Collingwood won't play finals this year, that much is clear now. That's a stark reality considering the very public preseason expectations of the Magpies. The aim was finals, it was supposed to be the pass mark this season yet after 11 rounds the Pies sit with a 4-7 win/loss record. The dam wall burst open on Sunday at the M.C.G. when Collingwood were completely and utterly destroyed by Port Adelaide to the tune of 67 points. The Power aren't even a top rated team, yet they toyed with the Magpies for most of the game, scoring some of the easiest goals you'll ever see at this level. The problems exist for the Magpies on so many levels. Their defense is leaking big scores, the midfield while still breaking even most weeks can't dominate, and their forward line has been ravaged by injury. It leaves the Pies with a makeshift lineup going into the Queen's Birthday holiday matchup against Melbourne this week.
The Demons themselves sit one win and one spot on the ladder above Collingwood. It's probably leaves Melbourne about on par with preseason expectations. They could be sitting a lot better though, with 3 losses in their last 4 games undoing some of the good early season work. These two have faced off already this season, with Melbourne taking a 35 point win over Collingwood back in round 4. In that win for the Demons, Jack Watts starred with 4 goals while Viney, Bugg and Jones gained almost 100 possessions between them. It was one of the more dominant Melbourne performances in recent memory. This game will be the 16th season in a row that the Pies and Demons have met on the Queen's Birthday Monday holiday, with Melbourne not saluting on this day since 2007. The Dees will start favourites in this one though as they seem to possess a side in form and healthier at the moment.
Where to now for the Magpies? Do they put the cue in the rack and get games into the kids? Or do they persist with selecting the absolute best 22 based on form and performance each week? I dare say it's the latter, at least for a few more rounds. There are some positives for Collingwood during these tough times. The ruck combination of Mason Cox and Brodie Grundy seems to be working well and together they dominated the hitouts last week. The midfield is still performing quite well also with Pendlebury, Sidebottom, Crisp and Treloar carrying the team most weeks. Down back Ben Reid and Jeremy Howe have formed a strong partnership and seem to be holding together a rather makeshift Pies defense under extreme pressure. That's about it though. There wasn't much to write home about out of the big loss to Port really so it's a matter of looking forward, rather than looking back.
Going into this game against the Demons the Pies will look to get back to the consistency of effort that had seen them win 2 of their last 3 games before the capitulation last Sunday. They seem to have got through the game relatively unscathed with ex Demon Jeremy Howe the major concern with abductor and knee injuries. When Howe went down in the first term it looked like it may have been season over for him, but after several minutes off the ground he came back on and played the game out. That's a bonus for the Pies as Howe has been very good down back the last few weeks. Outside of the 22 selected on Sunday there are numerous players who are pushing their claim for selection. The VFL Magpies had yet another big win, this time over Werribee, and the likes of Phillips, Aish, Williams, Witts, Goldsack and Marsh will all consider themselves a chance of promotion. Of them the most interesting player is Tom Phillips. The first year midfielder has excelled at VFL level in recent times and gathered 33 disposals and 3 goals on Saturday. The most impressive part of Phillips' game is his accurate ball use, something that the senior side is screaming out for. You'd think he will make his senior debut on Monday, maybe at the expense of a fellow youngster in Crocker or Goodyear.
Whatever the final 22 is (we won't know till Saturday night) the Pies effort has to be more consistent if they are to be any chance on Monday. Their game plan relies on it, heck most teams do, but it seems Collingwood more than anyone else relies on a high intensity of effort or they fall away quite quickly. If the Pies can bring that higher level of effort and intensity on Monday they can win this game.
Melbourne are somewhat of a strange team to assess. They are still a work in progress with all planning leading towards the coaching handover at seasons end from Roos to Goodwin. Melbourne hasn't played finals since 2007 (the last time they defeated the Pies on QB too) and since that year haven't finished above 12th on the ladder at seasons' end. So for the Demons to be sitting 11th halfway through this season shows that maybe, just maybe there is finally on field improvement. Four weeks back they were in an even better position after the win over the Suns left them with a 4-3 record. The last four games haven't been as impressive as those first few but the Demons playing group will take confidence from their last performance against the Pies. That win was arguably the Dees best performance of the season.
If Melbourne have a distinct area of strength it has to be their midfield. Even with Jack Viney out injured for this game the Dees central core is still strong, led by maybe the most dominant ruckman in the game today, Max Gawn. Only the Eagles average more hitouts a game than Melbourne and the majority of those hitouts come from Gawn (he has 457, the next best is 30 at the club). Gawn gives first service to a talented group that includes Vince, Jones, Tyson, Kent, Petracca and Trengove. Melbourne rank in the top 3 for clearances and contested possessions showing just how strong this midfield is at the moment. They face off on Monday against a Collingwood midfield that ranks last, dead last for clearances in the AFL. A lot of that is down to the ruck too, with youngster Brodie Grundy still learning his craft, and the inexperienced Mason Cox backing him up. The Dees will look to use Gawn's skills to their advantage and dominate in the middle.
From an area of strength to the weakest are on the ground for Melbourne, the defense. It's still a work in progress but the Dees backline does struggle to stop teams from scoring. This defense has conceded scores of 135, 114 and 121 in 3 of their last 4 losses, and that has to be of major concern to coach Paul Roos. The reliance on Tom McDonald is massive, he's one of the better key position defenders in the AFL for sure, but has very little consistent support around him. Frost, Hunt, Wagner and Bugg seem to be the popular choices at the moment to give that support but it's not working out so well. The good news for Melbourne is they run into a decimated Collingwood forward line. The Pies will be missing Moore, Fasolo, Elliott and Swan on Monday all who would start in any teams attack. McDonald may not even be given the task on the out of form Travis Cloke as Port used smaller and more mobile defenders to expose his lack of pace. If there's one week that the Demons defense can perform well, it's this one.
The Demons forward line on paper looks quite strong and it is delivering on it's promise most weeks. This Melbourne attack ranks 7th for total points despite only having the 9th most inside 50 entries through 11 rounds. Jesse Hogan and Jack Watts have been the two focus points for Melbourne in 2016 and they are on target to kick 100 goals combined. Watts destroyed the Pies in the first game and he and Hogan, as well as the supporting cast of small and medium options, will come against a weakened Pies backline. Injury has also hit the Collingwood defense with several first choice options out at the moment. Where the Pies look to struggle also is with small forwards and this is where Garlett, Stretch and Hunt can do some damage. Of course the Dees also have 2010 Collingwood premiership player Chris Dawes who has just returned from injury, to provide another headache for a struggling Pies backline.
On paper Melbourne should win this game. Their squad is talented enough in the middle and up forward to cause enough problems for a struggling Pies team. To do that though they will have to snap out of the little funk they are in. Their form from the first 7 games would win this game, and the hope will be that with Dawes, Trengove and a few others having a few runs under their belts now, the Dees consistency of effort and production will increase. There shouldn't be too many changes at selection with Ben Kennedy and Cam Pederson the two most likely to come in. Kennedy, another ex Magpie, started the season well but had a shocker against Port two weeks back. This is a game an improving Melbourne really should win, so it's a good test to see just how far they've come.
Melbourne hasn't defeated Collingwood twice in one season since 1988, so they have a chance to create some history on Monday. To do so they will have to play better than they have the past few weeks. They have shown glimpses in the past two losses of the form that got them to a positive win/loss record after 7 games but haven't been able to produce it for four quarters. The Pies are the same. They have been good at times but were over run late by the Dogs and were insipid at times against Port. Using Port as a form guide there's not a lot in this game really. Both teams kicked terribly at goal in heavy losses to the Power but were never really in the contest.
You would expect a better effort from both clubs this week though, with the Demons big day always bringing out a rise in performance, even if they haven't won one of these QB games since 2007. The Pies though have bounced back well after big losses this year, and with the return of a few experienced heads likely, I can see Collingwood getting the better of Melbourne in a close game.
PIES BY 9 POINTS.
In what seems to be an annual fixture now, Collingwood's VFL side will venture out to Casey on Saturday to take on Melbourne's VFL affiliate, the Scorpions. Start time is 2.10pm and the game will be shown live on Channel 7 for Melbourne and surrounding areas viewers.