It was a fortnight of contrasts as we kicked off our 2019 campaign, beginning with a disappointing narrow loss to Geelong before turning things around in exceptional fashion against fellow flag favourites Richmond a week later. The difference between both contests was immense, as we looked rusty and rather pedestrian against the Cats but then won instant redemption by conjuring an exciting yet clinical dismemberment of the Tigers.
Early season form is always hard to gauge. We’re still in the infancy of 2019 and it is a period where no definitive assessments can be made regarding the improvers, the water-treaders and the basket cases. After our first performance against Geelong, where we were out-tackled and bested in the contested stakes – particularly when the game needed to be won in the last – supporters were understandably a little concerned.
But there was something about last week that seemed atypical to the Collingwood we became accustomed to last year. It was a frustrating game to watch, particularly as we were often our own worst enemies, but throughout the game it still felt like if we got our heads on right and flicked the switch, we could pull away. That never happened of course and we remained flat for most of the four quarters, ultimately being punished for squandering several chances to kick away in the second quarter.
Geelong deserves credit of course and it must be noted that they fielded quite an inexperienced side, but I was nonetheless still confident that we were capable of much better football than what we served up in round one.
Fortunately, it took less than a week to put the concerns of the faithful to rest. Under lights once more at the MCG, against a side whose back-to-back hopes we shattered in spectacular style in last year’s preliminary final, we denied the Tigers the prospect of some small form of redemption. They had an off-season to stew in what happened, accompanied by many sleepless nights of an American beanpole and a young rampaging bull. For Tiger fans and players alike, Thursday night may represent the point where those nightmares turn into a persistent case of night terrors.
There was the gastro sub-plot leading into last year’s preliminary, but the stomach cramps they’re feeling now will have more to do with the realisation that the black-and-white contingent appear to have their measure for the time being — and comfortably.
Whilst the scoreline remained tight for most of the first three quarters, the contest playing out on field told a different story. Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of the victory was how comprehensive it was, a fact that took until the last quarter to be reflected on the scoreboard. We dominated uncontested possession, monopolising the ball throughout the game and denying Richmond the sort of long-ball contests they prey on at half-back. This in turn also removed the sort of chaos ball that the Tigers like to play out of contests and stoppages — although they did manage to manufacture scrappy goals here and there.
The stats told a damning story for Hardwick and his men, but a very positive one for Buckley and his cohorts. It was pleasing that, whilst individual brilliance was not absent from our performance, the foundation for our victory was laid via the strategy outlined by our coaches and the ability of our team to execute it to perfection. It demonstrated maturity and a serious level of concentration, as we found short targets and switched effectively to stretch and draw out the Richmond zone, regularly creating overlap on one wing or the other.
When opportunities presented to go quickly, we did so. At stoppages we managed to curb Richmond’s ability to gamble forward of the ball or escape in free-wheeling fashion, whilst putting together some fairly inventive strings of handball ourselves to spread from the contest and open up play. I’ve worried in the past that we over-possess by hand a bit, as it is an element of our game that became prominent last year and appears to now be a regular feature. It can be heart-in-mouth stuff at times, but in others it can be the sort of sleight of hand magic that only serious contenders can conjure.
We were also a lot more constructive when heading inside 50, despite burning some opportunities. Players lowered their eyes when options were available or managed to isolate one-on-one targets. The resulting spread of goal kickers – reminiscent of our better performances last year – told the story of a side that not only shares the load, but possesses a fairly dynamic forward line.
De Goey finished with 5 whilst Cox, Stephenson and Mihocek kicked 2 a piece, complemented by six more individual goal kickers. A further credit to the work ethic of our forward line was that both Stephenson and Elliot also combined for 6 goal assists. As a result, we clocked up the ton with some loose change and put Richmond to the sword in the final quarter, running out 44 point victors.
The continued emergence of Jordan De Goey was the most eye catching story from the weekend, as the young man continued his development into a genuine beast and match winner. His ambitions are to move into the midfield, but until he builds the required tank he is going to remain more than a handful for any opposition as a forward. He’s already a genuine match winner and shaped as much on the biggest stage of all last year. On Thursday night, he put together another highlights package: using Markov as a stepladder on the boundary before wheeling around in customarily quick fashion to curl one back; blitzing his opponent on the lead like a throwback to the full-forwards of old, before launching truly from just outside; getting on the end of some slick handball to slam a checkside through at short range, before curling another one through in the next quarter after a strong mark in the pocket.
De Goey brings something genuinely devastating to the table. He’s a genuine mix of brute force, confidence and undoubted skill whilst still being a work in progress, given he is yet to hit his peak years. I suspect that once his conditioning builds as we near the middle of the year, we may see him given bursts once more in the middle, where his dynamism will hopefully feature at clearances.
He’s the sort of player whose individual feats lift those around him, whilst giving them the confidence to look to him for something inspirational when things aren’t going to script.
Our midfield was productive, with all of Treloar, Beams and Pendlebury breaking the 30 possession barrier. Treloar fell just short of 40 and whilst he accumulated the ball and worked hard in close, it would serve him well to start trying to refine his game when in possession — particularly when heading inside 50. He has a tendency to burn these opportunities and whilst his contribution on any given week is a net positive, if he can start polishing up this part of his game he could really push himself into the upper echelon of midfielders.
Beams was everywhere in the first quarter and remained involved thereafter. After last week, I was a little worried that perhaps our midfield balance was thrown out of sync, but the engine room combined very well on Thursday night. I think it will still take a month or more to achieve the ideal chemistry amongst our midfield group and we have to be mindful of getting the right two-way balance to ensure opposition midfields are kept honest — we’re also somewhat one paced through the middle outside of Treloar, so we need to make the contested ball our key and use it well when we do win it.
Pendlebury was a lot more effective after being flat in round one, managing to display his class to generate positive forward thrusts. I feel that the reality is that we must accept that Pendlebury is not going to be the midfield match winner he once was – or at least not as frequently – but if the likes of Treloar, Beams and Adams when he returns can shoulder more of the heavy lifting and we can utilise Pendlebury as a playmaker a few steps from the contest, then we’ll be in good standing.
Simply, even if he may be slowing down somewhat, Pendles still possesses too much class not to be an instrumental component of any side.
Grundy was back to his hard working best, although he would have enjoyed not having to worry about being worked over by two genuine rucks. Stephenson was quiet and looked like he lacked a bit of touch last week, but worked his way into the game on Thursday night by getting further up the ground, finding some touch and being rewarded on the scoreboard by getting on the end of some solid teamwork inside 50.
I suspect with Elliott returning, like our midfield in accommodating a returning Dayne Beams, our forward contingent will be finding the right mix and patterns — needless to say, we looked to get the right balance against Richmond.
Down back, Jack Crisp was absolutely terrific in defending whilst also providing rebound — breaking through the 30 possession mark and using the ball well all night. Tom Langdon was cool headed in the air once more, whilst Howe put in a much more solid performance than the week before.
After spending the last half of last year and the entire finals series having to fight outside of their height division, the addition of a returning Darcy Moore may well just be the most crucial improvement to our side. He has been extremely good in both matches so far, rarely putting a foot wrong. His athleticism is remarkable, but he also seems to have that drive to not only want to perform his role, but to feature as a key contributor in every game.
I feel that once he settles down back and finds a good balance between defence and attack, he could really stamp himself on the competition. Currently, whilst still showcasing some flair, he looks to be playing the percentages — which is commendable. Once we settle into a groove and Darcy has the confidence in his body and his position in the side, we’ll hopefully see him find a dangerous balance between being honest and leaving his opponent to add to our intercepting array.
In light of the tragic news from the VFL regarding Dunn, the acquisition of Roughead has now been shown to be a very astute decision. He only needs to be honest and dependable whilst those around him provide the real bite heading the other direction. Despite being beaten on the lead a couple of times by Lynch, he was overall quite solid and prevented Lynch from being a contested marking factor when the long ball came down the wing. His ball use was also pretty solid when acting as the hinge for our switching of play. He’ll still be settling into the side, but his presence is a blessing given our key defensive stocks.
On a particularly bright note, isn’t it heartwarming to see Jamie Elliott back? Like most, I worried as to whether he would be a shadow of his former self given his long battles with injury, but he appears to still have the forward nous, speed on the lead and the aerial strength that belies his height. He has had two solid outings now and has added another factor to our forward line that will keep most defensive lines on their toes.
I feel special praise needs to be reserved for two players in particular this week: Chris Mayne and Brody Mihocek. On paper, they are role players who you would imagine do not factor too heavily in opposition team meetings when determining which players to shut down, but they were both instrumental in setting up our win against Richmond.
Mayne was a workhorse once more, racking up 33 constructive disposals as he busted a gut to assist the side in both directions. Mayne was exceptional in the latter half of last year and stood out in the Grand Final — he looks to have really found a role in our current setup and has become an important cog in our side.
Likewise Mihocek, who has no immediate standout weapons but played his role to perfection on Thursday night. He took 4 contested marks in the first quarter alone, on his way to collecting 12 marks in total and kicking 2 goals. He adds to our forward dynamic, keeping on the move and opening up space for our other forwards whilst contesting strongly in the air as often as possible. He’s an old fashioned footballer in many respects – getting the basics right and sticking to his role – but he’s the sort of player who will go unsung outside of the inner sanctum, but will contribute from week to week and slip under the guard of the opposition to snag a few bags over the journey.
I felt that the coaching box showed some real dexterity with our game plan on Thursday night. We’re traditionally not a precision football team by foot, but we setup so well and really used the entire width of the ground to ensure that we spotted up short and relatively easy targets. It was a testament to the coaches in the way the players positioned themselves, and a credit to the work rate of those executing the plan to keep working even during slow plays to get into space.
I don’t necessarily think that our game plan will resemble this every week, given that I believe there will be teams who setup and defend this method a lot better than Richmond. I suspect that Richmond’s hunger may be sated somewhat, if it was ever as ferocious as the media liked to make out. They’re an offensively hungry team who were frantic when pushing the ball forward after winning it, but they didn’t have the work rate or desire to try and shut us down on Thursday night.
We’ll need to have a few different methods and speeds to keep the opposition off balance from week to week. Last year, we were an incredibly honest and even exciting team who went with the quick play whenever possible, prepared to kick to contests and back one another up to create forward opportunities or put the brakes on when the opposition won it back. I liked what I saw on Thursday night and I’m hopeful that we can add that to the kit bag whilst working on being a dynamic team in transition or when spreading from stoppages.
In finishing, I would state once more that we are still in the infancy of this season, so whilst round one wasn’t indicative of a team who might struggle, our victory against Richmond shouldn’t be considered confirmation that we are going to be a force once again. The season is a marathon and the first leg of ours shapes as a challenging one.
We need to replicate and even improve upon this week’s performance against West Coast next Saturday, then keep improving from there.
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