As the 2015 AFL home and away season draws to and end this weekend, it's hard not to reflect on what might have been for the Collingwood Football Club. After winning eight of their first 11 games it seemed as if finals were a certainty. Fate though intervened, and a mixture of injuries, drops in individual form and a tough draw meant that the Magpies have only won 2 of their last 10 games. They will miss the finals for the second successive season, something that hasn't occurred since the 2004 and 2005 seasons. Some say the Magpies are too young, others criticize the coaching staff or the players as simply not meeting the standards set for them. Whatever the truth actually is two consecutive failures to play finals means the pressure will be on the Pies from every angle next season.
There's still one more game to be played though, and it's against another team that has failed to reach it's expectations for 2015, Essendon. On Sunday at the MCG, arguably the two biggest drawing teams in the AFL will play out a rather meaningless game in front of a crowd of around 40,000. Of course the Bombers have had their own problems over the past few seasons, mainly off field, that have effected their on field output. While Collingwood at least gave the finals a shake for most of the year, Essendon were never really in contention and now sit in a club equaling worst 15th position. Yep, that's right a loss this weekend and Essendon will finish as low as they ever have in their club's history (in 2006 they also finished 15th). So maybe there is something on the line, for the Pies there's pride, and for Essendon there's a chance to avoid becoming the equal worst side in their long and storied existence.
Collingwood's form had been woeful up to last week. In the previous 9 games they'd only managed to defeat one team, and that was lowly Carlton. Last week though something clicked and the Magpies played like they hadn't in a long time. Against Geelong at the MCG the Pies burst out of the blocks and hurt the Cats where it counted, on the scoreboard. To be fair the opposition didn't give up much of a fight but the men in black and white played at a high intensity for four quarters. It was an impressive performance, more so as star forward Travis Cloke pulled up sore in the pre game warm up and didn't play. Then Dane Swan was subbed out at half time with a season ending knee injury. It was the best performance Collingwood had produced in at least 6 weeks.
The Bombers' form looks terrible on face value. They sit in 15th position on the ladder and have lost their last 7 games. Okay it's bad, it's very bad, and of course that really bad stretch of form led to the departure of senior coach James Hird. Matthew Egan has taken over and the past few weeks under a new boss have been better, with some competitive performances. The 27 point loss to an in form Richmond wasn't even that bad, although the wet conditions did keep the scores close. In that game Paul Chapman said his farewells to the football world while young Irishman Conor Mckenna made his debut. A few Bombers performed well with Cale Hooker, Michael Hurley and Dyson Heppell leading the way. It's been a long season for Essendon and they look as though they'll be happy that it's about to end.
Before last week's win over Geelong the Magpies had been copping a lot of negative heat from the press regarding yet another poor second half to a season. That was well deserved too, for although this Collingwood team seems more advanced then last season's they aren't going to win any more games. In fact the Pies have to win this game against Essendon just to match their 2014 win tally of 11 games. There have been plenty of positives in 2015 for Collingwood fans though. The introduction and continued development of a number of young players shows that the future is bright. Jordan De Goey may well be the shining light of the lot so far, with the young Pie showing just how much potential he has with 25 disposals in the win over the Cats. De Goey, along with the likes of Moore, Scharenberg, Maynard, Langdon, Grundy, Broomhead, Marsh and Crisp form the base as to which the next great Collingwood team will be built on. For now though it's another season past without finals and something that will have to be remedied next year.
Leading into this game the Pies do have a few new injury concerns with Dane Swan and Ben Sinclair certain to miss through injury. Travis Cloke, a late withdrawal last week is also likely to miss with hamstring soreness. Jesse White came in for Cloke last week and will keep his spot. Alan Toovey will be available to return after a week off from all football and should walk straight back into the 22. Of the 22 who played last week other then Swan and Sinclair the Pies may think about dropping Marsh or Scharenberg back to the VFL. Talking about the VFL, the Magpies reserves side booked their place in the finals with a scrappy win over Port Melbourne last week. Ben Kennedy, Adam Oxley, Jarrod Witts and Paul Seedsman will all think they are a chance based on their efforts in that win. It's the final chance for some of the Magpies players to impress the club and for some their future may well be on the line.
It's been another tough season for the Essendon Football Club with the ASADA/WADA investigation still hanging over their heads. Whether that's had an immense effect on the playing group is debatable but in the end it has claimed some victims, with James Hird the latest one. The Bombers legend was unceremoniously dumped as senior coach a few weeks back and plenty of their fans weren't happy about the way it was handled. On the field it hasn't been much better with 7 losses in a row and a long injury list. Essendon lead the league for players used this season (41, tied for most with the Gold Coast Suns) which shows just how much turmoil they've had in 2015. That may have benefits long term though with plenty of young and promising players getting an opportunity at senior level that they otherwise might not have had.
It's hard to find a real area of strength for Essendon at the moment but their back line is definitely the closest thing to that at the moment. Michael Hurley and Jake Carlisle have held together a defense that has been under extreme pressure this season. Michael Hibberd and Mark Baguley have also been main stays of a defensive structure that ranks second for rebounds from defensive 50. There is obviously talk around regarding Carlisle and his future but this is one area of the ground that has held up rather well. They match up this week against a Pie forward line almost certain to be without two of their best options, Cloke and Swan.
The Essendon midfield has had a tough time of it this year. The absence of Jobe Watson for most of the season would hurt any central group. In his absence Dyson Heppell has stood up though and is leading the club in both contested possessions and clearances by a long way. Heppell is a star now and will only get better in the future. The problem is after him the only consistent backup has come from Goddard, Howlett and Stanton. David Zaharakis has had a poor season and it's hurt the effectiveness of this midfield for sure. The Bombers rank in the bottom 4 in most categories in the middle and it's something that needs fixing for sure.
The Essendon forward line is still a work in progress. Joe Daniher is the future star of which they will build their attack around and in just his third season he will win the club's goal kicking award easily. Once you look past Daniher though the problems show up straight away. Not one other player on the entire list averages one goal a game, a damning stat for any AFL side. Cale Hooker has shown in patches that he can play well up forward (3 goals last week) but he lacks the consistency at the moment. If there's an area the Bombers have to improve in the most it has to be their forward line.
The Bombers season is just petering out really, even with the little on field boost they received with a change of senior coach. Nothing would make their fans happier though then to end a miserable season with a win over one of their biggest rivals. It's not impossible either, with Essendon's best pushing sides at time and of course defeating the Hawks earlier on in the season. There may be a good news story yet though with Dustin Fletcher a chance to play in what would be a farewell game. How motivated this group is knowing this is the end of their 2015 ride may well determine if they can push, or even defeat Collingwood on Sunday.
Collingwood go into this game in better shape then the Bombers both in terms of form and available players. The loss of Cloke and Swan does hurt but the Pies forward line found a way to score without either of them last weekend. Essendon may well have one good effort in them yet but if they perform the way they have in most of the last 7 games they will lose by a decent margin here.
I expect this game to be free flowing (weather permitting) as the two proud clubs try to finish off the season with a good show for their fans. Collingwood should win and that's exactly what I expect them to do. The Pies midfield should dominate this game from start to finish and prove the difference in this dead rubber.
MAGPIES BY 22 POINTS.
On Saturday the VFL Magpies will play an elimination final versus Werribee at North Port Oval. The VFL Pies finished the season in 6th place and go into the game in good form.