It doesn't get much worse than this for the Collingwood football club. If the Magpies lose to the Brisbane Lions this weekend, they will be entrenched in the bottom four of the AFL ladder with a 2-6 win/loss record. That's simply not good enough. Not for a club with some of the best resources in the world of sport. Not for a club that has been rebuilding for three seasons Not for a club with the most ardent and passionate fans a club could wish for. But it's reality. The Magpies were poor again when in counted, on the field against Carlton at the M.C.G. It was Carlton of all teams, the old enemy, that reduced the Magpies to the lowest point of coach Nathan Buckley's tenure. Even club president Eddie McGuire, usually the most stable and loyal backer of the club and coach, talked about wanting to quit after the loss.
That loss left the Magpies with a 2-5 record ahead of a trip north to play the Brisbane Lions. The Lions themselves aren't exactly flying along with only one win this season. They also have a coach under pressure, declining crowd numbers and a young list. This is an absolutely vital game for both clubs, even if neither is any chance of making finals in season 2016. The Lions after defeating cross town rivals the Suns, and almost knocking off the Swans at home, made the trip to Adelaide Oval on Sunday to face Port Adelaide. Once again inaccurate kicking at goal cost them any chance. At three quarter time the Lions were matching the Power for shots at goal, but found themselves 48 points down. It's a concern that is all too familiar for Brisbane fans.
That leads us to this game, which will see the 14th and 16th placed teams face off. There's a myth that Collingwood don't play well at the GABBA, the scene of this Saturday night's matchup, yet the Pies have won 5 of their last 7 games at the ground, including their last 3. That may well give the disjointed Magpies the confidence they need to get a much needed win.
Collingwood is struggling, in every way a club can be. Their injury list is long and talented, the players who are fit are under performing and there seems to be little cohesion on game day. Talking about injuries, the Pies just can't take a trick at the moment. It seems as if they will lose another three players this week with Tim Broomhead (ankle), Ben Reid (shoulder) and Nathan Brown (hamstring) unlikely to be available for this game. That extends the injury list out to a possible season high of 15, which is staggering really. There may be some good news on the injury front though with Travis Varcoe, Ben Sinclair, Marley Williams and Taylor Adams close to returning from various ailments. While the criticism of the Magpies performance has been just, the long and talented injury list has to be taken into account.
Even in the doom and gloom there are positives. Captain and vice captain, Scott Pendlebury and Steele Sidebottom, led from the front against Carlton along with star recruit Adam Treloar. Up forward Darcy Moore and Alex Fasolo continue to add to their goal tally every week, although they do lack assistance inside forward 50. The Pies are also getting plenty of games into their youngsters, with Ben Crocker the latest to get a debut, moving the number of players Collingwood has used in 7 games up to 36. That number is way too high of course, but it may fast track the development of a list that is still relatively young. Then there's the areas that the Pies are really struggling with. Holding the ball inside the forward zone was always a strength of any Collingwood side over the past decade or so, but this team seems incapable of doing so. That has led to the injury decimated backline being placed under extreme pressure, and quite simply it can't cope. The Magpies have conceded 96 uncontested marks inside defensive 50, which is far and above the most of any team in the first 7 rounds. Transition defense is a massive worry for coach Nathan Buckley. It's so obvious that teams are now picking his team apart as easy as they like.
Of course it can turn around quickly, this is yet another winnable game for the Magpies. To win it though they will need reinforcements, and more help from their bottom tiered players. Outside of Pendlebury, Treloar and Sidebottom no other Magpie is ranked in the top 110 players in the AFL this season. That's a glaring statistic, and shows those 3 need help. Levi Greenwood has to lift, although playing him out of position at half forward isn't ideal. Jesse White should keep his spot and played one of his better games last week as a versatile swingman. Ruckman Brodie Grundy is struggling too though, and up against Stefan Martin this week if he doesn't lift his game the Pies will be in trouble again. It's a game Collingwood can win, but you wouldn't be putting money on them based on the past few weeks of output.
The Brisbane Lions are an interesting team to analyze. They've only played in the one final series since making the 2004 Grand Final. Club champion and current coach Justin Leppitsch has been charged with the rebuild of the club yet so far he hasn't go them any higher than 15th. There is hope though, they do have some of the best young players in the competition and have recruited well in recent times. Of course one of those big recruits was Dayne Beams, the Collingwood premiership midfielder who asked for a trade home 18 months back. Beams, like some of the other Lions best players though, has spent significant time on the sideline due to injury. Like Collingwood it seems, there's bigger problems a foot than just blaming the coach or recruiting. There is talent on their list, and their most recent home game showed on their day they can match it with the very best teams in the competition.
If the Lions have an area of strength it has to be their midfield, even with captain Tom Rockliff likely to be missing for 2-3 weeks. Dayne Beams returned last week from injury and straight away made an impact with 8 clearances, and with help from the likes of Robinson, Bastinac, Rich and Zorko the Lions should be able to be competitive. Where they will gain a massive advantage is in the ruck, with one of the league's clear best ruckman, Stefan Martin in career best form. The Pies have been smashed in the ruck of late and Martin should give the Lions first use of the ball most times. Brisbane will also try and exploit the lack of pace in the Pies midfield by getting their smaller players involved more and moving the ball quickly. If they can win the midfield battle they can win the game.
The Brisbane backline was slaughtered last week after the late withdrawal of stalwart Daniel Merrett. He should return for this game and they'll need him to take either Cox or Moore. The one player of greatest concern for the Lions defense will be Alex Fasolo though, and if they can contain the enigmatic Pies forward they will gain a massive advantage. Brisbane can rebound the ball out of their backline better than most teams, with Daniel Rich and Pearce Hanley as classy as anyone around in that area. They will look to exploit the Pies inability to hold the ball inside that forward zone and get the ball forward quickly.
Talking about the forward line, and the Lions forward line is a real work in progress. The Lions knew their forward line was an area they had to address and they had no hesitation in taking Josh Schache with the second overall pick. Schache, who has only missed one game so far, has impressed already and shown glimpses of why he is rated so highly. At the moment though it's unfair and unrealistic to rely on a first year player to carry the forward line, so others need to step up and help him out. So far this season it's been the smalls that have done the majority of the scoring for the Lions with Zorko, Taylor, Hanley and Christensen leading the goal kicking. No one has managed to kick 10 goals in total yet though but they do get the chance to exploit a slow and under manned Magpies backline on Saturday night. If the Lions can get the ball inside 50 quickly, they may be able to score more heavily than they have recently. Inaccuracy is also a massive problem for Brisbane as they currently rank 15th with a woeful percentage of 44.8. Inaccuracy at goal has arguably cost them two games already and it may well decide this game as well.
The loss of Rockliff hurts the Lions no doubt, but the return of Merrett will stabilize them down back at least. There are several options to replace the injured skipper too with Mathieson, Green, Taylor and Robertson among those fighting to be included. This is a game the Lions will target to win, there's realistically not many they can win but this is one. The Pies are ripe for the picking and with most likely their biggest home crowd of the season behind them, this is a virtual final for the Lions. They need another win too, just to galvanize the group and show that they are moving in the right direction.
This should be a tight game, with both teams out of form and effected by injury. The probable return of Travis Varcoe and the loss of Rockliff may well be the difference here though. In a game like this, with so many inexperienced players on the ground, leadership can be a key, and both Varcoe and Rockliff have that.
The return of Daniel Merrett covers the loss of Rockliff a little, but for the Lions to win this game they have to dominate in the middle and I can't see that happening without their captain. The Magpies have won their last 3 games at the GABBA and if Varcoe lines up I think they'll make it four in a row in Brisbane.
MAGPIES BY 8 POINTS