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Tale of two Pies: a story that runs hot and cold

Date

Matt Murnane

Pie mix: Scott Pendlebury and Travis Cloke have been in contrasting form this season.

Pie mix: Scott Pendlebury and Travis Cloke have been in contrasting form this season. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo and Wayne Tay

THE player behind black-and-white door No. 1 is ''playing the best footy of his career'', according to his coach.

The player behind black-and-white door No. 2 is ''not in cracking nick'', the same coach conceded yesterday.

The player behind door No. 1 has just signed a new four-year, multimillion-dollar deal that will keep him at his club until 2016. His future is certain.

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The player behind door No. 2 is coming out of contract and, if reports are accurate, has a $1 million-a-season offer on the table from at least one rival team as he negotiates with his club.

His future is uncertain.

In case you hadn't worked it out, the player behind door No. 1 is Collingwood's Scott Pendlebury. Behind door No. 2 is his teammate, Travis Cloke.

That makes Nathan Buckley the man in the spotlight yesterday as he fielded questions about his two players - the queries just as difficult to answer for the white-hot Pendlebury, as they were for the out-of-sorts Cloke.

First Pendlebury: is he the best player in the competition at the moment?

''I think the most important thing to acknowledge is that 'Pendles' is probably playing the best footy of his career,'' Buckley said. ''It's up to everyone else to speculate about where that might rank him.''

Others have been doing exactly that in the past week, so captivated by his stellar performance against Adelaide on Saturday night, not to mention his 30-disposal, four-goal effort against Geelong the week before.

Since signing his new contract just before round one, Pendlebury has been on fire, recording 29 disposals or more in eight out of nine games.

All his numbers are as good, if not better, than his career-high statistics of 2011, when he won his first Copeland Trophy.

He ranks third in the AFL for disposals, fifth for contested possessions, equal fourth for all midfielders for score assists and is in the top 10 for clearances.

He is a runaway $3.50 favourite for the Brownlow Medal in some markets, with at least one betting agency predicting yesterday that he might have already polled in six out of nine games.

''His performances over the last month have been excellent and he did it last week without Dane Swan next to him to take some of the heat from a tagging perspective,'' Buckley said.

''But he is the last bloke that is going to get carried away with it.''

The other side of the coin is Cloke. Buckley put up a good offence to the Pendlebury barrage yesterday, no spectacular fast breaks, but polished execution.

Then it was time for defence.

Since it was first revealed that Fremantle had - reportedly - put to Cloke's management the whopping $1 million-a-season offer in the lead up to round six, the reigning All-Australian centre half-forward has averaged just 11.2 disposals, down from the 15.4 he averaged in 2010 and 2011.

The 25-year-old has also kicked just six goals in the past four games. You could write your own ticket for Cloke to win the Brownlow.

There is no doubt the big Pie is low on confidence, Buckley said, but his coach is just as sure that he will turn it around.

''In the interim, he has been able to influence games when they've been on the line over the last four to six weeks,'' said the coach, who spent some one-on-one time with Cloke at training yesterday.

''We've just set such high standards for players like Trav. He's just an easy target at the moment.''

The statistics say Buckley has a point. For instance, Cloke is averaging 2.2 contested marks in the past month, down from 3.3 over the past two seasons.

Yet his total contested marks for the year - 25 - still ranks equal first in the AFL, and Cloke is also equal second for key forwards for total marks.

He is just not streaks ahead, like he was last year.

''When we get slowed down [he is] clearly presenting really well down the line for us. [He] competes and creates ground ball for our players,'' Buckley said of his value.

Still, Buckley knows his team needs Cloke to be more than a role player for the Pies to go all the way this year.

They need the monster who took 35 more contested grabs than anyone else in season 2011 and finished third in the Coleman Medal with 65 goals. Right now he is 15th, with 19 from nine games.

The contrasting fortunes of Pendlebury and Cloke begs another question, the biggest one asked yesterday: to what extent is the uncertainty surrounding Cloke's contract, and the interest from other clubs hitting the newspapers every other week, having on his performance?

Pendlebury is settled. Just how unsettled Cloke is, only he can answer, although Buckley made an attempt yesterday.

''[Collingwood's] Steele Sidebottom, Sharrod Wellingham and Dayne Beams are in the process of working out their next contracts and they're playing well,'' he said.

''It's an easy connection to make. But how much effect it has, I don't know.''

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