Will Collingwood's Youth Provide Their Ticket To Freedom?

When Collingwood appoints a new coach for season 2022, they’re going to have a strong young core to work with.

It seemed inevitable that this year was going to be a difficult one for the Magpies and indeed it has proven as such, sitting 15th with just 5 wins from 17 matches, with Nathan Buckley recently removed as coach. 

The issues have been clear, with the club ranked 16th for points scored and just 17th where total inside 50s are concerned.

Yet it hasn’t felt like an altogether terrible season; Collingwood beat both Melbourne and Richmond, lost to Port Adelaide and Brisbane by a single point and got close to both Geelong and the Bulldogs as well, leaving them with a percentage touching 90 which is exceptional for a bottom-4 outfit.

A difficult run home sees only one real opportunity present itself for another taste of victory for Collingwood, but even with a finish towards the bottom of the ladder, fans can at least take solace in the younger players at the club.

7 of the club’s 9 picks over the last two National Drafts have played at AFL level this season which is particularly impressive given 6 of the players were taken at pick 30 or beyond.

What’s been most encouraging though is the form flashed by some of the more youthful players in the black and white, and the early impact shown that can have an influence on this team going forward.

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Typically, Collingwood have had to be are a defence-first team due to their offensive inefficiencies. As such, the players need to be able to work hard around the ground to assist with ball retention and float back in defence.

Similarly, the hope will be that as better weapons are either recruited or developed in attack, the way in which the midfielders and rebounding defenders use the ball much deeper will translate well. As things stand, Collingwood are ranked last for metres gained but are 4th for total marks and have only conceded the seventh-most inside 50s a game. This is indicative of a team who is doing the bulk of its hard work between the arcs and doing a decent job mitigating more serious scoreboard damage.

The Magpies aren't averse to possessing the ball deep inside their defence and instead of rebounding in a counter-attacking fashion into the forward 50 (think Bailey Dale at the Dogs), a lot of their tactics are based around midfielders working back and holding onto the ball through the midfield.

It makes the first six games of Caleb Poulter particularly impressive, with the tall wingman having averaged 18 disposals and 5.5 marks a game, pushing hard to offer an outlet option. Through these games, he averaged 362.8 metres gained which ranks 3rd at the club.

It’s easy to forget Isaac Quaynor had only played 15 games prior to 2021, but the 21-year-old is ranked 18th in the league for total intercepts, as well as 2nd at the club for rebounds while taking on a much more prominent defensive defensive role. He only turned 21 at the start of the year and has so far managed just 32 games but the former Oakleigh Charger has genuine All-Australian potential over the next decade. 

However clearly the most influential draftee of the last two seasons has been Beau McCreery who was selected at pick 44 last season. Incredibly, the 20-year-old is ranked first in the competition for tackles inside-50 per game, and if not for injury affecting his debut season he would have broken the record for most tackles inside-50 in a season which is currently held by teammate Chris Mayne.

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Part of the education at the Magpies clearly involves versatility and ball use, a sign that the club are extremely keen to develop its young players into excellent ball users who can apply their skills in any situation- a strength of theirs during the heartbreaking 2018 run where they ranked second in the competition for effective disposals and kicks, and first for marks.

Indeed, players such as Trent Bianco, Nathan Murphy and Trey Ruscoe have featured at both ends and performed encouragingly. It’s most natural to envisage Murphy as a utility, courageous beyond belief and a good reader through the air, while Ruscoe’s move to half-back against Carlton, his natural junior position, proved to be effective with 23 disposals. 

Bianco was one of 2019’s biggest draft sliders having averaged 27 disposals as a junior and has been deployed at both ends this year to utilise his elite kicking and footy IQ. Despite being smaller in stature, the 20-year-old gets in the right spot to take marks and can be deployed as a strong user out of defence, or one of the league’s better kicks inside 50 in the future.

Of course, Oliver Henry’s 7-mark, 3-goal performance against the Blues added an exciting mid-sized target in attack to learn from the leaping ability of Jamie Elliott in the future, while we haven’t even seen Ash Johnson from the mid-season draft yet.

Further to the quality youth already seen, Finlay Macrae averages 26 disposals and 6 tackles in the VFL, while fellow first-round pick Reef McInnes has been a strong tackler. Jack Ginnivan has kicked 11 goals in his last 3 games for the reserves while Liam McMahon kicked 4 against Frankston. Tyler Brown hasn’t had a great run at it but should be given time.

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Given the Magpies are so painfully average in almost every statistic and are being led by an interim coach in Robert Harvey, the assessment of the list must be individualised and prospective coaches must innovate in addition to marketing the strength of the club- its defence.

Darcy Moore and Brayden Maynard have been the key players and will only be 26 and 25 respectively at the start of next season. Whether Mark Keane is given another opportunity remains to be seen, but when it comes to Jordan Roughead, Jeremy Howe and Mayne, the Magpies must decide whether to fully buy-in and ease the responsibility.

Howe can play forward, Roughead can guide the next key defender coming along while Mayne’s role can be filled by the array of back flankers available.

Of course, the most highly rated prospect of 2021, Nick Daicos, will join the club and hold the keys to the midfield joining his talented brother Josh, who's only 22-years of age.

It wasn’t perfect but in 2018, the Magpies were also ranked 5th in clearances and conceded the fourth-fewest inside 50s and second-least clearances per game, having the existing defensive-minded setup at stoppages with these players coming through can help them recapture more successful form.

While the Magpies are facing their first bottom-four finish in 16 years, there's clearly identifiable on-field strength and young players who are being designed to fit a mould going forward.

Any coach looking to take over Collingwood will face difficulties, perhaps cultural being the most important, but with experienced players in each position who perform well and the underrated youth in the squad, there’s significant upside here.

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Dem Panopoulos

Dem is a lover of sport with a keen eye for analytics. A passion for statistics that defies logic given his MyCricket numbers, you can see and hear him share his thoughts and views on Twitter @dempanopoulos

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