Collingwood’s quick return to finals contention has been a major surprise of the AFL season, with many pundits having tipped a bottom-four finish for first-year coach Craig McRae.
But is it possible that we simply misread Collingwood’s situation? That we weighed too heavily on a bad 12 months and not the multiple years of relative success beforehand.
The turnaround from a short period of failure
Collingwood is the form team of the competition after 16 rounds. Six wins in a row, including the scalps of premiership fancies Melbourne, Fremantle (in Perth), and Carlton.
The Pies currently sit sixth at 10-5, and while a finals berth is far from a guarantee, a top-four finish isn’t out of the question either.
Their record could be even better if not for a five-quarter lapse early in the season – they surrendered a six-goal lead to the Cats in Round 3 before an inexplicable loss to the Eagles at home in Round 4.
The Pies finished 17th last season, with their struggles accentuated and made worse by a myriad of off-field dramas.
Club legend and senior coach Nathan Buckley exited mid-season, long-time president Eddie McGuire before him. Furthermore, the season came on the back of what was perceived as a calamitous trade period.
They were the laughingstock of the AFL world for two weeks. Their list position forced them to shed the salaries of Adam Treloar, Jaidyn Stephenson, and Tom Phillips, each yielding very little value in return.
Fast-forward and as each round goes by, that trade period looks less and less devastating. Phillips is on the outer at Hawthorn while Stephenson has been dropped multiple times at North Melbourne.
Treloar remains a very good player and will always have a spot in the hearts of many Collingwood fans. However, the Pies did get a promising forward in Ollie Henry from that trade, then stole Patrick Lipinski from the Bulldogs a year later.
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The blend of youth and experience
Collingwood doesn’t have the kind of list profile that you’d associate with a young, rebuilding team. Sure, it does possess young talent, but it doesn’t rely on those players as others do.
This is a team that, before last season, played in a Grand Final, a preliminary final, and a semi-finathree yearsr stretch. Most of the best players from that period remain their best contributors, complemented by exciting new faces.
Take the backline for example – of the six starting defenders in the 2019 preliminary final against Greater Western Sydney, five of them played against that same team in Round 15.
You add in the dashing Isaac Quaynor, the courageous Nathan Murphy, and the Rising Star favourite Nick Daicos, and you could argue that the backline is better now than what it was then.
At the other end of the ground, Collingwood could still do with a quality key forward. It has needed that for years, ever since Travis Cloke’s prime days in the early 2010s.
You could argue that the lack of a quality key forward prevented the Pies from winning the 2018 Grand Final, buarly didn’t prevent them from at least getting to that position.
Jordan De Goey, Jamie Elliott, Brody Mihocek, Mason Cox, and Will Hoskin-Elliott have all been at the club for years, with Jack Ginnivan, Beau McCreery, and Oliver Henry offering the youthful exuberance.
The engine room is still commanded by captain Scott Pendlebury and other experienced leaders in Taylor Adams, Jack Crisp, and Steele Sidebottom.
McRae wasn’t taking control of a young, redeveloping team. That’s not to take anything away from him and the claim to being the most impressive coach in the league this season.
Collingwood was stale, its imbalance between attack and defence was hard to watch. McRae has brought a new gameplan, one he cultivated from years of plying his trade as a top assistant and senior coach in the VFL.
In an ultra-competitive league, and with the challenges of COVID present, Collingwood as an entire club was off the boil for 12 months. The playing list, the foundation, and the experience remained in place.
All it needed was a fresh set of eyes and ideas to awaken the biggest club in the land.
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