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What's wrong with key Magpies?

Dane Swan has not started a year like this since he had more visible skin than ink. He is not getting the ball like he has for a decade and kicking it worse than he  has in the first rounds of any season for 10 years.

Swan had glandular fever before Christmas and missed a couple of weeks of training. Then there was the ankle trouble that held up his summer running. And of course he had wrist surgery.

The club argues these reasons explain why he is underdone and that there is no lingering problem. But they don't seem to explain why he has had no power in his running. He grabbed at his groin in the Fremantle game when he landed with a twist but he is said not to have groin trouble. Something has limited him though for he has been more lame duck than Swan in the first rounds.

The Brownlow medallist has lacked explosiveness in his run, the back-arching deceptive speed has not been seen. There is no penetration in his kicking and no accuracy. That is the naked-eye observation of his game that the statistics bear out.

OK, it is only three rounds, but it is a win and two losses and three rounds in which Swan has had no impact. He is averaging 22 touches a game in these first three rounds. He has not had so little of the ball in the opening games of a season in a decade. Furthermore, he is not only getting it less than any time since 2004, he is wasting it when he does. Swan is kicking with 44.7 efficiency this year - he has not kicked at worse than 55 per cent efficiency in 10 years. His overall disposal efficiency is down to 53 per cent and this has never been below 60 per cent.

As a player challenged by critics who contend that large numbers are secondary to impact on games, Swan had a wry line on statistics recently when he observed "possessions don't mean anything until you don't get them and then they mean everything".


Swan has admittedly been started up forward in games, which is slightly unusual for him, and has spent more time in the forward line than has been his norm. This would explain the drop in the amount of footy available to him but does not explain his wastefulness with the ball.

The wrist surgery, which seriously limited the amount of touch work Swan was able to do pre-season, might explain the loose kicking. The limited preparation might also explain the listless run, certainly that is what those inside the club insist to be true and they argue that there are signs of growing improvement that are more apparent to those who work with the players daily than those looking on from outside.

Three rounds is a limited sample but Swan's form has hurt as much as Travis Cloke's. Two of the biggest names and most important and reliable players in the team have been missing.

This was supposed to be the year the league's best contested mark was allowed to be more dominant. The relaxed rules on contact in marking contests should have made Cloke unstoppable. Perhaps the more liberal policing of contact has counter-intuitively worked against Cloke as defenders have also been allowed more liberty in wrestling. He has also been penalised for still being over-zealous in his grappling.

In the three games, Collingwood has kicked the ball to Cloke one out with a defender 22 times. The player who has led the competition for contested marks for the past five years, has taken just two marks from that supply. It is uncertain what the numbers are on how many balls Cloke has been asked to fetch on the half-volley from poor delivery.

Cloke was labouring with a niggling injury on Saturday night after a knock at training last week that, in part, explains his performance against Geelong. But only part of it as Tom Lonergan's game does not deserve to be diminished. That Lonergan beat Cloke is not a one-off. That Cloke seemed resigned to his fate was troubling.

Cloke's opening rounds are a grim picture - he has touched the ball fewer than 10 times a game and has kicked less than a goal a game. He is hurting from the absence of a serious marking alternative - save for little big man Jamie Elliott's leaps above tall buildings. Jesse White has yet to demand serious attention from defenders and Jarrod Witts had no impact as a forward. Cloke will be fighting with Buckley to make sure Ben Reid returns to his end of the ground - not the defenders' end.