For most of this year, any discussion about Collingwood’s capacity to challenge for the premiership has gone hand-in-hand with the debate about the form of Travis Cloke.
The big power forward was sadly out of sorts early this season, but the last month has seen his renaissance, culminating in bags of six and five goals in the past two games. It's ironic that those 11 goals have coincided with successive defeats for the Magpies - losses that may just spell the end of their top-four hopes.
Collingwood stayed in touch with its regular nemesis most of Saturday afternoon, but Hawthorn’s 11th victory over the Pies in their past 14 clashes provided an interesting contrast in either side’s scoring power.
Hawthorn’s 17 goals came from 10 different sources - the eighth time in its 13 games this season it has boasted 10 or more individual goalkickers. Collingwood’s 13 goals were kicked by seven players, with Cloke responsible for nearly half.
In its previous loss, to the Western Bulldogs, 10 of the Magpies’ 15 goals came from two players, Cloke and Jamie Elliott.
Big, powerful key forwards are important to any team’s cause, but they have been superseded as a key indicator of success by the ability to generate a healthy spread of scoreboard contributors.
Few statistics in the game correlate as closely with the top of the AFL ladder as does the number of average goalkickers per side. Hawthorn, Port Adelaide and Sydney are the top three teams on the chart. Ring a bell?
What’s just as notable is Collingwood’s lowly ranking of 15th, better only than Melbourne and bottom-eight sides Brisbane Lions and St Kilda.
Ladder leader Port Adelaide has the best of both worlds. Its spearhead Jay Schulz leads the Coleman Medal after his eight-goal haul against the Western Bulldogs on Saturday. But the Power also has another seven players averaging at least a goal a game, and its game average of 8.77 individual goalkickers is behind only Hawthorn, the undisputed masters of the scoring spread.
The flexibility of the Hawks’ forward set-up is again looming as close to their most potent weapon.
Against Collingwood, seven goals came from Jarryd Roughead - last year's Coleman medallist - and Luke Breust - at the moment the best small forward in the game. The other 10 were from Cyril Rioli, Ryan Schoenmakers, Brad Hill, Brad Sewell, Isaac Smith, Jonathon Ceglar, Jack Gunston and Paul Puopolo.
That’s two more small forwards, a classic third tall in Gunston, a pinch-hitter in Schoenmakers, a ruckman and three bona fide midfielders.
For Collingwood at the moment, it’s Cloke and Elliott or bust. Over the last four games, they’ve combined for 51 per cent of the Magpies’ goals. Compare that with Roughead and Breust (35 per cent), Lance Franklin and Adam Goodes for Sydney (36 per cent), or Schulz and Justin Westhoff for Port Adelaide (36 per cent).
Collingwood recruit Jesse White hasn’t yet offered Cloke the meaningful key-position support he needs. But the Magpies aren’t conjuring enough goals from other sources, either.
Skipper Scott Pendlebury and Dane Swan aren’t hitting the scoreboard quite as regularly as last year. Neither has Steele Sidebottom, whose recent suspension, along with injuries to Ben Reid and Alex Fasolo, has nibbled away at Collingwood’s goalkicking depth.
The Pies have got more goals out of both Dayne Beams and Luke Ball, but the trade-off for Brent Macaffer’s undoubted run-with ability is a key midfielder who doesn’t trouble the scorers much. Neither do Josh Thomas, Clinton Young, Taylor Adams or Sam Dwyer for that matter.
Collingwood is at its best when it gets plenty of rebound out of defence, something noticeably absent against Hawthorn on Saturday, and clearly affected by the recent absence of Nick Maxwell. That’s had some of the midfielders dropping back more frequently to help deal with the pressure, which provides some explanation.
But the bottom line remains that Collingwood has had more than eight individual goalkickers just once all season - against West Coast in round 10, when it boasted 13.
Cloke only kicked one that day. Indeed, only four of the Magpies’ 17 against the Eagles came from the big men, with 13 shared among nine small forwards or onballers. While West Coast’s Eric Mackenzie was superb on the obvious pea of the Collingwood forward line, the proliferation of little men creeping forward to score was like trying to deal with a mouse plague.
Collingwood could certainly do with that sort of infestation right now. The Magpies have spent much of this season sweating on one man to come good. But the last fortnight has been a sobering reminder that no team’s scoreboard fortunes can revolve around that alone.
And while I'm at it ...
THE EYES DON’T HAVE IT
We’re reminded constantly that even the best technology can’t always guarantee the right results, and two incidents at the weekend seemed to provide more proof .
Ben Howlett’s last quarter checkside snap from hard up against the boundary line for Essendon was a gem. One replay, however, seemed to suggest very strongly, via an apparent deflection, that it had in fact flicked the goalpost on the way through.
On Sunday night at the MCG in the final term, a shot by North Melbourne’s Jack Ziebell seemed to clearly cross the goal line before it was belted back on to the goalpost, two replays confirming that view.
Not in the minds of observers in either case, however, who seemed to see something in the footage few others did. While Howlett’s shot only appeared to deflect slightly and was perhaps understandable, the Ziebell decision appeared just plain wrong.
We’re still short of the sort of technology required to make the review system work more smoothly, and certainly to take less time than did the adjudication on Ziebell’s shot at the MCG. And perhaps we could do with some sharper eyes reviewing what footage does exist, too.
A CONTRAST OF KIDS
Carlton coach Mick Malthouse’s observation last Friday that the Blues’ list was essentially on the right didn’t prove great timing as Carlton was out-run by a Greater Western Sydney which held its nerve and its lead.
That’s four losses on end now for a 4-9 record. But what would worry the Blues more is that unlike the first of that latest string of defeats against Brisbane, this was by no means a shocking performance. Nor, like last week against Hawthorn, simply the gap between where Carlton and the very best are.
In terms of the longer-term future, this was a perfect example of what the Giants can look forward to with so much young talent continuing to improve. And how far Carlton (and the Blues aren’t alone here) might lag behind in terms of quantity and quality of incoming talent over the next few seasons.
AT WITTS END
Collingwood coach Nathan Buckley might have seen a potential storm looming when he took to Twitter on Saturday night to apologise for his public berating of ruckman Jarrod Witts on the MCG boundary line.
“Incident with ‘Wittsy’ says more about his coach than the player,” Buckley tweeted. “Still room for challenges to be laid in this game but too overt today.”
Nice gesture by the coach, but was it really required? The only difference between what Buckley did and what most other coaches do at some stage in a season was to grab Witts by the jumper. Witts’ much-improved final term would suggest it had the right impact, too.