The start of footballing life for Collingwood coach Craig McRae and his predecessor Nathan Buckley came at about the same time and the same place.
Born about a year apart in Adelaide, McRae and Buckley’s careers have passed each other like ships in the night, inexorably but often unintentionally linked.
Buckley, a superlative talent from his junior years on, was a zone selection for Brisbane during the 1991 draft due to his time in the Northern Territory, but hesitated at a move to the Queensland capital.
McRae was less coveted. The small South Australian crumber was overlooked with each of the 124 picks in the 1992 national draft, and the first 21 picks of the following year’s preseason draft. Like Buckley, Brisbane ended up securing his rights. Yet McRae worked hard and carved out a role at both the SANFL and AFL levels.
Both stayed in Adelaide for an extra year or two before making the trip north. By the time McRae turned up in Brisbane in 1995, Buckley was long gone, switching the black and white of Port for that of the Pies in the AFL.
If Buckley had the idolised pathway to the top, McRae took the one less travelled. Both achieved immense success in their playing career.
Buckley won a Brownlow and multiple Best and Fairest awards, while McRae won three flags with their shared club.
Post playing, the story was similar. Buckley’s much-hyped ascension to senior coach of Collingwood happened shortly after his playing career ended, while McRae spent years in the system building up from under 18s coach to the big league.
McRae’s first year in charge has seen the Pies charge up the ladder, currently sitting inside the top eight as the season builds towards the climax. This is how McRae has built his own identity for the Pies out of the shadow of the monolithic Buckley — the fun, freewheeling Magpies.
New ways to go
It’s hard to take over a successful side, especially one that reached a grand final just three years ago. Buckley’s Pies built a strong identity around their defensive wall, and an ability to win the ball in the middle. It often kept Collingwood in games that they perhaps should have been kicked out of.
In his first year in charge, McRae has tried to radically reshape how the Pies attack from defence. They’re now doing it quicker, and being more direct.
Collingwood have been the second most direct at moving the ball from defensive half intercepts towards goal this year, and the fourth quickest at doing so. Last year Collingwood moved the ball from the back half quicker than average, but did so significantly more indirectly, with switches and angled kicks.
Generally speaking, the more direct a team is, the slower they have to go to pick through the defence. However, Collingwood has thrown caution to the wind, and it’s working so far. The results have seen Collingwood score 20 per cent more from defensive half turnovers — going from below league average to above.
For anyone, it’s a fun style of play to watch.
This speed of ball movement has opened up better opportunities going inside 50, with the win rate in attacking one on ones increasing from 23.5 per cent (15th) to 30 per cent (5th). Ordinarily, this would see a side exposed out the back for one-on-one opportunities of their own, but the Pies’ cover defence has largely held up on their previous performance.
Going quicker through the ground is a hallmark of McRae’s most recent employer — Richmond. Across the past two seasons the Tigers have set the standard across the league with respect to playing with pace out of defence, helped by a solid, practised group of defenders. For the similarly mature group of Collingwood backs, such as Jeremy Howe and Darcy Moore, the transition is easier.
This style of play also relies on solid work at around-the-ground contests — at the foot of spilled marks and loose balls. McRae made sure to focus on this element during the off-season in order to prevent the ball going the other way quickly. Sometimes it’s heart-in-mouth stuff, but it’s thrilling nonetheless.
Collingwood are mid-pack for points allowed from their own turnovers, meaning that they are doing enough to defend when their quick counterattacks aren’t coming off.
Stopping opposition teams from scoring is the number one role of defences, and the Magpies have mostly been able to keep up on that front despite being considerably more potent on the counter attack.
Stick to the formula?
At the start of the year McRae also spoke of a different midfield outlook, with more defined roles to fill. Rather than a focus on mere ball winning, McRae also recognised the need to inject dynamic movers, such as Jamie Elliott, and gut runners like Patrick Lipinski into the stoppage mix.
Collingwood’s midfield blend this year has seen bigger bodies like Taylor Adams take a less prominent role, supported by swifter movers like Elliot, and quality ball users like Jack Crisp. These moves have given veterans like Steele Sidebottom and Scott Pendlebury more opportunity to use the ball on the outside, and help reinforce defensive structures.
Collingwood boasts a weapon at deadballs that few other clubs enjoy — one of the league’s best tap rucks that also doubles as an above average midfielder. When Brodie Grundy is fit and firing, few can nullify his impact.
With Grundy, Collingwood has boasted about the most deadly attack from stoppages of any team this year.
Without Grundy, the Pies have struggled to create points from this valuable source. Playing with and without a dominant ruck in the air is a tough adjustment, let alone for a relatively new midfield grouping. In recent weeks they have matched sides like Melbourne through the middle, a good sign coming into finals.
With a relatively undersized forward line, getting quick ball forward is key to the Pies putting enough points on the board to beat rival sides. Getting a sustainable stoppage unit might unlock the full potential of the side.
When McRae took over at Collingwood, he was clear about what he was and wasn’t.
“I’m not Bucks (Nathan Buckley),” he told afl.com.au.
The on-field changes are more than clear to observe. Collingwood currently sits in seventh place on the ladder, with destiny firmly in its hands. McRae’s game plan has revitalised the Pies, and their poor 2021 season looks more like an injury-induced blip than a total collapse.
More importantly, the Pies are rapidly becoming one of the most watchable teams in the league. That is if you aren’t a member of the ABC (Anyone But Collingwood) brigade.
The next five weeks see the Pies play five teams outside the eight, before closing with Melbourne, Sydney and Carlton. If they can beat sides like the Gold Coast and Port Adelaide, they will probably play finals footy in 2022 — a dramatic one-year turnaround.
Off the field, the story is a little different, even after the club’s attempts to refresh and renew.
Last year saw the club with three different presidents, with scandal and a power struggle overtaking one of the more stable clubs in terms of leadership. Longtime Eddie McGuire confidant and colleague Jeff Browne is now in charge, after a brief stint by Mark Korda.
Despite this change of leadership and the Do Better report, the club shows no signs of making amends with former victims of racism at the club.
Browne has also come under fire for making a crude joke at the Collingwood AFLW awards night making light of the behaviour of Jordan De Goey, who has faced several allegations of violence and inappropriate behaviour in recent years. De Goey is just returning from a break from the club, and is out of contract at the end of the season.
As far as the club has come on field, the off field has to match. The fans of the “biggest club in the country” also demand that they are the best too.
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