ANZAC Day, it's the most revered and respected day on the Australian calendar, and every year since 1995 the Collingwood and Essendon football clubs have come together on this date. That initial game in 1995 was met with skepticism by most, but a sell out crowd and a stunning game of football (which ended in a draw) sealed the fate of the matchup for the foreseeable future. Now when the two get together on ANZAC day, it's more of an event than just a football game, with a guaranteed sellout crowd at the M.C.G and a spine tingling pre match ceremony that honours those who fought for this nation. Then there's the game itself, some of the most epic moments in recent AFL history have come on this day. The drawn game in 1995, the upset win in the wet by the Pies in 2002 and the now immortal David Zaharakis match winner with only seconds left in the 2009 fixture. Many thought this year's game would be a fizzer, with Essendon fielding a weakened line up due to suspensions being served over the drugs saga, but now it looks like being a really competitive game.
If anything Essendon come into this game in better form, having defeated Melbourne and pushed Geelong right to the limit in their last two games. The Bombers were expected to be non competitive this season, with many saying they wouldn't win a game, yet it only took them two rounds to prove those doubters wrong. Collingwood on the other hand look the more non competitive of the two, having put up three measly performances around a somewhat lucky win over Richmond. The Pies were no match for Melbourne on Sunday in another uninspiring outing. It leaves us with a matchup between two teams who won't play finals this year, but should make for an interesting game on Monday at the M.C.G.
Where to start with Collingwood? Their first four performances have been well below the level expected of a team that was aiming to play, and win finals this year. They started with a big loss in round one to Sydney, got lucky when Richmond capitulated late in round 2, and then have gone to sleep for large patches of their most recent games, losses to St Kilda and Melbourne. That has to be the most concerning part for senior coach Nathan Buckley and the Magpie team. They simply haven't even given a four quarter effort so far in season 2016. Last week against Melbourne it was the first quarter where that effort just wasn't there. The Pies started well enough kicking the first goal of the game, but then conceded the next 7 goals to blow any chance they had of winning. The Magpies fought back a little, getting within 20 points in the third term before another set of costly turnovers finished them off. As for those turnovers, they've been killing the Pies chances in games. They rank 15th for giveaways and 12th for points allowed from turnovers, which is a real problem. Worse still their defense when they don't have the ball is just as bad, with the Magpies being the worst team in the AFL for opposition scores from centre clearances. There's so many other areas of concern at the moment, but needless to say an improved effort can improve some of them at least.
Coming into this game versus the Bombers the Magpies are under intense media scrutiny. The media, as always, are baying for blood and it starts with the big names at the club, Nathan Buckley, Scott Pendlebury and Travis Cloke. Cloke is in doubt for this game anyway with an elbow injury, but captain Scott Pendlebury's influence has been below his normal elite level also over the 4 games. If Cloke and Pendlebury can lift, maybe those around them will too. Cloke isn't the only injury concern with Ben Reid hurting a knee and Ben Sinclair suffering concussion in the loss to the Demons. All 3 are a chance to play though so for the first time this season there probably won't be any forced outs due to injury or suspension. In the VFL on Sunday, just before the seniors capitulated, the reserves went down by a big margin also. There were several who impressed though, with Rupert Wills gathering 34 disposals, Tim Broomhead with 30 touches and Mason Cox amassing 51 hitouts in a dominant ruck display. All 3 will almost definitely be in the squad of 25 named on Thursday night.
Essendon were supposed to be a worry for the AFL in season 2016. They were supposed to be something similar to what the GWS Giants were in their first season, completely uncompetitive. Apart from their round 1 game though on the Gold Coast, nothing could be further from the truth. They defeated Melbourne in round 2 and subsequently have tested Port Adelaide away and Geelong at the MCG. If anything they've been more competitive than Collingwood given the level of opposition they have faced. But it is still a struggle for this Bombers outfit, they have been strangled by the AFL's punishment over the drugs saga and they won't win many more games in season 2016. Their fans though would be impressed with the effort so far.
Essendon's backline was probably the most effected area by the suspensions. Missing the three H's, Hibberd, Hooker and Hurley meant that the Bombers had to go out and create a defense almost out of nothing. With their top ups they've actually done ok with Dea, Hartley, Brown and Kelly adding some stability to this area of the ground. They still have Baguley, Gwilt and Gleeson and will run into a Collingwood forward line that ranks last for marks inside forward 50. The danger for Essendon will be stopping the smaller players, with Fasolo, Blair, Aish and Howe all capable of kicking multiple goals.
The Essendon midfield was also largely effected by the suspensions with the biggest absentees being Watson and Heppell. Without them though David Zaharakis has stepped up and is arguably having the best start to a season in his career. Helping Zaharakis is Bird, the two Merretts, Cooney, Parish Fantasia and the very reliable Brendan Goddard. Goddard's versatility means he can fill a gap wherever coach John Worsfold feels he needs him, and with Collingwood down in the bottom four for clearances, surely Goddard will spend a lot of time in the middle to try and at least break even. That Magpies midfield is struggling, it looks slow and their skills under pressure have been poor, so if Essendon can win their fair share of the contested ball they may well get a head start out of the centre.
Of course to win games in the AFL you need to be able to score, and Essendon's forward line may well be their area of strength, if they can get it down there often enough. Led by the uber promising Joe Daniher, who is just coming into his own, it's an area of the ground that may trouble the Magpies this week. What may be lacking is another tall option to assist Daniher, so Shaun McKernan may come in to help out Joe. Mitch Brown is another one who can help Daniher, and the experienced pair of Stokes and Cooney also add some bite. Darcy Parish has been a revelation in just his first season and kicked a vital goal late in the win over the Demons. Essendon will look to exploit an experienced Magpies backline that also looks slow and unable to cope with a fast transition into attack.
Many thought this game would be a joke come ANZAC day, with Collingwood pushing for a top 4 spot and Essendon unable to win a game. How wrong they were. Essendon will go into this gave believing it has a chance to win, and on form that's not a silly thought. To win they'll have to get the ball to the outside and run hard, because everyone has seen the Magpies aren't the quickest side and can be opened up quite easily. The Essendon injury list is one of the smallest in the league which will also help the Bombers be competitive on Monday.
While the positive is that this matchup actually seems quite even now, the negative obviously is the way the Magpies are performing. If they were anywhere near their best they would win this game quite easily, of that there is little doubt. But they aren't, their last two efforts, well make that 3 out of 4, have been downright ordinary and on that form Essendon are a chance.
It has to turn one week though, Collingwood on talent alone are better than what they have been playing, and maybe, just maybe it will take a sellout crowd at the M.C.G. to wake these Pies up. That's all I've got to go on, and on that alone I'll tip the Pies to win by a small margin.
MAGPIES BY 17 POINTS.
In what now seems like an annual fixture, Collingwood and Essendon's VFL teams will face off the day before ANZAC day. Last year the game was held at Windy Hill, but this season the Magpies get hosting rights and they return to their traditional home ground, Victoria Park. Game time is Sunday, 2.10pm.