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Collingwood sticks in the boot with a new emphasis on kicking

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Robert Harvey was never one for over-the-top statements when he was a champion on-baller with St Kilda, and, not surprisingly, he’s gone about his work as an assistant coach – currently with Collingwood – in exactly the same understated fashion.

So when the Magpie line coach was presented with some figures pre-season that seemed to indicate Collingwood was becoming a handball-happy team, he advised caution.

''It’s a pretty small sample size. I wouldn’t read too much into it,'' he said after the Pies had played their two NAB Challenge series games and their use of handballs, particularly out of defence, was immediately noticeable. ''I’ll be interested to see how it pans out during the season.

Dynamic duo: Nathan Buckley and Robert Harvey.

Dynamic duo: Nathan Buckley and Robert Harvey. Photo: Joe Armao

''It just depends on the numbers in front of the ball. If you’re going to kick it long out of your back half, you want good representation forward, otherwise it’s going to come straight back in. We’re using handball well, but we want to be able to kick our way through.

''Certainly, you train both things, and you have to play against what’s put in front of you.''

Well, that flexibility of which Harvey spoke has certainly proved handy for Collingwood because nearly one-third of the way through their season, and coming up to three months after those words were spoken, the Magpies have gone from handball happy to the kings of kicking.

After the pre-season had finished, Collingwood under Nathan Buckley was left with a kick-to-handball ratio of 1.07 – that is 100 handballs for every 107 kicks, clearly the lowest ratio of any side in the competition and a figure that was unthinkable only a few years ago.

Certainly it was light years away from the kicking mantra previous coach Mick Malthouse had drilled into his charges for so long. But that status has come full circle in the space of just seven games.

Prior to last weekend’s bye, Collingwood had, by some margin, the highest kick-to-handball ratio in the AFL of 1.48, well ahead of the next highest, Geelong and Essendon. That No.1 ranking is miles above the 1.33 and a ranking of 11th.

So when did the correction happen? It’s been a gradual process, but there’s been a dramatic rise in the Magpies’ kicking rate ever since it was blown away by Fremantle in the opening game; the Dockers’ relentless pressure too often forcing the Pies into error.

Given that since then, Collingwood has won five games and lost another only narrowly to Geelong, it’s also been timely.

Perhaps the trend back towards use by foot was happening even before then.

It’s significant that in its final practice game against Gold Coast, Collingwood – nearly seven goals in arrears at half-time – dramatically reverted to old habits in the second half, turning a big deficit into victory.

The Pies generally are playing more of an ''inside'' game in 2014, with their contested possession rate ranked equal second at 40.2 per cent. All that disposal under pressure has an impact on disposal efficiency: Collingwood is currently at just 68.1 per cent, the lowest in the AFL.

But where the kicking is bearing fruit, says an opposition club analyst who has watched the Pies closely in recent weeks, is in their capacity to run harder into spaces left by their opponents.

''They monitor opposition running patterns very closely,'' he says. ''They see where the space is going to be, and their link players bolt into it, with their better distributors feeding it out.''

Given how quickly the gaps can close these days, that means kicking, rather than handball, will get the ball there quicker, and the Pies’ best users have all been kicking more than previously.

Steele Sidebottom and Dayne Beams, in particular, are kicking the ball more frequently than at any time in their careers. Skipper Scott Pendlebury, whose disposal is always sublime, has his highest kick-to-handball ratio since his debut season of 2006, while Dane Swan's is the equal second-highest of his 12-season AFL career.

''I think it’s one of the things we’ve tinkered with through the NAB Challenge series – sort of more trial and error – to see how it stacks up,'' Pendlebury said after that practice-match win over the Suns in early March.

''Like all NAB Challenge games, you try new things you might not necessarily see in season.''

On that score, both he and Harvey are proving to have been spot on. And with the win-loss ledger looking a lot healthier, it’s not just the Magpie midfielders getting their kicks as a result.

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