Collingwood coach Craig McRae has multiple areas of his game plan to iron out before Saturday’s do-or-die semi final against Fremantle.
After losing the double chance by a goal against Geelong, this weekend will either see its story end, or reach new heights.
But to even begin writing the next chapter at all, the side desperately needs to get both its midfield and forward structure right.
Vice-captain Taylor Adams is the key out, suffering a complete rupture of his adductor. The injury will see him face months on the sidelines.
The 28-year-old already missed games at the end of the home and away season due to a groin injury, and has faced consistent injury issues much of his time at Collingwood.
McRae assured his presence will be sorely missed. The Pies have been one of the worst clearance teams all season, ranked 14th overall.
Averaging 10 contested possessions and five clearances per game, the midfield star will be hard to replace.
“We don’t have a plethora of Taylor Adams on our list… he’s a unique player, he’s a contested player,” McRae told media on Thursday.
“So we go, what moving parts do we have? Can we get somebody to play a different role?
“We just saw in three quarters of a game, how important Tay is in our clearances. We broke even against a really good clearance team, and our pressure was really high.”Embed from Getty Images
One of those moving parts is youngster Trent Bianco, who is the sole addition to the team that faced the Cats last Saturday.
Having played just 20 games, including eight this season, McRae seems to be following the trend of his fellow coaches and putting faith in his inexperienced players to play a role.
Justin Longmuir and Chris Fagan did the same successfully with key forward Jye Amiss and rebounding defender Darcy Wilmot, who were important parts of Fremantle and Brisbane’s victories respectively.
Bianco’s immediate role is less clear, however. Most of his time has been spent rotating between the midfield and forward lines, but his most successful role in the middle has been on the wing.
The Pies are largely set for wingers, with Josh Daicos and Steele Sidebottom in excellent form.
Daicos’ running game was a standout in the loss to Geelong, picking up a career-high 29 disposals to go with eight inside 50s, eight marks, five tackles and a goal.
Bianco would instead be a strong candidate for when Jordan De Goey, and to a larger extent, Jamie Elliott, rotate into the midfield.
McRae earmarked the move for the latter as a possibility, in a role which he has performed at times this season. Being named in the starting centre bounce would make it appear he’s made up his mind.
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While he only stands at 177cm, moving Elliott out of the forward line means a major marking presence will be significantly further up the ground.
He’s become known for his ability to kick truly in the dying stages of tight games, but Elliott has always been an important part of Collingwood’s aerial structure.
McRae is thankfully blessed with a vast array of marking forwards – not something that could have always been said about the Pies of the last five years.
Against Geelong, all of Brody Mihocek, Mason Cox, and Ash Johnson lined up in the forward line throughout the match. Nathan Kreuger and Darcy Moore also briefly took up a marking role inside 50.
Cox is often rotating into the ruck though, whether that be just taking forward 50 stoppages or playing as the main ruck when Darcy Cameron is resting.
The Texan spent just 46 per cent time on the ground however, in a move that the coach said wasn’t completely intentional, and more up to circumstance.
With Kreuger the medical substitute against the Cats, McRae is weighing up whether to make the call again in case the forward line needs added height against a classy Fremantle defence.
“Kreugy gives us something different… do we play three talls?” he said.
“The Mason one was interesting, it wasn’t a directive. I thought he could have given us a real contest ahead of the ball. It depends on what sort of game we’re going to get.”
All season, Fremantle has thrived on stopping scores from opposition by limiting ball movement before it has a chance to start.
This starts from defensive 50, with the likes of Luke Ryan (31 disposals, seven marks), Hayden Young (28 disposals, 11 marks), Heath Chapman (27 disposals, nine marks), and Brennan Cox (26 disposals, eight marks) keeping the Bulldogs to three goals after quarter time.Embed from Getty Images
Sydney demonstrated the blueprint for shutting down Collingwood’s high-intensity, pressure hard and move the ball fast game style in Round 22. The Swans slowed the game down at every opportunity, making the run-and-gun Magpies uncomfortable as often as possible.
The Dockers have all the tools to do the same, as one of the most controlled teams when moving out of defensive 50.
While they have a strong contested game, winning the ball at the coalface through Andy Brayshaw, Caleb Serong and Will Brodie, they also thrive scoring from rebound.
The Dockers love to keep ball in hand, averaging the highest disposals in the league. They rank third for rebound inside 50s, and seventh for intercepts.
In order to break through one of the league’s stingiest defences, the Pies will have to overcome their deficiencies around the ball and inside 50.
With a roaring crowd behind them at the MCG though, McRae will back his squad in to the end.
“I was part of a game at Richmond, a preliminary final, GWS vs. Richmond,” the coach recalled.
“You’ve got to make the crowd come to life, that’s the reality. I think this game’s going to be a lot different to the one we just played, we’re expecting a real struggle.
“They’re a really good defensive team. You don’t get to this time of the year by chance.”
Collingwood and Fremantle play in the first semi-final at the MCG on Saturday, September 10, with first bounce at 7:25pm AEST.
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