It has been a weird sort of season so far — tumultuous at times, promising at others. The early portents of how our luck might be shaping up this year were ominous to say the least; losing two players to ACL injuries before the season had properly started, soon to lose another two during its early stages.
We rode those tough times admirably, culminating in our best performance for the year against a rampant Adelaide interstate. Our performances then plateaued as we grinded out our wins, often in less than convincing fashion, before our indifferent performances caught up with us against Carlton and most recently, Hawthorn.
Last week against the GWS was a formality as expected, we were perhaps a little unfortunate that the scheduling didn’t really allow us to atone for our effort against the Hawks by overcoming a more worthy opponent. Football moves quickly however and this Saturday night presents us with that opportunity against a St Kilda outfit that looks to have regained some enthusiasm under the tutelage of new coach – and former Magpie assistant coach – Scott Watters.
The Saints have been hard to gauge this year. At times they’ve looked a team destined to remain in the middle of the road, at other times they’ve looked a genuine threat to any team in the competition. They’ve put in some incredibly competitive performances against this year’s pace setters, but unlike us they’ve managed to truly put struggling teams to the sword.
As odd and unpredictable as this year might feel, as bewildered as we are when it comes to judging just how we’re travelling, all that matters is that we’re a month away from the finals. We’ve dropped four games for the year to two teams. Since 2010, a hobbyist bomb maker could count on one maimed hand how many teams have had our measure.
Bottom line, we face a run against sides who we’ve accounted for routinely in previous seasons to finish out the home and away season. The Saints, Swans and Kangaroos are admittedly of a different composition this year, but should we maintain our edge over these teams and collect wins in the coming weeks – starting this Saturday night – we’ll be well placed to cement a top four spot before our final games against the Eagles and Bombers.
Early in the year most would have pencilled this in as a victory based on where both teams started the season, but things have changed and nothing can be taken for granted. Under a new coach, the Saints looked set to commence the rebuild that Ross Lyon was so determined to avoid.
Rebuilding they might be, but they’ve already achieved improvement through an injection of youth and smart drafting; whilst a new message seems to have refreshed and lifted a team that looked spent and broken after consecutive Grand Final losses.
Their skipper in Nick Riewoldt – often a barometer for the team at large – has turned back the clock somewhat this year by regaining some of his old form. Stephen Milne continues to be a loathsome yet dangerous small forward, benefitting from the pressure being released through the introduction of mature aged recruits Ahmed Saad and Terry Milera.
Beyond all this, the Saints are enjoying the presence of a player many rightfully consider to be their spiritual leader in Lenny Hayes – a man they were without for all of a forgettable 2011 campaign. Lenny Hayes makes an immediate improvement to their midfield and not purely because of his own individual ability; he’s the sort of player who brings others into the game, who makes team mates walk taller.
As much as the individual components of St Kilda have changed in the past 12 months, Collingwood have also undergone multiple transplants since the last time we met. Whilst we’ll be welcoming back a strong contingent of premiership players this week with all of O’Brien, Thomas, Wellingham, Jolly and Sidebottom selected; we’ve also opted to retain the services of Seedsman, Young and Elliott at senior level.
All three players have been rewarded for solid performances against the orange witches hats a week ago. It’s pleasing that we’ll be investing more time into our fringe and developing players, but they’ll need to be under no illusions about how different the task will be against the Saints. Personally I’m pleased that we’ve backed in both Young and Seedsman (I’m already sold on Elliott) as there was no way to gauge their prospects from last week’s encounter – this week is the real litmus test.
Our of the players to make way, Cameron Wood was an obvious choice after a disappointing outing, but the omission of Nathan Brown is probably the most notable move as it likely signals the return to defence for Chris Tarrant. I suspect we all derived a bit of pleasure from seeing Tarrant patrolling the forward line once more, but it became abundantly clear last week that he’s probably not the answer as we just can’t afford to carry three unreliable kicking key targets.
Tarrant reinvented himself as one of the league’s best defenders at Fremantle, continuing his evolution in that role for us last year. The move this week might suggest that the club is comfortable with where he is at in terms of fitness. If he can return to being the reliable defender that he was last year and in so doing settle our defensive line, then our September prospects should improve in kind.
I could break down each line as I have for most previews this year, but I’m beginning to feel like a broken record when doing so over the last few months. The issues have remained the same for the most part: the poor form of our key forwards, the lack of cohesion in our defence, our tendency to get torn apart in fast transition and our sub-par ball use and movement when in possession.
Rather than target individuals, we simply need to be better all over the park. The likes of Beams and Sidebottom (although levelling off recently) have enjoyed break out seasons, but the individual performances of our midfield haven’t really translated to team dominance for quite a few months. To steal an overused and often hollow term from the business world, there has been a significant lack of synergy within the team for a lot of this year.
To some degree, this was to be expected given the handover in the coaches box – not just the main role but also the departure of two key assistants. Despite inheriting an enviable list, Buckley was always going to be confronted by a mountain of work to put his name on the team and get them adhering to his message as well as they adhered to Mick’s back in 2010.
Clearly Buckley and his coaching team has a lot of work to do still, but the fairy tale of Bucks coaching us to a premiership in his first year at the helm is still well and truly alive.
We need to see a much improved performance this week, more cohesion and speed in our ball movement with hopefully our key forwards cashing in on one-out opportunities against undersized opponents. Fisher, Gwilt and Gilbert are going to work hard to chop one another out so if we continue to build slowly and lazily bomb the ball in, we’ll cancel out any advantage we might otherwise have in this area.
In general play, our intensity needs to lift significantly if we want to restrict the amount of clean ball that opposition forwards have been receiving against us. Even last week against the Giants, it was more so their inexperience and execution that enabled us to score from turnovers opposed to our own pressure creating such opportunities.
The Saints will not give us as anywhere near as many freebies this week, not unless we turn back the clock and apply the sort of swarm pressure that we were once famous for.
If this comes to pass and we are treated to a Collingwood team more intent on the contest, more composed with ball in hand and as damaging as we know the sum of all our parts are capable of being, then I along with most Magpie fans will once again be bullish about our chances this year.
Being a conflicted Pie who traverses the edge between being an optimist and a realist; this year has been a difficult one to assess and equally difficult to enjoy at times. Once upon a time – and I’m sure most Magpie fans can relate – I would tear my hair out and age beyond my years trying to determine whether the glass was half full or half empty, until I eventually decided that it was best to avoid the question when it came to Collingwood.
Mostly so that I would avoid just breaking the glass all together.
We’ve been treated as Pie fans in recent years, regardless of last year’s disappointment. Some might say we’ve been spoilt, but I don’t subscribe to that. Our mission should be dominance, we should do everything within our power to achieve what the likes of Geelong have recently, what Brisbane achieved a decade ago.
All the talk in the media at the moment is about Hawthorn – and granted they do look good – but our focus should be on this week for now, next week soon after. We’ve listened patiently to talk all year about peaking at the right time, you don’t need credentials at AFL level to know that the right time would be now.
I admit to soothing my concerns at times by reminding myself of the players we’ve lost this year – the players we’ll regain next year. Sometimes the thought of tomorrow is a little more pleasant than the reality of today. At the same time, as I wobble towards the other side of that tight rope we walk as Collingwood tragics, I still believe in 2012.
Breathe some life into it Magpies, it might sound tired by now but this Saturday night could be a defining moment in our pursuit of our 16th premiership. It’s time to start getting things right and building momentum for a genuine tilt at the flag.
This game is not a foregone conclusion, make no mistake we will be tested, but it is one that we should view as winnable. Quite simply, it is a game that if we’re serious about our prospects this year, we damn well better win.
I still believe Magpies, it’s time to start showing that you do too.