The monkey's off the back, that was the general thought after Collingwood notched a 69 point win over Essendon on ANZAC day at the MCG. The Pies had been struggling, they'd lost two games in a row to young and developing teams (Melbourne and St Kilda) and the pressure was building on everyone at the club. By quarter time on Monday though every Magpie fan breathed a sigh of relief as finally Collingwood showed a glimpse of what it is capable of. Of course the opposition was as about as weak as they'll face this season, but the ease in which the Pies blew the Bombers away early showed that maybe the corner has been turned.
We will find out more on Saturday in Perth when the Pies travel west to face last years' losing grand finalist, the West Coast Eagles. The Eagles aren't exactly firing on all cylinders themselves, they have looked ordinary when they've traveled away from home suffering two big defeats to Sydney and Hawthorn. They have more confidence at home though and are 3 for 3 at Subiaco Oval so far in 2016.
It's an important game for both teams with the Eagles looking to keep in touch with the top 4 while the Pies are just trying to hang on to the possibility of playing finals.
The win over Essendon may have taken some of the pressure off the Magpies but not everything is rosy down at the Holden Centre. Injuries are playing a major toll on the Pies season with Swan, Elliott, Scharenberg and Ramsay all but ruled out for the entire campaign. Those players are a big enough loss on their own, but then you add Marley Williams, Travis Varcoe (will miss at least 1 week), Jarrod Witts and Tyson Goldsack and the depth of this Collingwood list is being tested already. That was as clear as day in the VFL on the weekend when the VFL Magpies were simply uncompetitive against Essendon's reserves. They started the game well, with Travis Cloke kicking two first quarter goals, but after that fell away badly to eventually lose by 75 points. There isn't much to chose from down there for the Pies with Cloke, Broomhead, White, Marsh and a bunch of kids all that is left.
There are positives though and most came out of that win over the Bombers on Monday. Alex Fasolo is having a career best start to a season, sitting equal 5th in the Coleman medal race, at the moment matching last years winner Josh Kennedy. The Collingwood midfield may finally be hitting top gear too with Pendlebury, Sidebottom (fresh off an ANZAC medal winning performance), Treloar, Adams and Greenwood all tearing the game apart at different stages. The back line held up well too, with the three talls in Reid, Frost and Brown restricting Essendon to just 2 goals in the first half despite a relatively comparable inside 50 count. But the story of the day was of course Mason Cox, and the big American is almost certain to get a second game this week against the Eagles, with Natanui and Lycett being a formidable partnership in the ruck. Cox showed he can make an impact as a forward, and provided genuine ruck support for Brodie Grundy, something that had been missing this season so far. The Magpies to the eye looked to take the game on more and the open spaces of Subiaco may well be just what this side is looking for now.
There shouldn't be too many changes in regards to selection this week, with Travis Varcoe the only new injury. His replacement will likely come from one of the players who missed last week through injury themselves, with Langdon, Sinclair and Goldsack all hoping to be back in time for this game. Of the 22 who played against the Bombers most aren't in any danger of being omitted, although a few are. James Aish and Jack Crisp have been noticeably struggling to impact games and their spot in the team may be under threat for the trip to Perth. This game is a tough task for the young Magpies indeed, but coming off a confidence boosting win anything may be possible.
WEST COAST PREVIEW
After being embarrassed in the Grand Final by the Hawks last season most expected the Eagles to romp through the 2016 home and away season and easily secure a top 4 spot leading into the finals. Why that may still happen, the early signs haven't been great, especially away from home. They've dominated at home, as they always have, but in the two trips interstate so far this season they've been uncompetitive really. Yes the opposition has been absolutely top class (Swans and Hawks) but at no stage in either game did you really think the Eagles were going to win. The final quarter versus the Swans last week was close to woeful. The Eagles hit the lead half way through the third term but didn't kick another goal after that. The good news is they return home this week, and should get back on the winning track.
The Eagles forward line should be their strength but at the moment only two forwards are delivering for the Eagles. Coleman medal winner Josh Kennedy and Jack Darling have started the season well but they need help from the likes of Josh Hill, Mark LeCras, Jeremy McGovern and Lewis Jetta. LeCras must be a real concern for coach Adam Simpson as he looks to be a player whose best football may well be behind him. Of course the way the ball is being delivered inside forward 50 is always crucial and it does seem as if the Eagles aren't hitting their targets as cleanly as they did last season. They come up against a Pies defense that put in a stellar performance against Essendon, especially in the first half, but one that is suspect to fast and accurate ball movement. If the Eagles midfielders and rebounding defenders can move the ball into the forward zone quickly they could exploit that Magpies weakness.
When your midfield is led by a Brownlow medal winner usually it's not an area of concern. But the West Coast midfield is struggling at the moment. They sit lower than expected for clearances and contested possessions and this is despite a ruck service that is second to none in the AFL. Nic Natanui and Scott Lycett (returns from suspension this week) lead the league for average hitouts per game although some have questioned if those hitouts have been to the advantage of their team mates. There's enough talent in the middle for the Eagles to excel, with Priddis, Gaff, Shuey, Masten, Wellingham, Cripps and Yeo part of the midfield rotation. Being ranked 10th for clearances isn't good enough when you have that talent although the Magpies rank ever lower over the first 5 games, down in 14th. To win this game this is the area of the ground the Eagles need to get on top in.
The Eagles defense is actually holding up quite well despite their midfield and forward struggles. It has conceded only the most total points in the first 5 rounds and with Eric MacKenzie and Will Schofield back in tandem it is one area that the coaches wouldn't be as concerned about. Where the Eagles are struggling though is rebounding the ball out of the defensive 50 zone. They rank 14th for clearing the ball out of defense this season and that's something that is so important in the modern game. West Coast do seem to lack real runners out of defense and it's showed over the first 5 games. They do come up against a Magpies forward line though whose pressure (before last week) was as bad as anyone's in the league. The matchups will be interesting in the Pies forward line too with Mason Cox (backing up after that stellar debut), Darcy Moore, Jeremy Howe and Alex Fasolo creating a few headaches for the opposition. The absence of Travis Cloke makes them less predictable to defend and it will be something new for the Eagles to figure out this week.
The West Coast Eagles go into this game with one of the healthiest lists in the entire league. There are some minor concerns over Andrew Gaff, Eric Mackenzie and Sam Butler but with a long break to Sunday all should take their place in the side. Despite the loss to the Swans there shouldn't be too many changes with Lycett returning from suspension the only given in. This is a game the Eagles will expect to win, and the should really, but given their away form and current deficiencies in several areas, it may not be as easy as most will expect.
West Coast will go into this game as short favourites and with good reason, they are nigh on unbeatable at home. The Magpies haven't defeated the Eagles at Subiaco Oval since 2009 although they only play them there every second season now. The Eagles will be looking to redeem themselves after a less than stellar effort in the second half last week while the Pies will be thinking something similar. Yes their first half was impressive on ANZAC day but their second half was quite poor. If the Pies can put four quarters together maybe they can cause one of the upsets of the season so far.
MAGPIES BY 2 POINTS
The Collingwood VFL team will be looking to perform much better than it has over the past two weeks. Coming off two heavy losses the VFL Magpies head to Preston City Oval on Saturday to face Carlton's VFL affiliate, the Northern Blues. Travis Cloke is likely to be in action again, game time is 2pm.