodology was, not to put too fine a point on it, crude.
Luke Tapscott is certain to exercise the minds of the match review panel for the way he thundered into Alex Fasolo's kidneys as the Magpie flew for a mark. He ended up on the ground, writhing in pain, and 100 metres of penalty ensued. Later, Colin Garland nudged Didak's replacement, Tom Young, into the kneecap of Colin Sylvia as they flew for a mark, resulting in a dazed trip to the interchange for Young. This was Collingwood the hunted.
Else times, the contest was uncompromisingly honest, such as the head-on collision between Melbourne's Jack Grimes and Collingwood's Jamie Elliott. Buckley said he had no problem with the spirit of the game.
''We play the game hard, too,'' he said. ''Every now and then you are going to cop a few, and we will wear that.''
But within that physicality is a willingness to work and a selflessness that characterises good sports teams everywhere, even or especially the most glamorous. Two examples serve to illustrate it. Melbourne's Mitch Clark was leading Nathan Brown on a hard lead in the first quarter yesterday when Young flung himself in his path to spoil.
A little later, Sharrod Wellingham made metres to spoil Mark Jamar, who had shaken himself free on a double track to goal. Wellingham maintained the presence of mind to recover the ball from inside the boundary. This was Collingwood the hunter.
Also in the first quarter, Dale Thomas and Tyson Goldsack eschewed glory shots at goal, instead switching alertly to better positioned teammates. By this alertness a relentless Collingwood had built a 52-point lead less than 10 minutes into the second term.
But such a style is hard to sustain for two hours and Melbourne, since the debacle in Sydney at least, has discovered an appetite for a fight. After the early pounding yesterday, the Demons displayed some intensity and run, and so were able to realise Clark's menace near goal. Now this became a match between a skeleton team and a team that has found its spine. Midway through the third quarter, Melbourne had narrowed the margin to four goals. Buckley admitted that he was displeased with the way the Magpies failed to absorb the Demons' counter-offensive. ''At times, they really tested us,'' said Buckley.
But the handicap was too great. In an eccentric last quarter, Collingwood kicked four quick goals, Melbourne replied with four and the Magpies added another tranche of four, leaving only sundries. The Magpies finished the match on top, uncorrected for the bye, but also with wounds to assess and lick. Life is tough at the top. Fortunately for them, next week is two weeks away.