Magpies set a new benchmark

2010 Preliminary Final: Collingwood v Geelong

High level professional sport is an unforgiving environment. As soon as you claw your way to the top, it becomes a battle to stay there. Enjoy the glory while it lasts, because the only way is down.

Team sports multiply the variables many times over, making sustained success an even more precarious balancing act.

So when a team enjoys a golden run like Geelong, it’s predictable that we speculate when the end will come.

Another tricky by-product of success is that it makes change more difficult. Why mess with a successful formula? You only have a Plan B if you think you need it.

This will eventually work against you, but precious few seem to avoid the trap.

The first play of this game told the tale. Gazza narrowly missed a handball target, resulting in a succession of increasingly hurried Geelong possessions, ending when the Collingwood tackles finally forced the turnover.

The Cats were soon trapped in defence. Failing to clear the centre once again, Harry O rebounded for Cloke to fly while defenders hesitated. He kicked straight. Soon Pendlebury had the next.

With all the early psychological blows being landed by the Pies, Chappy tried to strike back, but for once his kick was neither here nor there. Perhaps he was expecting a Stokes shepherd that never came. Maxwell rushed the behind.

From the resultant kick-in, Wellingham was freed in front of goal. 19-1.

Wojo finally broke the lines and Varcoe finished it from the 50. But immediately Leroy Brown kicked toward the left point post, only for the ball to produce an off break Murali would have rejoiced at. 25-7.

Geelong were flipping the ball around by hand, but no space was created, only more pressure. They tried to go down the middle, but like round 19, the Pies were waiting for them. Cats were second to contests, conceding free kicks.

Even a Magpie interchange infringement brought no result. Milburn gave off to Chappy, who missed everything. When Didak goaled from the resultant rebound, it was obvious every Geelong miss risked a Collingwood score.

By running hard into space and kicking precisely, the Magpies were burning the Cats on the turnover.

Scarlett ventured a run out of defence and was besieged. Another Pendlebury goal resulted. Ben Johnson easily side-stepped Ling and made it 43-7.

Geelong went to the ¼ time huddle in disarray, trailing by 37 points. Gazza had won 14 possessions, but the Cats had little to show for it. Only their reputation kept you entertaining thoughts of a recovery.

In another repeat of round 19, Maxwell was roaming half back as he wished, directing traffic and cutting off Geelong forward thrusts. Ling appeared to go to him for the 2nd term, but it was to make little difference.

Resuming, Gazza missed Corey with another handball. Corey’s rushed, backwards handball also missed, eventually presenting Sidebottom with an easy goal. 50-7.

With no Geelong presence at half forward, the Magpie defence was free to rebound. The Cats kept handballing, but there was no follow-up shepherd, no space created. In fact, there were few Geelong second efforts at all.

Typically, when Enright returned favour with an interchange snafu, it put Thomas on the goal line. Geelong was even losing on infringements.

At the point where another laboured Geelong rebound was turned over, allowing Swan to romp into goal, you realised the white towel should be thrown. Sometimes footy needs a mercy rule, not that many Magpie fans would have agreed tonight.

At ½ time, Gazza had 25 possessions, but his team trailed by 62 points. He had accumulated 37 by ¾ time. If this was to be his last game in blue and white hoops, he was making sure no one could hold him responsible for the loss.

The second half was junk time. The lead stretched beyond 80 points before Collingwood eased themselves to the finish line, conscious of next week’s challenge.

After almost four seasons of sustained excellence, the Cats suffered a long, slow, public execution. Their own success helped encourage the very response that has shown them up this year. This is usually how it ends in footy, even for great teams. Your own benchmark catches up and clobbers you.

The signs had been there to see all season. Discipline had seemed slacker at times, moods less harmonious at others. When they haven’t controlled possession, they haven’t had the leg speed to recover.  They’d previously been shown up against the St Kilda and Collingwood defensive pressure, but it’s difficult to count a champ out before the knockout blow comes. We usually need to see it to believe it.

The temptation is to declare a great era closed, but we won’t really know that until next season unfolds. In a sense, the margin of the loss does the Cats a favour, because there’s little room for self delusion now. They must reassess, rebuild, or wane. The Ablett decision will be an obvious starting point.

Collingwood have comprehensively outplayed the reigning premiers for the second time in a row. They hunted in packs, tackled ferociously, ran harder and wanted it more. There is no argument that they’ve earned their spot next week.

Even though they continue to hug the boundary line, their ball use has been so clean it has still been impossible to counter. On this night, they even managed to kick straight in front of the sticks.

But it needs to be noted that in both their finals the physical pressure has been largely one way. They’ve been the hunters, and neither opponent has returned the favour in a sustained way.

Nor have many managed to unsettle their defence. Maxwell has repeatedly been allowed to sit in the pocket and play on his terms. They’ve shown themselves to be the deadliest rebounders in the league. If their Grand Final opposition is as similarly unsuccessful in countering this rebound, they will likely romp home.

But you would expect a fierce fight next week. The Magpies aren’t the only hungry team left in the running.

Collingwood has set the standard for consistent high level performance this season. But no club understands better that the past counts for little on Grand Final day.

About John Butler

John Butler has fled the World's Most Liveable Car Park and now breathes the rarefied air of the Ballarat Plateau. For his sins, he has passed his 40th year as a Carlton member.

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