Round 18 – Collingwood v Port Adelaide: Revolutionising ball-handling and the bad karma that comes with it



It’s the type of news that stops the nation. Back in the day, it would’ve come via an urgent radio update, or a breaking news interjection on television. For me, it came after returning from a walk in quarantined Victoria on Twitter.


‘Collingwood are training with footballs dipped in baby oil to simulate dewy Brisbane conditions.’


Ground-breaking. My jaw hit the floor. Why hadn’t any other side thought of that this year? Will it cure all low-scoring matches – had the Pies out-thought Gillon and AFL head office?


For their cunning and guile, Nathan Buckley’s men still roared out on Monday night only to slip and fumble their way to a West Coast Elimination Final. Gillon must’ve had a chat with the footy gods for the Pies’ technique was rewarded with a high-stakes game in differing conditions.


Not much expectation surrounded how Collingwood would handle the yellow Sherrin they had acclimatised to during the week. This was no New England Patriots deflate-gate – the Pies were overt and thus opened themselves up to ridicule if their left-field scheme failed.


The soon-to-be minor premiers in Port Adelaide scoffed at this idea. They needed no help; their criminally underrated season didn’t need a change in training. Before Collingwood’s gripped-up hands could even try and handle the dewy footy, the Power had cleared the ball out of the centre twice for two goals. John Noble aided the cause when he palmed the Sherrin with ease, only to fumble and give up a major for no apparent reason, like the footy had been shot out of his hands. The tactic revealed a flawed underbelly – maybe the idea was sound, but the troops used to pull it off flaked too much under pressure.


But the tide turned, and Mihocek gave the suggestion fruition. A fortnight ago he had spilled an easy mark near the open goal mouth. This time, he rose to clunk an uncontested mark, his hands hardening to account for the slip and slide he was now used to. His kick nearly slid off the boot but it still went through. The usually slippery hands of Treloar finally kept the Sherrin in his possession, and he sped through a pack with confidence to curl through a second goal. Buckley rubbed his hands together up in the coaches box, feeling like Isaac Newton after the apple fell down right in front of him. Seeing Treloar burst through a pack like that was so reminiscent of 2018 that I nearly hiked to the nearest bottle shop and bought the cheapest liquor en route to a poorly governed house party with my Year 12 friends.


Unfortunately Ken Hinkley must have been spying on the Pies camp. Like all good coaches, he wasn’t resting on his laurels and must have taken up the same training practices, for his players handled the footy adeptly. Midfielders could give slick hands like the ball was 75 overs old and scratched up by the concrete concourse. Brad Ebert and Stevie Motlop both snatched chances with ease; was Buckley late to a trend that had been practised behind closed doors all season? Were Port the ladder leaders because they had spent a pre-season in Alberton picking up Sherrins off soaped-up slip and slides?


Hoskin-Elliott gave the idea some merit when he brought down a strong contested mark. But it was at this moment he exposed Collingwood’s key flaw – their players’ lack of confidence. Instead of using his wiry arms to prop himself up ready for a set shot, he handballed to Mihocek for no apparent reason. Luckily Brody’s awareness gave him time to react and curl through the shock goal.


The Power, with their grippy hands and general footy smarts, held the line until half time courtesy of an easy Dixon goal out of the ruck. But the Pies came, looking like they had finally adjusted to conditions they had faced for months on end. Greenwood took time to steady when the ball hit his hands; the result was a classy running goal. Kicks still slipped off the side of boots, but less frequently. But Collingwood looked settled, more systematic in their approach to moving the footy down their end. It wasn’t uncertain or haphazard. It was precise and it began to open the Power up. When Stephenson, the enigma, found his hands on the footy and promptly snapped through a goal, everything was turning black and white. Was Buckley’s tactic fair, or was it the second coming of Travis Cloke’s ‘extra-grip’ glove? Eddie was straightening up his tie, preparing for a week of smug defiance in the face of Collingwood scrutiny.


But the ball must have been like a brand-new Kookaburra – once the shine came off, the Pies were no good. They had spent all week getting used to the pristine unused Sherrin. Now, they had forgotten how to handle a 20 overs old ball; not even Pendlebury could control its movements.


Port Adelaide, as a whole, marshalled the Sherrin into teammates’ hands. Motlop curled through a running banana, Rockliff controlled its skidding bounce and Powell-Pepper slid through a set shot. They had all bases covered – the triple threat of scoring with an AFL football. Bucks could do nothing but clap at the exquisite handling he had tried to see desperately all week.


From there, Collingwood dealt in sparks. A last quarter turnover gave De Goey an open lane to a running goal, and even the pessimists held hope that Buckley had been lulling Port into a false sense of security. But when it mattered most, hands turned to old habits, and Collingwood’s structure fell from considered to jammed. The Pies reverted to asking Cox to take every high ball and for Pendlebury to bark orders at his confused comrades. Port Adelaide, smart enough to stand back and enjoy the rabble, eeked their way to a minor premiership.


For their boldness and innovation, Collingwood were chucked on a plane towards West Coast. With a week and a half until their crunch Elimination Final clash, will they change from preparing for greasy conditions? Will Buckley bring in a group of Eagles fans, frothing at the mouth, to abuse them at training, so that they are ready for a rowdy Optus Stadium? The cameras better be down at training.


COLLINGWOOD        2.0      4.0      6.1      7.3 (45)
PORT ADELAIDE      2.2      5.3      8.7      9.7 (61)


Mihocek 2, De Goey, Elliott, Greenwood, Stephenson, Treloar
Port Adelaide: Ebert 2, Motlop 2, Dixon, Duursma, Marshall, Powell-Pepper, Rockliff


Adams, Pendlebury, Crisp, Daicos, Quaynor,
Port Adelaide: Houston, Rockliff, Gray, Ebert, Jonas, Byrne-Jones


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