Despite playing in the past two Grand Finals, Collingwood has largely flown under the radar this year, and that’s due to the coach…
AS IMPOSSIBLE as it may seem, Collingwood has managed to fly under the radar this season.
It is the highest-profile club in Australia, with the largest membership, the best-known president and is coming off successive Grand Final appearances, having won in 2010. It has won seven of its nine matches. Yet it is creating barely a ripple.
The reason is Nathan Buckley.
“Bucks” will understand he will be judged by wins and losses at the end of his career and it will not be until his third or fourth season that the football world will know whether he can coach or not.
However, if you had any doubt the coach is the face of the club, look at how Buckley has transformed the public perception of the Magpies. I’m not referring to what happens on the field, because the Magpies have the most talented list in the competition.
They have always been hard to score against and that has continued. Collingwood allows its opposition to score a goal from 21 per cent of forward-50 entries, and is ranked No.1 defensively.
The Pies have always been a hard team, and this year they have won 41 per cent of possessions from a contest, the fourth-highest percentage in the AFL.
Their commitment to defensive transition is still strong. In the past three weeks, Collingwood’s opponents have hit their targets with 68 per cent of disposals — the lowest percentage conceded by any team.
Their stars have always been able to turn games, as they did again last Saturday night against Adelaide.
Scott Pendlebury and Dale Thomas were the difference in a game decided by the Pies’ class.
What Bucks has changed is the perception that Collingwood loves being Collingwood. That the neon lights must shine over the Magpies and all eyes must be focused on them — win, lose or draw.
Bucks has been flawless since the plan to succeed Mick Malthouse as coach was put in place two years ago.
He was completely focused on his role as assistant coach, and 100 per cent committed to Malthouse. Even when he copped a couple of subtle, public “whacks” from Malthouse, he didn’t flinch or bite back.
Towards the end of Malthouse’s tenure, when many thought it was chaos at the Pies, the one person who appeared completely calm was Bucks.
Since taking over as senior coach it has hardly been smooth sailing.
Early multiple and key injuries have thrown up immediate challenges. An honourable loss to Hawthorn in Round 1, a hard-fought win against Richmond in Round 2 and a smashing from Carlton in Round 3 had the wolves at the door quickly.
Malthouse, who had assumed a role as media commentator, had every right to talk about how his former team was playing. Equally, it was always going to send the media into meltdown.
This was Buckley’s defining moment and clearly set the agenda of his tenure at Collingwood.
Calm, calculated and articulate, he defused the situation. What would have been at least a week of media mayhem was almost stopped in its tracks completely.
The media and the public were given an early insight into what you would get from the Magpies coach.
Thoughtful, honest, direct answers that would be solely football related.
He refused to be distracted and he is completely focused on his team and winning games.
I suspect the message quickly transferred to the players as they have now overcome some early obstacles and have won their past six games.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Nathan before the season started and again for On the Couch several weeks ago. I sense that he is extremely confident in his coaching ability, but equally he understands the areas he needs to work on.
By his own admission, Buckley has always been a fanatical football person.
As a player he loved everything about the game. Training, meetings, game day — he simply couldn’t get enough of the game he loved.
He now understands that not every footballer, surprisingly enough, has the appetite for the game that he had as a player.
This is perhaps his greatest challenge. Dealing with the unique individuals who make up the 40-odd players on the senior list.
The mood of the senior coach directly translates to the players and staff. If the coach is enjoying what he is doing and allows his staff and players to do the same, the football club is a wonderful environment to be around.
Equally, there must be a difference between winning and losing.
Winning has to be fun and has to be enjoyed.
Winning is the release valve on the pressure cooker that is AFL football. If the pressure is not released, the place can become combustible.
You would hope that while the players would not be getting ahead of themselves, their coach has let them enjoy their victories of the past six weeks.
Losing is disappointing and the coach is often the first one to express that disappointment.
It is easy to unload that disappointment on to the players and I suspect Buckley is as competitive as any coach. However, the test after a loss is not to say things you regret, as this can destabilise a club.
There is also a delicate balance about when to move on and lift the dark veil of energy from your football department.
Malthouse will be remembered as one of the truly great coaches; his record speaks for itself.
It was always going to be remarkably difficult for Buckley to follow such a legend of the game. His every move was clearly going to be scrutinised.
Against that backdrop, the fact the Pies have managed to slide under the radar is perhaps the ultimate compliment.
POINT OF DIFFERENCE
– Since the Round 3 loss to Carlton, Collingwood has ranked third for contested possession differential and fourth for clearance differential.
– The Pies have five players – Scott Pendlebury, Steele Sidebottom, Dane Swan, Dayne Beams and Heath Shaw – averaging more than 100 SuperCoach points since Round 4, the most of any team.
– Collingwood has conceded the second fewest forward 50 marks and has been the hardest team to score against inside-50.