Darcy Moore’s influence has been dulled for more than a month by teams using his opponent to drag him where the ball isn’t. This was OK when Collingwood still had Tom Langdon and Jeremy Howe to roll off and intercept mark, but both were injured. Without any of Moore, Howe or Langdon’s marking they have lost the ability to re-set behind the ball. It has also meant the opposition has been able to claim territory and keep the ball trapped in Collingwood’s defence.
Matt Scharenberg was playing his first game for a year, so he needs time. James Aish, who has been good in defence, was also out so the back six looked very different.
But it is the midfield that is a worry. For some time the Magpies have struggled for contested ball and clearances in the middle. Grundy’s excellence has masked deeper problems with their on-ball makeup.
The Collingwood midfield has been billed as the best in the competition because of the impressive calibre of names but it is a midfield that was beaten in last year’s grand final, beaten by Geelong and in particular Tim Kelly in round one, and thunderously poor against North. Their stars were down. Grundy, their best player, met an opponent who could nullify or match him. The Collingwood ruckman had eight kicks, six ineffective.
Scott Pendlebury has been excellent this year but he carries a burden like Grundy to be everything. Adam Treloar has pace but lacks an appreciation of how unreliable his kicking is. His strength is bursting from a pack into space, kicking the goal from half forward, but he too often burns the ball in field play.
Steele Sidebottom, their most artful player, had 10 kicks and six of them missed targets. He has been asked to be an inside player because others are missing, but he is most effective on a wing. The on-ball balance is out. Taylor Adams is important to them because he defends and burrows in in the middle like no other midfielder they have. Without him they have too few prepared to defend at the contest and run as hard defensively.
Brayden Sier suffered an injury early which meant they lacked that aggressive first-possession player. Sier is important but has not yet returned to the levels of last year.
Dayne Beams was brought in to complement this midfield, but he has not had that impact. Beams is injured but there is a question mark over what his place is in this midfield. His form was down before injury but even at his best he does not help the blend of a midfield that is one-paced.
On the outside Tom Phillips has been inconsistent. The forwards who roll through the midfield – Josh Thomas and Jordan De Goey – had no effect on Saturday. De Goey lacks endurance to spend long periods on the ball but at the moment is needed there (and forward) because of the point of difference of being an inside/outside player with power and explosive pace.
Forward of the ball, Saturday’s performance is hard to examine given Collingwood only had 35 inside 50s, but the forwards are not restricted to the arcs. They play high up the ground and bring it in and to that extent Mason Cox was, and has been this year, poor. His fondness for flying for the ball one handed is perplexing and when the ball hits the ground he displays little interest for involvement. The hunting small forwards Thomas and Travis Varcoe have been down for some time.
Jamie Elliott should be back soon. Will Hoskin-Elliott is an A-grade talent who delivered a low-grade game. Jaidyn Stephenson ought to be squirming as he watches from the sidelines.
This paints a bleak picture but there are a few things to note. Firstly, players will come back. Secondly, commitment and physical pressure are not foreign to the Magpies, they can improve on that quickly. Finally, top-four teams West Coast and GWS have been handed beltings this year, too. Geelong have not been belted but they have had surprising losses.
A bad loss does not define a season but the response to it can.
RHYCE IN THE RUNNING?
Among Saturday night’s action, the major focus fell on Collingwood. When a big club sitting second on the ladder delivers that sort of performance, they naturally draw all of the attention. But some light should shine back on North Melbourne.
North Melbourne was excellent and played like the finals team. They played finals football and they did it in a brutal way.
Rhyce Shaw’s caretaker tenure at North must now have shifted him in consideration for the job from being a chance to being considered a favourite.
There is a danger in falling for the stand-in because they liberate players, its all about freedom and attack. But North is not playing like that, they are playing a disciplined and aggressive game that is structured and punishing. They play like finalists. Rhyce looks to be, ahem, a sure thing to be a senior coach at some point.
STACK PILES IT ON FOR THE TIGERS
Sydney Stack has been one of the revelations of the season. His story does not need retelling here, but since he came into the team he slotted into defence. But he plays defence like David Warner, so it was only a matter of time before he had an impact up the ground.
Sunday was his best long-term spell as a forward, with four goals and a hanger bouncing off the back of a Saints defender. He became the irresistible force up forward.
The Rising Star is a spurious award given it is just an end of year guess by a handful of people, but in the last two weeks two players – Stack and Nick Blakey – have delivered performances that say they will be long-term stars of the game. Which is sort of what a rising star should be. Of course Sam Walsh has also already also done that.
However given where he came from – supplementary pick, and not even a regular national or rookie draft pick – Stack has a strong argument to be the rising star pick for 2019.
CUNNINGTON’S A CLASS ACT
If there was anyone emblematic of the gulf in the two sides on Saturday it was Ben Cunnington. If they could give all Brownlow votes to one player for Saturday night then Cunnington deserved six.
Buckley lamented his side’s insipid physical game, which was accurate and fair comment because when you set it against Cunnington in particular it looked like players playing two different games.
Cunnington could not be tackled and his handballs put his teammates into space.
Cunnington suffers for profile because his club suffers for profile, but he is rarely beaten and is as brutal around the ball as any player in the competition.
A curious fact about Cunnington, as picked up by Julian De Stoop in commentary, is that he’s a right-foot kick but only handballs left-handed.
Michael Gleeson is an award-winning senior sports writer specialising in AFL and athletics.