Imposters abound in the formative parts of a season. Good teams can look ordinary, ordinary teams can look good. Often it is not until the middle rounds that the veils of disguise are lifted, when injuries and fatigue catch up with the early risers and temporariness of form makes way for the permanence of class.
Leading into round four of the AFL premiership season, it was hard to tell where Collingwood were at. Sure, the signs were not great at 1-2. But with those two losses both narrow and both against likely finalists in Western Bulldogs and Brisbane Lions, the gavel of judgment was not yet falling.
What Saturday night’s clash with Greater Western Sydney should have been for Nathan Buckley’s men was an opportunity to get their season on track against a winless opponent beset by injuries. In many ways this was a test. A test of Collingwood’s bona-fides. They failed miserably, going down by 30 points at home and managing just 15 shots on goal.
Where the occasion called for bravado, the offering was meek. Never mind entertaining any thought of the Magpies emulating their semi-final return of 2020, or heaven forbid improving upon that. On this evidence, Collingwood can forget about the post-season. Their mask has slipped and it reveals a pretender, not a contender. “We’re not in a hole,” Nathan Buckley said defiantly after the game, as good a sign as any the coach suspects his playing group might in fact be in a hole.
It is unlikely any team was watched as closely as Collingwood as the new campaign began. Theirs was a tumultuous off-season, one that saw key personnel shown the door to relieve salary cap pressures and the entire culture of the club called into question after the damning findings of the Do Better report that ultimately cost Eddie McGuire his role as president.
On the latter front, the Magpies can be commended for taking steps to eradicate the racism that had pervaded the club for years. On the field, the only way to silence the doubters was with strong, positive performances. Victories help, too. If they were so-so against the Bulldogs, good against Carlton and good enough against the Lions, they took an almighty step backwards against the Giants. “There’s enough evidence there now to really query our consistent contested intent, which has not been a question for this group,” Buckley said, adding that his charges were “not clean enough, not hard enough”.
The season may be young, but time is already running out for Collingwood to prove they are not in a hole
On the first point he is not wrong. Getting the ball inside-50 against the Giants was not an issue but doing something with it clearly was. Collingwood’s powers of execution were no better at the other end of the ground, with basic skill errors leading to at-times appalling ball use out of their own back half. And GWS made them pay, hurting the Pies in turnovers in a way Collingwood could not.
This time last year it could have been argued that Collingwood’s midfield was as good as anyone’s in the competition. The loss of Adam Treloar was enormous, but in Brodie Grundy, Scott Pendelbury, Taylor Adams, Steele Sidebottom there remains enough, on paper, to compete against most. At the MCG, however, Collingwood’s engine room was a rabble.
Grundy was more than matched around the ground by 34-year-old Shane Mumford but in the ruck he was clearly dominant. Collingwood won the hit-outs 44-18 yet somehow conspired to lose clearances 36-32 and centre clearances 15-11. “We got belted up at contested ball, which we pride ourselves on and that hasn’t been consistent over the first month of the season,” Buckley said. It was a similar story in round three, with Collingwood monstering Brisbane by the tune of 63 hit-outs to four, only to shade the Lions 35-30 in clearances.
Buckley will hope these are but aberrations and not a growing trend of off-brand performances. In a round where the likes of Port Adelaide, Richmond and St Kilda responded to a week of soul-searching with efforts that were brave and familiar, Collingwood left us with the impression not even they know who they are anymore.
And it was hard to find excuses. Whereas the Giants were missing key armoury in the shape of Stephen Coniglio, Phil Davis, Matt de Boer and Lachie Whitfield, Collingwood could only put forward Jamie Elliott as a genuine first-teamer absent through injury. Losing Adams to a possibly serious knee injury when Collingwood had already enacted their medical sub did not help, but nor did it have a material effect on the outcome.
The Pies will hope their vice-captain recovers quickly. They will need him on a return journey to credibility that does not get any easier. A trip west to face the Eagles is next, followed by an Anzac Day meeting with an in-form Essendon outfit. The season may be young, but time is already running out for Collingwood to prove they are not in a hole.