One game in, just one game, but it all felt so familiar. It felt like the same old Collingwood.
One game is not enough to draw a definitive conclusion but this felt like 101 games, not just the first of a new season. Their hope is that it was just a bad first-up game, but the one bad game had a lot of similar themes.
Jamie Elliott and Daniel Wells were not fit enough for the first game. Again. Jordan De Goey was suspended by the club and missing the first game. Again.
These things were true before the game. These things were true in the game: still they have too few players who can kick well. Still they have too few players with leg speed. Still there is no small crumbing pressure forward. Still they look impotent forward with Elliott out. Still they are unable to lock down on small forwards (Luke Breust enjoys playing Collingwood).
True, the arrival of Sam Murray on Saturday night offered one of the few bright notes for Collingwood, suggesting that they might have finally found one good small running defender, but against a Hawthorn forward line of Cyril, Breust, Puopolo and Impey the Magpies needed more than one Sam Murray. Collingwood’s last-round win last year now already feels like a dead cat bounce. That was the game that set up the idea that Mason Cox and Brodie Grundy could play in the same set up with Cox the target forward.
On Saturday night he was a target only for his own club’s fans.
Cox played a terrible game. Initially he couldn’t hold marks amid a clatter of bodies, then he couldn’t hold marks when he was competing against himself. Buckley might be saved a decision on him by the high bump that could see him resting next week.
The problem Collingwood has is that Cox is structurally important to them, yet he is a player of uncertain ability and future. He remains a project player but one who is playing in one of their most critical positions in a side that has struggled in attack.
Riewoldt ignites the Tiges from the pocket, Charlie Cameron looks at home as a Lion, Port fans have another Motlop to enjoy, Dumont is magic in the wet and Bayley Fritsch is a high flying Dee.
Collingwood play a game that looks to deliver the ball into attack long and high, relying on Cox to mark it or force a free kick from panicky defenders chopping or holding on. Neither thing happened – Cox didn’t mark and Hawthorn didn’t panic. Ben Reid was mobile and threatening, but it was not enough to be damaging. Ben Crocker looked surprisingly good, but now he too is injured.
The forward set-up to kick long to talls is remarkable for the fact that they have no genuine crumbing forward in the team to gather the spilt ball. Callum Brown is the most obvious candidate to develop into that role. Tim Broomhead is another who should be used exclusively there and cultivated to do the job.
Collingwood had their club review last year and made a host of low-profile changes and a couple of high profile ones. They got rid of the CEO and they kept the coach. Changes will take time to filter through, but first impressions are Collingwood presents as they did last year, as a team neither bad enough nor good enough to give hope. They looked desperately mediocre.
The changes they made last year acknowledged that the problems were many and varied and not limited to coaching – the list for instance was over-rated. Still they have too many ordinary players and on Saturday even their better ones were poor.
Adam Treloar was traded for two first-round draft picks – both of them at seven. If he arrived and played like Josh Kelly he would be worth it, but he hasn’t.
Compare what Hawthorn did instead. They only needed pick 14 to get Tom Mitchell. In the last two games, Mitchell has had more than 100 possessions against Collingwood. This time there was no doubting Mitchell’s record number of touches hurt Collingwood.
For a side that expedited list changes and theoretically bottomed out, they are suffering acutely from the fact when they invested heavily in the draft they came up empty-handed. The Matt Scharenberg, Nathan Freeman year is a disaster that is still being felt.
Yes, they used a pick from Freeman to bring in James Aish, but Aish has yet to perform as a top 10 quality player. When you invest in top ten talent you need a better return than Collingwood got.
Taylor Adams was brought in when they ushered Heath Shaw out. Adams is tough but not defensive enough, and he turns the ball over too often.
It is only round one, but it does not feel like a one-game sample, it feels like deja vu.
And with a road ahead that reads GWS, Carlton, Adelaide away, Essendon and Richmond it could be a grim feel by round six.
DOG DAY AFTERNOON
For a team wanting to prove that last year was the aberration this was the most disastrous result possible.
The Western Bulldogs lost heavily twice. First they lost Tom Liberatore to a knee injury. This one was to his ‘‘good’’ knee, not the one he had already had reconstructed. This one will now likely to need a reconstruction to repair the anterior cruciate ligament and he will sit out the year.
Liberatore is out of contract at year’s end and a free agent should he choose to leave – it is highly doubtful he will and highly likely the Dogs will re-sign him. That was true before Sunday’s incident and true still afterwards.
Last year Liberatore was one of the players regarded as emblematic of ‘‘the hangover’’. He was reflective of the group of midfielders and senior core players who didn’t have the same impact last year as the year before.
The signs in the pre-season this year were that Libba was back to that sort of form again, which made the injury in Canberra all the more frustrating.
Then there was the other loss. The Bulldogs were belted by 82 points by GWS. This was against the same team they beat in the 2016 preliminary final. Both teams seem a world away from then.
Collingwood were not good. But they were also made to look poor by Hawthorn.
Hawthorn looked threatening again. The numbers all point to Tom Mitchell but this was a more rounded Hawks effort than that.
Jaegar O’Meara was the more damaging player on the ground in the first quarter and so the player to excite Hawthorn as much as anyone about what he might be able to do for the Hawks this year.
Actually that is a lie, Cyril is always the player who will excite Hawthorn more than anyone and given he only played seven games last year Cyril being out there again will excite them.
But O’Meara looked nimble. Which was encouraging because last year as he eased back into playing he didn’t look as explosive has he had in his early days at the Suns. On Saturday he looked freer in his movement, running and carrying the ball well.
Now that Cyril is back, Jarman Impey has come in, Paul Puopolo is there with Luke Breust and the Hawks have a Richmond style spread of pressure forwards. Impey didn’t do much on Saturday but he is fast and lively and will give them more sharpness.
Alastair Clarkson shifted Shaun Burgoyne forward and he looked as agelessly dangerous there as anywhere he has in the last 15 years.
James Frawley and Ben Stratton, who only played eight games each last year, have both come back in and the defence looks more settled because while they were out the combustible James Sicily grew into the role of intercept marking defender.
DEMONS NOT GAWN
Melbourne could have won, maybe should have won and didn’t. Max Gawn missed his shot from directly in front only 25 metres out when there were eight seconds left on the clock and his team four points down. He kicks it and they win. He missed.
It was more painful but no worse than Dan Menzel’s miss earlier on from only 11 metres out that would have made a certainty of Geelong’s win. Menzel missed again a minute later from further out, but he had already kicked four goals.
It was a performance that again made you wonder how it is Menzel was only belatedly re-signed by the Cats to a one year deal – and only after no other club was prepared to give him longer. Menzel is a match-winner. He was the target who looked threatening all day, but especially in the last term when Melbourne was surging.
The Demons were gallant and did nothing to disabuse the idea they are the riser of the season, but the question was why they kept a number behind the ball in the last term when they needed to score? They kept getting run and rebounding from half-back with their extra player, but they also kept feeding the loose man in Geelong’s defence, Zach Tuohy.