Nathan Buckley has Collingwood primed for an assault on the 2013 Premiership. Fresh from a 20 point NAB cup win over the West Coast the Pies pre-season has been very good. This is in stark contrast to 2012 when both Brent Macaffer and Andrew Krakouer succumbed to serious knee injuries. Their wretched run continued when Luke Ball in round 3 and Lachlan Keefe in round 9 went down with season ending knee injuries. Throw in the Travis Cloke contract saga, an out of form Chris Dawes and a first year coach in Nathan Buckley, the magpies effort to finish 4th was a credible result.
Media observers, most notably Mick Malthouse, said the Pies game style had shifted in 2012. Gone were the boundary hugging days of 2010-11, they were using the corridor too much and paying the price on the rebound. Champion Data statistics told a different story. In 2012 the Pies were still ranked 1st in the league for working the boundary line and consequently 18th for using the corridor. What did drop off noticeably was time the ball spent in Collingwood’s forward half or the forward press. A hallmark of their 2010 Premiership, the Pies forward pressure must improve this year. The return of Krakouer and Ball will help greatly in this area. Whilst silky skilled, Krakouer is also quick, creates pressure and is a good tackler. Ball is an elite tackler whose clearance work in getting the ball out to the likes of Pendlebury, Swan and Sidebottom was sorely missed in 2012.
Another problem for Collingwood last year was the opposition’s ability to isolate certain defenders forcing them into a one on one aerial contest. With Brown, Reid, Tarrant and Keefe all injured at various times throughout the year, players such as Harry O’Brien and to a lesser extent Heath Shaw were exposed as being vulnerable in the air especially when taken close to goal. Captain Nick Maxwell was not afforded the freedom of playing the loose, sweeping third man up role that he had made his trademark. This greater defensive accountability also robbed the Pies of their crucial run from defence. Collingwood at their best rely on Shaw and O’Brien to break through the opposition defensive zones with run and dash, often bouncing their way through the midfield and pumping the ball into their forward 50, occasionally drilling a goal themselves.
The Pies need to get better and that can come from a combination of new recruits, players returning from injury and improvement from within. Experienced recruits Jordan Russell, Quinten Lynch and Clinton Young all need to have an immediate impact. Russell will provide stability in defence and assist the aforementioned O’Brien, Shaw and Maxwell to get off the leash. Young adds his elite kicking skills to the pies defence and his ability to hit the intended target may spell the end for Ben Johnson. Pies fans love the underrated Johnson however shoulder injuries last year and his ability to turn the ball over consistently has the 32 year old on the fringe. Lynch is an interesting selection. He will essentially play the Chris Dawes role of providing a foil for Travis Cloke whilst giving a solid 5 minutes a quarter in the ruck. He is similar to Dawes in that he is a great competitor who is rarely outmarked, however it is in the ruck where the Pies believe he’ll be a better option than Dawes. The improvement from within will come from the likes of Jamie Elliott, Ben Sinclair, Jackson Paine and Paul Seedsman. Young players improving and forcing their way into the senior side is vital to any great side and will ensure Alan Didak is not a walk up start. The Pies have also added some experienced rookies who will play a part this year. Sam Dwyer and Kyle Martin have both been plucked from the VFL and are ready to step into the AFL. The other mature aged rookie of interest is Ben Hudson. Hudson is not making up the numbers. Darren Jolly should play around 16-18 games this year leaving Hudson to take the ruck duties in the remaining matches. With man mountain Jarrod Witts and new recruit Brodie Grundy still a year or two away from the big time, Hudson is a wise choice.
With a star midfield featuring Pendlebury, Swan, Beams and Sidebottom, the best contested mark in the game up forward in Travis Cloke, a more settled defence and a good batch of youngsters coming through there’s every chance the Premiership will again be a cakewalk in 2013.