The Pies were either not far away from Port, the minor premiers, or a long way from them, the coach explained. They would gain “learnings” from the loss.
But no matter how far the Pies were – or are – from Port Adelaide in terms of capability, Perth and West Coast are an even greater distance from an ideal elimination final match-up. That combination is the worst possible outcome.
In years past, the Magpies have had a knack for winning big games, against the odds, on the road. To upset the Eagles – irrespective of who runs out for the home side – would be a much greater upset than the one Buckley’s boys inflicted on Richmond in the 2018 preliminary final.
That famed 2018 game and the season that preceded it seems like a faraway galaxy. One of the cornerstones of that victory, Steele Sidebottom, is in Melbourne being a dad and won’t be playing finals.
Mason Cox, who had his career night, will be out there, but has never threatened to repeat those heroics, although he gave a decent showing against Port. Jordan De Goey, another star of 2018, couldn’t shine in the floodlit Gabba on a determined Tom Jonas.
Cox and De Goey aren’t the ideal target forwards – De Goey is a massive talent, but not a key forward. Nor is Brody Mihocek, an undersized centre half-forward and ex-VFL backman who does everything right within his limitations.
But it’s tempting to say that any forward would struggle with the slow, indecisive, sloppy and generally hopeless delivery that Cox and co were given.
Conversely, there’s an argument that the Pies don’t have confidence in their forwards and that this lack of confidence creates excessive ball use.
Here’s an ugly season stat for Collingwood. They’ve handballed 495 times more than their opposition this year, and kicked 23 fewer times. Geelong, which also can go slow with the footy, have had 450 more marks.
The Cats kick it. The Pies handball it to one another, until they run into pressure and cough it up.
Hence they are last for metres gained per possession. Richmond are first.
Here’s another unattractive set of numbers: Collingwood are the only top eight team that doesn’t rank in the top eight for scoring. They’re 13th.
Brodie Grundy, the premier ruckman in the game in 2018 and for much of 2019, has been a packhorse in 2020. He’s been gallant – playing every game – but also much less effective.
His hitouts, whether they’re to advantage or not, aren’t weaponised in the manner of Nic Naitanui’s, the ruck genius Grundy will face again on Saturday week.
Under Buckley, the back line has been outstanding this season. The Pies are hard to score against almost every game. They also win plenty of contested balls, in which they rate top two (with Port).
But their midfield struggles to convert Grundy’s dominance into meaningful clearances when facing strong opposition, and, above all, they find it extremely difficult to move the ball. The Pies are 16th for scores from their back half, and ranked the same for scoring from centre bounces. They’re sixth for scores from front-half entries, which suggests that they can score only if they’re winning territory – which makes their handball disease all the more confounding.
Buckley, from his playing days into his commentary and coaching careers, is one of the better diagnosticians in the AFL. He knows what’s amiss.
But through a combination of personnel and method – by “method” I mean what coaches teach players and players teach themselves – his team is unable to break the shackles and move the Sherrin fluently to a teammate in scoring position.
In these defensive times, a team that can’t move the footy can’t win.
Jake Niall is a Walkley award-winning sports journalist and chief AFL writer for The Age.