If you wanted to be cruel, you would say that Collingwood are a team defined by Jarryd Blair, and if you wanted to be kinder, you would say Taylor Adams. Neither evaluation is particularly inspiring.
It remains the saddest, most poetic irony of the Nathan Buckley coaching era that his teams are perpetually held back by their lack of the skill that their coach perfected (arguably) more than any player in history: kicking accuracy.
It’s a little too perfect, an on-the-nose move by the football gods, that Buckley, in his playing days so often frustrated by the inability of his teammates to match his excellence, is left to lament Collingwood’s shanked reality from the coaches’ box, aggrieved, helpless and confused.
Collingwood’s moments of sublime touch, polish, and execution – performed almost always by Scott Pendlebury or Steele Sidebottom – are jarring and suspicious more than uplifting, rare occasions that only serve to highlight the distant norm.
The Magpies’ issue under Buckley hasn’t typically been effort. It’s been that the players on the field simply can’t kick a football where they want it to go with the requisite consistency of a professional.
Magpie fans should, on balance, walk away happy from the honourable loss Friday night against the Bulldogs. And yet, at the same time, it was a game that added credence to the idea that this is a team destined for a slew of honourable losses, one that can compete with and even frighten the best in the competition, but also one that will be almost always be shown up by a gulf in class when the result is to be decided.
Collingwood’s best moments seem doomed to be chase-down tackles, brave marks, and spoils in defence. They’re a team that excels at the things Tyson Goldsack can do. But when the game slows down, when Jack Crisp has taken a mark on the wing, trots back, and looks forward to see minimal movement, space occupied, and an army of in-position opposition guernseys, what can Collingwood do then, when an incisive kick to an instinctive lead is the lifeblood of success? Not much. Not much at all.
Pendlebury, Sidebottom and Adam Treloar, Collingwood’s three best players by some stretch – on Friday and most days – were magnificent against the Bulldogs, but they still couldn’t prevent their team from getting swallowed up in the Jarryd Blairness that always seems to overwhelm.
Blair, for all his effort, his application and his mania, does not belong in the best 22 of a finals team. The Magpies need cool heads running around, not chickens with them recently cut off.
The squad is littered with Blair types. Jack Crisp has useful talents, but passing is not one of them, his left foot a wayward canon operated by a deranged, overly ambitious commander.
Taylor Adams has even more talents, but his kicking too is deplorable (although it has gotten better, especially on his opposite foot), and the 61% disposal efficiency he went at Friday night is well below the pass mark. In the time between Adams drops the ball and it hits his foot, Brexit, Donald Trump and Hacksaw Ridge’s Oscar nomination all feel like they could happen, and when he finally makes contact the results are so much worse than any of those things.
Jackson Ramsay and Tom Phillips are young and can’t be lumped into this group yet, but neither looks like the second coming of their captain or coach. Mason Cox is a novelty with only occasional moments of seriousness.
The Collingwood disease of unpolished grit has even infected Travis Varcoe, a player once defined by his skill, now defined by his tackling (on a related note: why can’t Varcoe kick for goal anymore? Ever since that fateful preliminary final miss he’s 16.24, and on Friday he passed off a regulation set shot so Goldsack could take – and make – a more difficult shot).
In short, this is a team that really, really, desperately did not need to sign Chris Mayne.
And yet, performances like Friday’s second quarter suck you in, making you believe that playing with fury and endeavour might just be enough.
Perhaps the eventual inclusions of Daniel Wells, Jamie Elliott, Jordan De Goey, Matt Scharenberg and Tim Broomhead – all players of considerable skill – will tip the balance away from the Blairs and Crisps.
From a baseline of outstanding team effort, maybe the bursts of Treloar towards goal, looking exceedingly like a young Chris Judd (perhaps the more politically correct comparison is peak Adam Cooney), the ethereal, time-bending genius of Pendlebury, the composed class of Sidebottom, Alex Fasolo and his pirouettes to nowhere that suddenly become somewhere, and Brodie Grundy’s preternatural body turns in tight space and deft taps to streaming midfielders, could all combine to add just enough dynamism to an already honest team and propel them towards September.
The Pies don’t have the luxury of time to find out. On Thursday night they play Richmond, and with Sydney away the following week, they could be looking down the barrel of 0-3 unless they cure their ball use.
The Bulldogs game suggests that they’re up for the challenge, but also that they’ll probably fall short, like so many of their passes. It was a game that whispered that things might be different, but ultimately, spoke a little more loudly to the idea that things will likely remain the same.