Two weeks ago no one gave Collingwood a hope of playing finals this season. Two weeks ago most media pundits thought senior coach Nathan Buckley was close to getting the sack. Two weeks ago the Pies were classified as a “developing team” and were thought of as irrelevant for season 2016. My how things have changed in just two weeks.
The Magpies have found something. They seem to have found a way to self motivate themselves that was missing in the first 7 games which left them with a 2-5 record. After that nasty loss to Carlton hard words were spoken at the club and the trip to Brisbane was a last chance at redemption. Redemption was granted, as the Pies won big in Brisbane then came back home ready to have a crack at the then premiership favourites, Geelong. No one gave the Pies a chance of winning, yet after 30 minutes it was clear they would. The Pies kicked the only 7 goals in the first term which set up an awe inspiring, league shocking 24 point win over the Cats. That upset keeps the Pies finals hopes alive, for now.
This Sunday, the Pies face another premiership contending team when they host the Western Bulldogs at the MCG. The Dogs were thought of as the standout team of the competition a few weeks back but suspensions and injuries have brought them down to earth. But they are still a strong team, sitting with a 6-3 record after 9 games. The Dogs were undermanned on Sunday when they headed north to play the Giants, and it showed in the result as the home team dominated for most of the game and defeated the Bulldogs by 25 points. The Dogs won't be happy with that effort and performance though and will look to bounce back in front of a big crowd at the G on Sunday.
Collingwood look like a completely different side now to the one that meekly gave up and rolled over against non final contenders like the Blues, Demons and Saints. The last two games have seen them play some brutal, uncompromising, aggressive, fast moving and efficient football which their opponents simply had no answer for. Prior to that it was ugly, the effort seemed below expectation, as did the output in so many areas, yet now these Magpies look like a side you do not want to mess with. Prior to the trip to Brisbane first quarters had been a massive problem for Collingwood yet in the last two they've kicked 11 goals and 14 behinds while keeping both opponents goal less up to the first break. So what's improved? What's happened?
There's no one answer. Yes the intensity has lifted on both the opposition when they get the ball but also when the Pies are going forward. Yes the Pies have got some of their most important players back and they look fit and healthy. Yes some players look to be in career best form, such as Jeremy Howe. The Melbourne recruit was seen, and publicly stated by coach Nathan Buckley, as a forward who might play some game time on the wing. Yet like his coach at the Demons Paul Roos discovered, Howe's best position isn't either of those, it's in the backline. Howe has been, dare I say it, in All Australian form the past two weeks at half back. He's shut down his opponent, won plenty of the ball and yet still finds time to take his trademark high marks. Quite simply he's made Collingwood better since the move down back. There are others too who have improved remarkably since the opening few games. Grundy, Crisp, Reid, Sidebottom, Cox and Greenwood have significantly lifted and it's made a huge difference. The Pies are now rolling, and will look to challenge the Dogs at their own game.
To do that you'd assume there won't be many changes to the Magpies lineup that tore through the Lions and Cats. For once Collingwood will lose no one to injury, so it's hard to see spots in the team for the likes of Cloke, Goldsack, Williams, Witts, Goodyear and Marsh who all performed well in an upset win in the VFL on Saturday night. Cloke started on fire, kicking 3 goals in the first term, while Witts dominated in the ruck and around the ground. Goodyear was the best midfielder out there while Goldsack and Marsh repelled attack after attack late in the game as the VFL Magpies held on for a 5 point win. Goldsack and/or Marsh might be the most likely to get a promotion with the plethora of Dogs small and medium scorers causing problems for the Pies in the past. The Pies will go into this game with more belief than they have for any this season so far, and it would be silly for anyone to not give them a chance of winning their third in a row.
WESTERN BULLDOGS PREVIEW
The Western Bulldogs aren't coming, they're here. For the past few seasons we've been promised that this team would eventually turn into an outfit that plays in finals, but one that wins them and contends for the premiership. While it may be too early to call them genuine premiership contenders this season they have been mighty impressive in most of their outings in season 2016. Recent losses to the current top 2 sides in the league, North Melbourne and GWS, have taken some of that shine off but sitting with a 6-3 record after nine games is a decent start for anyone. They are strong in just about all areas of the ground now and possess the ability to blow teams away in a small period of time. Some may say they only play well at Etihad Stadium but their strong win over the in form Demons a few weeks back shows they have no problem playing at the MCG.
If there's one area of the ground that stands out as a strength for this Bulldogs team it's the midfield. They rank in the top 5 for both clearances and contested possessions after 9 games which shows just how strong their central group is. They have a plethora of players able to win the ball at the contest, with the likes of Wallis, Dahlhaus, Bontempelli, Liberatore, Hunter, Picken, Jong and Stevens all averaging over two clearances a game. The ruck isn't as strong for the Dogs with Will Minson seemingly past his best although Roughead and Campbell have kept the Dogs competitive so far in 2016. This game will almost certainly be won in the middle and when you look at the talent on both sides it really is hard to split the midfield groupings.
The Dogs forward line gets the job done in a unique manner. With Tom Boyd still struggling to hold down a senior spot as the key forward, coach Luke Beveridge has had to rely on multiple goal scorers in games. The positive is that makes it harder for the opposition to lock down one or two potential top scorers. The problem is only Jake Stringer is averaging more than 2 goals a game (of those who have played 5 or more). Jack Redpath will return this week and has shown some promise, and there's others who are capable on their day, but this Bulldogs forward line is an area of concern. They only rank 8th for total scores and in the two recent losses to the Giants and Kangaroos the opposition were able to stop them scoring once they went forward. The good news for the Dogs is they run into an in injury hit Pies backline, which may give them some hope of turning their forward woes around this week.
Many will be surprised to find out that the Western Bulldogs have conceded the least amount of total points through the first 9 rounds. That's impressive for a side that many thought would struggled defensively and simply have to outscore teams to win games. It's a remarkable achievement when Dale Morris is the only recognisable key position defender down back. How the Dogs defend so well is a team defense mentality. When the opposition has the ball they defend as a team, dropping back into the set positions of their game plan and making it very difficult for the other team to get inside forward 50 cleanly. The loss of Bob Murphy and Jason Johannisen has hurt the Dogs ability to rebound off half back but Matthew Boyd, the ever reliable hard ball winner, has moved down back and is ably covering for the injured players. They face a difficult task stopping a peculiar talent in Mason Cox this week though, with the huge American improving every week.
The Bulldogs will see this game as an opportunity to get back on track after what they would consider a poor performance last week. Realistically though they are starting to show some weaknesses in certain areas although the probable return of four players from injury and/or suspension should fill some of those holes. If Boyd, Redpath, Adams and Suckling return it makes this Dogs outfit all that more experienced and able to give a consistent effort and output. Returning to the MCG won't hold any fears for them either after a big win over Melbourne two weeks ago so this Western Bulldogs team will head to the G on Sunday expecting to end this mini Magpies resurgence.
Collingwood are a real chance of winning this game, and that in itself is massive change in such a short time. A few weeks back no one would have given the Pies even a shot at beating the Dogs, yet now after the win over the Cats they have to be considered a chance. To win a lot has to go right for the Pies though. Just like their win over Geelong they have to start well, as coming from behind against a strong defensive side like the Bulldogs can be near impossible. The Collingwood midfield is the key here though. It dominated Geelong early and if it can get on top of the Dogs equally strong midfield it can help the Pies win this game.
I think that will happen, the Pies have extreme confidence in their ability to beat just about anyone at the moment. Yes the 2-5 start to the season was ugly and there's still remnants of that sticking around. But this young Collingwood team has found it's mojo, it's not going to lie down and let anyone walk all over them again this season and it's that confidence that will see the Pies cause yet another upset.
MAGPIES BY 7 POINTS.